Matonabbee and Mr Dobbs: How an Irishman Accidentally Helped Create Canada

Arthur Dobbs exercised his influence on Canada without every setting foot here.  His relentless campaigning in London against the Hudson’s Bay Company eventually forced it to sponsor explorations not just of Hudson Bay but of the vast interior that lay to the north and west, terra incognita to Europeans. 

Dobbs’ campaign against the HBC also inadvertently created one of the most successful exploration partnerships in history, that between the great Chipewyan Chief and explorer Matonabbee and the Englishman Samuel Hearne. By inadvertently bringing these two together, Dobbs also unknowingly created a partnership that forged indigenous and western knowledge as a means of exploration and critically mapping.  This set the template for the exploration of the vast interior that lay beyond what was then considered Canada, the hunk of the east coast and the course of the St Lawrence known to Europeans. 

Dobbs himself was the personification of the imperialist and mercantile mind-set, holding to the beliefs of white and European superiority that dominated European thinking in the 18th century.  He would have been askance that someone like Matonabbee could possibly be considered one of the most significance men of his generation and one of the greatest explorers of the 18th century.

As Stephen R. Bown records in new history of the HBC, The Company, The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay’s Empire,[1]  Dobbs was keen to end the Company’s monopoly.  He was obsessed with the discovery of what he believed to be the Northwest Passage from Hudson’s Bay to Asia.  He was convinced that the Company was either indifferent to, or at worst concealing its existence, the better to preserve their exclusive domain and their trade monopoly. For Dobbs, the only way to open up exploration was to end the Company’s monopoly and encourage the prospects of trade that could finance exploration.  Dobbs would prove to be a relentless and formidable opponent, forcing the HBC on the defensive.

Dobbs hailed from an illustrious family in County Antrim. As an engineer and Surveyor-General of Ireland, he oversaw the construction of public buildings including the Irish Parliament in Dublin (during the golden age of Dublin before the catastrophe of the Act of Union in 1800).  High Sheriff of Antrim, MP for Carrickfergus (1727-60), an amateur scientist, sometime soldier, and a friend of Jonathan Swift, Dobbs represented the energy, confidence, imperialism, entitlement, and boundless ambition of the 18th century gentleman.[2] 

Dobbs was very much a man of his age in his obsession to find the Northwest Passage, the conviction that there existed in its eponymous direction a route from Europe to Asia.  This dream had spurred Europe’s great Age of Discovery (discovery at least for Europeans), including the voyages of Vasco de Gama and Christopher Columbus.  The source of most global economic activity and therefore wealth was Asia and its great arterial supply line, the famed Silk Road.  Western Europe, something of a global backwater, was desperate to get direct access to that trade.[3]

The Hudson Bay Company had been founded in 1670 by a Charter granted by Charles II to his family, friends and powerful figures in England during the Restoration, including Prince Rupert, the king’s cousin. [4] Its vast domain encompassed the rivers draining into Hudson Bay. The Charter therefore granted exclusive trading rights over an incomprehensibly large territory (later discovered to be four million square kilometres, about 40% of modern Canada[5], containing possibly ten million beavers).  That it was known as Prince Rupert’s Land says something of the presumption behind the enterprise; as if it was a vacant and uninhabited lot there for the taking. 

Though it was a commercial rather than imperial project, the Charter also bid the company to find a route to Asia.  The Company largely ignored this minor obligation though it did in 1690 sponsor a young explorer, Henry Kelsey, to head west.[6]  Thereafter and for the next sixty years it lost interest in the vast lands to the west and north of Lake Superior.  The Company stayed huddled in its trading posts in Hudson Bay where the main rivers of the interior drained into the sea on their great east-west journey across what was to become Canada.  The Company felt had no need to go inland since First Nations hunters and traders brought the supply of beaver pelts to them in exchange for the goods shipped from England (those most valued by the First Nations and Inuit being metal pots and kettles, axes, guns, fish hooks, blankets, beads, tobacco, brandy, sugar and the like).  The HBC would remain in complete ignorance of the complex diplomatic, trading and logistical system that operated across the country to bring the beaver pelts to them.

