Sir John Ross, CB

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Sir John Ross, CB

Birthplace: Inch, Wigtonshire, Scotland
Death: 1856 (78-79)
Immediate Family:

Son of Andrew Ross and Elizabeth Corsane
Brother of George Ross; James Ross; Andrew Ross and Robert Ross

Managed by: Private User
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Immediate Family

About Sir John Ross, CB

John Ross, CB, (24 June 1777 – 30 August 1856) was a Scottish naval officer and Arctic explorer.

Ross was the son of the Rev Andrew Ross of Balsarroch, minister of Inch, near Stranraer, and Elizabeth Corsane, daughter of Robert Corsane, the Provost of Dumfries. In 1786, aged only nine, he joined the Royal Navy as an apprentice. He served in the Mediterranean until 1789 and then in the English Channel. In 1808, he acted as a captain of the Swedish Navy and in 1812 became a Commander.

Sir John was the uncle of Captain Sir James Clark Ross, who explored the Arctic with him, and later led expeditions to the south pole.

Arctic expeditions

1818: first Arctic expedition

In 1818, six years after he became a Commander in the Swedish Navy, he received the command of an Arctic expedition organised by the British Admiralty, the first of a new series of attempts to solve the question of a Northwest Passage. This entailed going around the extreme northeast coast of America and sailing to the Bering Strait. He was also to note the currents, tides, the state of ice and magnetism and to collect specimens he found on the way.

He left London in April 1818 in the Isabella accompanied by the Alexander under Lieutenant William Edward Parry. He sailed counter-clockwise around Baffin Bay repeating the observations made by William Baffin two hundred years before. In August he reached Lancaster Sound at the north end of Baffin Island and entered Lancaster Sound which later proved to be the eastern gate of the Northwest Passage. He sailed a number of miles west but went no further, for he was misled by a mirage which appeared to show mountains at the end of the strait. He named the apparent mountains "Crocker Hills", and returned to England despite the protests of several of his officers, including Parry and Edward Sabine who thought he should have more thoroughly examined the "mountains". The account of his voyage, published a year later, brought to light their disagreement, and the ensuing controversy over the existence of Crocker Hills ruined his reputation. This expedition failed to discover much that was new. Its main effect was to open a route for whale ships to northern Baffin Bay and provoke William Edward Parry to re-explore Lancaster Sound and find a major portion of the northwest passage. Ross attained the rank of captain on his return to Scotland and about this time built the house North West Castle, in Stranraer, south west Scotland.

1829-1833: second Arctic expedition

In 1819 William Edward Parry, his lieutenant on the previous expedition, returned to the Arctic, and sailed 600 miles west beyond the "Crocker Hills", thereby discovering the main axis of the Northwest Passage. Partly to redeem his reputation Ross proposed to use a shallow-draft steam ship to break through the ice. The Admiralty was not interested, but he was able to convince the gin-magnate Felix Booth to finance a second expedition. His ship was the Victory, a side-wheel steamer with paddles that could be lifted away from the ice and an experimental high-pressure boiler built by John Ericsson. (The engine caused trouble and during the first winter it was dumped on the shore.) It carried four officers (Ross, James Clark Ross, William Thom and surgeon George McDairmid) and 19 men. The goal was Prince Regent Inlet at the west end of Baffin Island where Parry had lost his ship in 1825.

