History, Department of


The Myth of an Easy Passage to the Far East

Brenden Rensink, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Document Type Article

Published in THE THETEAN 33 (2004). Published by Brigham Young University. Copyright 2004 Brendan Rensink.


The tales of North American exploration and westward expansion have often been painted in tones of manifest destiny, heroic bravery, and divine providence. While such portrayals surely prove insightful in some cases, they do not paint the whole picture. A more accurate depiction of American exploration would include the driving forces of economic gain, na•ive optimism, overeagerness, and the hasty acceptance of geographical misinformation. The strength of these motives and forces was so strong that for centuries adventurers continued to explore the continent despite constant disappointment and financial loss. In particular, the closely related myths of the Strait of Anian and the Northwest Passage were the impetus for numerous expeditions. The promises they held were more than enough to fuel not only imaginative thought, but discoveries that would forever affect North American exploration and history.

The origin and dissemination of the theories about the Northwest Passage and the Strait of Anian alone would be enough for a lengthy study. Yet beyond mere origins, the manner in which explorers reacted to, and eagerly believed their times. From the myths' advent to their eventual rejection, explorers and governments placed surprising faith in these geographical concepts. In consequence, exploration was both generated and sustained by the hope of finding a passage to the Orient. Without these legends and the explorers' nai•ve eagerness to act upon them, America would have continued to lay unexplored for unknown years.

Often, the legends about imaginary waterways, perpetuated by hopeful explorers, exercised their greatest influence through written documents. Historians, then and since, have shown a deep interest in these myths by investigating the effects which original accounts of exploration had upon other expectant adventurers. Historians and geographers from many nations collected information about expeditions to and theories about North America. Among them, Richard Hakluyt (1552-1616) and Samuel Purchas (1577-1626) compiled and edited invaluable documents on English exploration, providing a treasurey of information for later historians. More recently, men such as George Nunn, H. R. Wagner, W. Michael Mathes, and others have written more analytical histories of the many apocryphal and actual expeditions that sought the Northwest Passage. Recent studies have made major contributions by analyzing the immediate influence of specific expeditions. In hopes of gaining a more holistic understanding of the historical significance of the myth of the Northwest Passage, arguably the most influential geographical concept in world exploration, this investigation explores the ways in which the myth of an easy passage to the Far East was spread by different men and adapted to new geographical discoveries.