The indigenous were amused by the value that Europeans put on the beaver pelt and all the coveted goods they could get for them.  In fact, their own worn out coats of beaver skin were even more valuable since the rough outer hairs had been removed by use, exposing the soft interior fur.  It was this fur that made the best felt, in turn making and shaping hats that resisted rain.  Europe could simply not get enough felt to feed the fashion for hats, everything from tricorns to top hats. In fact, the trade in beaver pelt was the single most important factor is the creation of nation state of Canada.  And most of that was controlled by the HBC, albeit with some lesser competition from the French. So the history of the HBC is inextricably bound in the history of Canada’s foundation.[7]

Enter Arthur Dobbs, coming to London from Ireland with his obsessions and the manic energy and influence to pursue them. Bown writes:

“The biggest threat to the company’s monopoly in Hudson Bay emanated from the geographical musings and political agitations of a choleric Irishman named Arthur Dobbs.  The wealthy son of a prominent civil servant, Dobbs moved to London and became an intimate of the city’s prominent courtiers and financiers.  His favourite topics were free trade and the Northwest Passage, and the Company blocked the pathways leading to both of his dreams. An amateur hydrographer, he had analysed the tide levels in Hudson Bay and fixated upon the prevalence of whales that seemed never to exit into the Atlantic through the Hudson Strait.  Therefore, he concluded, the Northwest Passage must exist, in spite of the [failed] explorations a century earlier by Button, Foxe and James.”

As Bown recounts, Dobbs managed to convince the Royal Navy to fund a voyage of exploration which set off in 1741.  When it turned up nothing, Dobbs convinced the British Government to offer £20,000 to anyone who could find the Northwest Passage from Hudson Bay in 1745.  No one took up the offer so, ever relentless, Dobbs put together an expedition of two ships.  When that failed, Dobbs persuaded the Government to investigate the HBC in 1749 in a bid to break its monopoly.  Amidst wild claims and exaggerations, Dobbs lost credibility and returned for some years to Ireland.[8]

However, Dobbs’ hullabaloo about the HBC’s monopoly and the lack of any attempt to explore and exploit their enormous domain put them on the defensive.  To head off criticisms that they were failing to build Britain’s mercantile reach and protect their monopoly, the HBC was open now to opportunities to fund explorations. In 1754 the HBC sponsored an inland trip by Anthony Henday and his guide Attickasish. 

However, it was a report in 1767 from a Chipewyan chief and regular supplier to the HBC’s factories[9], the famed Matonabbee, of his travels deep into the interior that got the attention of Moses Norton, the commander of Prince of Wales fort in Hudson Bay.  Matonabbee was a natural born leader, diplomat, explorer, and multilinguist with a vast reservoir of indigenous knowledge that allowed him to traverse and survive the land’s unforgiving geography, tribal tensions, dangerous predators, and brutal climate (there were a lot of ways to die in Canada).  He reported to Norton that a river flowed into the sea out west. More than that, Matonabbee brought with him a hunk of copper.

The incentive to possibly find mineral wealth and just maybe the Northwest Passage finally stirred the company into action.  The sense of pressure and competition from French traders moving north and west added another rationale.[10] By 1770, Matonabbee was teamed up with Samuel Hearne, a hardy, intelligent, and experienced Royal Navy sailor trained in navigation and astronomy. On their epic trip of some eight thousand kilometres there and back, they reached the Arctic Ocean and concluded rightly that there was no Northwest Passage.

Shoalts: “Although Matonabbee and Hearne might not be anywhere near as famous as Lewis and Clarke, they ought to warrant serious consideration of as rival claimants to the title of the greatest exploring duo in North American history.”[11]

However, Bown makes an important distinction between their roles:  “The expedition was conceived by Moses Norton, financed by the Company and led by Matonabbee following his well-trodden commercial route.  Hearne was the map-maker and chronicler.”[12]

Yet what distinguishes travel from exploration is map-making and there was no doubt that their epic adventure succeeded as exploration because of the combination of the skills and knowledge of both men.  They established a template of cooperation that later explorers would follow, mixing indigenous and western knowledge to map and open the vast interior between the known east and the unknown lands between the Arctic Ocean to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the west. Along with the technology of mass violence, perfected by Europeans, map-making is the key tool of empire, the means to control and exploitation.

