Welcome to the “original” Arctic community and the only Arctic community that has survived at one location for more than 80 years.
The story of Chesterfield Inlet goes back to the early 20th century when the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Roman Catholic Church established permanent operations at this location.
By 1911, when the Hudson’s Bay Company ship NascoPie unloaded materials for its first building at Chesterfield, the Inuit of the area had already had ongoing contact with the Qablunaaq (their term for white men, meaning ones with thick eyebrows) and came in from their camps to see what this new group of white men were planning to do in the area.
The Inuit have inhabited the area around Chesterfield Inlet for over 4,000 years. By approximately 1,000 A.D. new Inuit traditions, called the Thule culture had emerged across the Arctic and down the Hudson Bay Coast. When a climatic cooling period discouraged interaction between widely separated communities, and as each group adapted to the resources of the specific area upon which it was dependent, a number of local cultures emerged from the traditional Thule way of life.
Around the Chesterfield Inlet area, two of these Thule sub groups were prominent. The first and most prominent was the Qairnirmiut, the northernmost sub-group of the Caribou Eskimo. The other group was the Aivilingmiut to the North, who relied more on the resources of the sea than those of the land.
For hundreds of years this group moved up and down the Inlet, going inland in search of caribou, then returning to the coast to obtain food from the waters of the Inlet and the large bay. As patterns of travel were established, so were central camping areas. Over the centuries the culture evolved and sod houses were built on these sites, and a type of community living started to emerge. One of these sites is located just outside Chesterfield Inlet, and is thought to have had a population of several hundred residents at a time before white men had ventured into the area.
For the Inuit, life proceeded with only slow change over centuries, and it was not until the early 1700s that explorers in search of the Northwest Passage first sailed into Hudson Bay and made preliminary contact with the Inuit.
Chesterfield Inlet was a focus for Inuit hunting seal in spring and early summer for many years before it was reached from England by Sir Thomas Button with the small vessel Discovery in 1612-13. A number of noted qablunaat explorers subsequently visited the Inlet, including Captains Foxe (1631), Middleton (1741-42), Moore ( 1746-47) and Christopher (1761 ), all seeking the elusive Northwest Passage to the Orient.
In 1719, the Hudson’s Bay Company sent two ships up the Keewatin coast to Marble Island, just south of Chesterfield Inlet. Both went down with all hands.
In 1747, Captain William Moor identified Chesterfield Inlet as a potential route to China. The Hudson’s Bay Company took an immediate interest in this new possibility and supported further exploration of the area with expeditions by both John Bean and William Christopher. Bean failed to find the Inlet. but Christopher explored Chesterfield Inlet reaching the end of Baker lake on his second trip in 1762. He recorded the absence of a westward passage to China, but noted sightings of whales in Hudson Bay, which led to the start of commercial whaling activity in the area.
Early whaling efforts proved unprofitable and it was not until the mid 19th century that whalers returned to the area… and visited it regularly until the early 20th century… often over wintering, and hiring the local Inuit to hunt caribou and other game to provide fresh meat to prevent scurvy, to man the whaleboats, to act as guides during winter travel and to make and repair clothing.
The whaling journal of Captain George Comer (1903) points out that Chesterfield Inlet was one of the locations at which the Inuit would congregate to establish trade and seek employment. During the fifty five year history of the whaling industry in the area, the gun and the whaleboat were probably the most significant items introduced into the Inuit material culture. By the time the whalers left the area in the early 20th century, the life of the Inuit along the northwest coast of Hudson Bay had been greatly altered by this prolonged contact, and many aspects of the Euro-American culture had been incorporated into the Inuit lifestyle.
It was just as the whalers were leaving the Bay that a new group of outsiders moved into the area led by traders and missionaries, to be followed later by nurses, doctors, teachers and government administrators. It is these people who established the early infrastructure of the community of Chesterfield Inlet, and provided the services and trade goods which drew the people to spend more and more time in the small community.
During the first four decades of its existence, Chesterfield Inlet grew to be the major centre north of Churchill, serving as a trans shipment point for other Hudson’s Bay Company posts which opened in the area, as a main barracks for the RCMP, as the largest Roman Catholic Mission in the area, and as a medical and educational centre.
The opening of a nickel mine in Rankin Inlet in the mid 1950s almost spelled the end for Chesterfield Inlet. Many people left for wage employment at this new mine, but when the mine closed in the early sixties, some people returned to Chesterfield Inlet.
Today, Rankin Inlet serves as the main administrative centre of the region and Chesterfield Inlet continues as a small but well serviced community dependent mainly on the resources of the land and sea.