He left the Thames in May 1829. Baffin Bay was unusually ice free and on 6 August he passed the point where he had turned back in 10 years before. On the eleventh he turned south into Prince Regent Inlet and on the 13th reached Fury Beach where Parry had abandoned his ship. The hulk was gone but there were heaps of stores on the beach, some of which he took. Continuing south he became the first European in the Gulf of Boothia, but by the end of September he was blocked by ice 200 miles south of Fury Beach. He took winter quarters at Felix Harbour at the eastern tip of the Boothia Peninsula (1st winter). In January a group of Netsilik Inuit arrived and provided food and information. For one of them the ship's carpenter made a wooden leg. In the spring James Clark Ross made several trips west into the interior. On 9 April he reached the west side of the Boothia Peninsula and in May crossed over ice to the northwest shore of King William Island. Unaware that he had crossed sea ice he thought it was part of the mainland. It was mid-September before the ice broke part of its grip. The crew sawed through the shore ice and warped the ship into open water, but it was soon caught in ice. October was spent warping and sawing the ship into Sheriff Bay where they spent the 2nd winter only 3 miles from Felix Harbour. No Inuit arrived until the following April. James Clark Ross crossed the Boothia Peninsula and on 1 June 1831 became the first European to reach the North Magnetic Pole. In August the ship began to move but only got four miles before being trapped in Victoria Harbour (3rd winter). By January it was clear that the ship would never get out. Ross's plan was to drag the ship's boats north to Fury Beach, collect provisions there, find open water and hope to be rescued by a whaler. They left the Victory on 29 May 1833. Ten days later James Clark Ross returned from Fury Beach and reported that the Fury's boats were repairable, which spared them the labor of dragging the boats. They reached Fury Beach on 1 July, left in three boats on 1 August and reached Barrow Strait at the end of August. Finding an unbroken field of ice, they waited four weeks for the ice to melt, gave up, returned south, left their boats at Batty Bay and walked to Fury Beach (4th winter). On 8 July they left for Batty Bay and on 14 August saw open water for the first time. They left the next day and reached the head of Prince Regent Inlet. On 26 August they spotted a ship but it passed by. A few hours later they were seen by another ship, which turned out to be the Isabella which Parry had commanded in 1819 (had it not been for his 1819 discovery there would have been no whalers in the area.). By October 1833 they were back in England. The expedition had cost three lives. Ross was presented to the King and given a knighthood. The crew were given double pay for the entire four years by the Admiralty even though they were not in the British navy. "This impressive experience, as well as the scientific and ethnological information gathered by Ross's team, brought him the renown that he had long sought." In comparison with other contemporary arctic explorers, this was a feat of heroic proportions, and was probably due to the fact that Ross befriended and learned from the Inuit.

Once again, however, Ross encountered controversy with his cartography. In 1830, during the expedition, his nephew, Commander (later Sir) James Clark Ross, charted three islands in James Ross Strait and named them the Beaufort Islands. John Ross never saw the islands. Later, back in England, John Ross, using his authority as expedition leader, renamed the islands as the Clarence Islands, and even added a number of fictional islands to the group, in an apparent attempt to impress the new king, William IV.

Captain Ross received gold medals from the English and French geographical societies, and various foreign orders, including a knighthood of the Pole Star of Sweden, and in the following year (1834) received a knighthood and a CB in Britain.

1850: third Arctic expedition

In 1850, he undertook a third voyage to the Arctic regions, this time in search of the missing expedition party of Sir John Franklin. He did not find them. In the following year he attained flag-rank. Upon returning, he settled in Scotland, and died in London in 1856.


His publications include:

Ross, J. (1819). A voyage of discovery, made under the orders of the Admiralty, in His Majesty's ships Isabella and Alexander, for the purpose of exploring Baffin's Bay, and inquiring into the probability of a north-west passage. London: J. Murray.

Ross, J. (1820). Entdeckungsreise unter den Befehlen der britischen Admiralität mit den königlichen Schiffen Isabella und Alexander um Baffins-Bay auszuforschen und die Möglichkeit einer nordwestlichen Durchfahrt zu untersuchen / Von mehrern Sprach- und Sachkundigen aus dem Englischen übers, hrsg. von P. A. Nemnich. Leipzig: Fleischer. (Translation into German on the above.).

Ross, J., & Ross, J. C. (1835). Narrative of a second voyage in search of a north-west passage, and of a residence in the Arctic regions during the years 1829, 1830, 1831, 1832, 1833. London: A.W. Webster.

Ross, J. (1838). Memoirs and correspondence of Admiral Lord De Saumarez. From original papers in possession of the family. London: R. Bentley.

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Sir John Ross, CB's Timeline

Inch, Wigtonshire, Scotland
Age 79