As for Arthur Dobbs, having bought some 400,000 acres in North Carolina in 1745, he moved there in 1754 to take up the position of Governor and encourage Scots-Irish settlement.  He had further adventures dealing with the French and Indian War, the start of the American Revolution, making the first recorded observation of the Venus flytrap and, inevitably given his personality (what in Northern Ireland they call ‘thran’) , engaging in running battles with the State Assembly.

In 1762, at the age of 73, Dobbs married a fifteen year old and got a stroke some months later (no comment). Though in a wheelchair, he resolved to return finally to Ireland but died in 1765 before making the journey home. 

By this time Matonabbee was a seasoned traveller and trader across the vast interior but his epic adventure with Samuel Hearne lay in the future.  Dobbs died without knowing of his contributions, designed and unwitting alike, to a key chapter in the creation in modern Canada.

Matonabbee’s end was tragic.  In 1782, a French raiding party destroyed the two HBC trading posts of Prince of Wales and York, taking as prisoners Hearne and most of the HNC employees to England.  Bereft of his status as the key between the supply of beaver and the supply of western goods, convinced that he would never see his friends again, without a home or supplies for the winter, with six wives and four children to feed, he committed suicide, a very rare occurrence among the indigenous. 

Hearne returned to Hudson Bay to rebuild but his heart was no longer in it and he died in England before his account of his epic adventure was published, to lasting acclaim. Though Hearne was in effect a passenger of Matonabbee on the exploration, it was he who won fame because he was the European and he wrote it down.

As for the HBC and their French rivals in the fur trade (the Nor’Westers), the competition drove them inexorably to explore, map, trade and settle their way across the interior in their hunt for beaver pelts. The western frontier of Canada moved inexorably westward as the hunt for the beaver continued, fueled by the insatiable European demand for its pelt.

So if there is a central character in this, it is in fact not the hunter or trader that made Canada but their prize, the industrious beaver.  In 1975, the National Symbol of Canada Act gave the beaver official status as an emblem of the national sovereignty of Canada.



March 2021

[1] (Doubleday, Canada 2020), 105


[3] See Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads, A New History of the World.

[4] See Mark Bourrie’s Bush Runner, The Adventures of Pierre-Esprit Radisson, for an engaging biography of a remarkable man and a remarkable life: Radisson tried to sell the idea of trading from Hudson’s Bay for beaver pelts to the French who passed on it.

[5] Ibid, 42

[6] Ibid, 88-89: see also Adam Shoalts A History of Canada in Ten Maps (Penguin Canada, 2018), 125-6.  Kelsey’ trip lasted three years and took him as far as the plains.

[7] Harold Innis’ The Fur Trade in Canada, first published in 1930, represented a revolution in historical thinking, flipping the causal narrative from ‘great men’ to the beaver. See Charlotte Gray, The Promise of Canada, pp 104-123.

[8] Ibid, 155-8.

[9] Known as such because they were led by ‘factors’ or managers but they were simply trading posts.

[10] After the fall of New France, 1759, French competitors set up the North West Company and pushed exploration north and west.

[11] Shoalts, 178

[12] Op cit, 173



Filed under Anglo-Irish, Canada, Ireland, Uncategorized

4 responses to “Matonabbee and Mr Dobbs: How an Irishman Accidentally Helped Create Canada

  1. pdbdoctorsorguk

    What a fascinating piece. It was almost 100 years later that Lord Franklin and his crew learned the hard way that there was then no such thing as the North West passage. Because of global warming, there is one new. in fact a friend of mine (no, an honest one, not an inveterate teller of tall tales!) recently became one of the few people to sail it from West to East. Admittedly many before and since have failed

  2. Gerard Corr

    Eamon: Many thanks. Be

    Sent from my iPhone


  3. Edward Harris

    Thank you Eamon for this fascinating read, there’s so much to consider re unintended or unimagined consequences of all player’s insatiable demand for commercial wealth. I’ll be processing this for a while!

    Kind regards
    Happy Easter
    Edward Harris

  4. It was only after participating in the Irish Chambers symposium today with yourself, Minister Simon Coventry, and Jackie Gilna that I accidentally came across your blog.
    The first story I read was this one about the HBC, Mr Arthur Dobbs & Matonabbee. Although I’ve read a modest amount of the history and stories of Canada, your essay gave me new information written in a thoroughly persuasive style. I’ll definitely be back to your blog. I noticed a few more of your articles that I want to read. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s