The Historic Site’s and Trail’s

Our History

The Municipality of Chesterfield Inlet is located in Nunavut, just south of the Arctic Circle in northern Canada. Chester’s history dates back to about the mid-1800’s, and was once the Hudson’s Bay Company Ltd. main supply centre for other posts in the area during the early fur-pelt trade industry along the west coast of Hudson Bay. Chesterfield Inlet is known as Igluligaarjuk in Inuktitut, Place with a few ‘Thule houses’. Chesterfield Inlet was first visited by Sir Thomas Button with the small ship Discovery in 1612 – 13, and through the century, a number of British explorers sailed the inlet, in search of the elusive Northwest Passage expedition.

Chesterfield; named about 1749, after Philip Dormer (Stanhope), 4th Earl of Chesterfield (1694-1773) who was the Secretary of State from 1746-48 Bowden’s Inlet, and is the well known author of ‘Chesterfield’s Letters’ and other works. From the mid 1800’s to the beginning of this century, whalers sailed the area regularly and often wintered here or Depot Island, Cape Fullerton, and Marble Island. They counted on the Inuit to hunt for them and to man their whale boats during the nomadic period.

Credit: Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Archives of Manitoba – HBCA 1987/363-C-28/8 – Unloading goods at Chesterfield Inlet

In Chesterfield Inlet, Inuit often gathered to seek employment or to trade goods. Until the 1950’s, Chesterfield Inlet was an administrative centre north of Churchill, MB. It was the Hudson’s Bay Company’s main supply centre for other posts in the area est. in 1911 during the early fur-pelt trade industry, and the site of the main Royal North West Mounted Police post est. in 1903 at Cape Fullerton the predecessor of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachment, to the first Roman Catholic mission est. in 1912 in the eastern arctic, as well as the main medical and education centre.

On August 23, 1929, the National Film Board of Canada produced a film documenting the arrival of the SS Beothic’s to Chesterfield Inlet. The film highlights the LS of Chesterfield Inlet on shore with a launch sailing past in the foreground.

In 1953, the National Film Board of Canada (ONF – NFB) documented a film story in Chesterfield Inlet: In Celebration of Nunavut, ‘Life On the Land’. The story depicts the history of the Inuit in the eastern arctic and Inuit traditions on the land. In the 1960’s, the territorial government began to establish and administer settlements across the north and to develop services in remote settlements in the Northwest Territory. The Chesterfield Inlet Settlement Office was established in the 1960’s under the direction of the territorial government. The Chesterfield Inlet Housing Association followed in 1968 to assist with the development of housing in Chesterfield Inlet. The Hamlet of Chesterfield Inlet was established April 1, 1980, and formed an elected municipal government in Chesterfield Inlet in the Northwest Territory. The Municipality of Chesterfield Inlet was establish to develop sustainable economic development, employment opportunity’s, infrastructure, and tourism initiatives. The Nunavut Territory was created April 1, 1999, as a result of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement.

We recently completed an publish a booklet that shares a guided walking tour experience about the story of our ‘original’ Arctic community. A ‘Journey Through Time’ takes you back to the early 20th century – our noble beginnings when the Hudson’s Bay Company Ltd., the Roman Catholic Mission, and the Grey Nun’s of Nicolet – Quebec established permanent operations at this location in 1911 – 1912, and 1930’s. Travel through our history and then take a virtual walking tour of our community. Additional walking tour map information including photos can be found here (walking tour map).

The Historical Overview

An understanding of the historical context of the Chesterfield Inlet themes is helpful. With this background knowledge one can more fully appreciate the significance of the existing resources and the appropriateness of the development proposals for the Historic Sites and Trails Program. An historical overview of the region is presented here to set the stage for more detailed descriptions of the specific themes and the assessment of the community resources. Both Pre-Contact (the events of the period prior to Inuit contact with the white man), and Post-Contact periods are important to note that much remains to be known about the evolution of the human history of the Canadian arctic. Although valuable work has been undertaken, there are areas of controversy and gaps in our knowledge that will certainly stimulate continued efforts by historians and archaeologists to piece together a more complete picture.

Credit: N.W.T. Archives Collection, Prince Of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, Yellowknife, N.W.T.

This includes stories and accounts passed down from one generation to the next by the Inuit and their ancestors who lived through earlier times and endured survival. To live to tell a tale! Some of the history presented here documents the first accounts of the white people in Inuktitut qablunaat, the early era of the European explorers and the Scottish and American whalers, to the first Royal North West Mounted Police at Cape Fullerton, and the early Hudson’s Bay Company Ltd. posts established in the north, and the first Roman Catholic Mission.

Pre-Contact History

The modern day Inuit found along the northwestern coast of Hudson Bay descended from a succession of Inuit culture that have inhabited this area over the last 4,000 to 5,000 years. The first of these Inuit cultures known as the Arctic Small Tool tradition (so named because of the tiny blades of flint used to cut bone and ivory for the making of tools) evolved along the east shore of the Bering Strait during the time period 2,000 to 800 B.C. Under warm climate conditions than presently exists in the north, these people spread across the Canadian arctic over a period of about two centuries.

The Arctic Small Tool traditions that occupied the lower Arctic islands and mainland were known as the Pre-Dorset culture. The various groups of Pre-Dorset people ranged from the Barren Grounds of the High Arctic; however, it was the core group that remained in the species rich area of Foxe Basin, Hudson Bay and northern Hudson Bay that are thought to have inhabited the eastern Arctic until 800 B.C. This Pre-Dorset group evolved into a more advance culture known as the Dorset culture, also called the “Tunit”, and are associated with the period from 800 B.C. to 1000 A.D. Noted for their technology development, the Dorset culture was distinguished from the Pre-Dorset by such innovations as the snow house, the snow knife, and sled shoes to protect the runners when travelling over snow and ice. The spread of the Dorset people coincided once again with a general climatic warming trend and they resettled a large part of the area previously settled by the Pre-Dorset culture.

By 1000 A.D., following the disappearance of the Arctic Small Tool tradition, a new tradition called the Thule culture, had emerged in Alaska. The Thule people were whale hunters, and during another climatic warning trend, they moved east along the Arctic coast taking with them dogs, kayaks and umiat. By 1200 A.D. the Thule culture had established villages across the Canadian arctic and down the west coast of Hudson Bay. Although it is not totally understood whether the Thule people absorbed or eliminated the Dorset people, the Thule culture, dating from 1000 to 1600 A.D. is now recognized as the direct ancestor of the modern Inuit. A number of local cultures of the present day Inuit emerged from the traditional Thule way of life when another climatic cooling period discouraged interaction between the widely separated communities. Each group adapted its culture to the resources of the specific area upon which it was dependent. The names of the specific groups reflect these specific characteristics: the Natsilingmiut, the people of the seal; the Pallimiut, the people of the lake; the Ukkosiksalikmiut, the soapstone people.

For Chesterfield Inlet, two of these culture variations are especially important. The first is the Qaernermiut, the northernmost sub-group of the caribou Inuit. While descriptions of their territory vary, it appears that Chesterfield Inlet is well within defined ranges. Cultural influences on the Qaernermiut were from both the north and the south, but in the last two hundred years the Aivilingmiut to the north have had the greatest interaction due to the mutual interest of both cultures in the whaling of Hudson Bay and the opportunities it has afforded.

Post-Contact History

The pattern of historical evolution in the Chesterfield Inlet region during the relatively brief period since the arrival of the white man is relatively simple and consistent with many parts of arctic Canada. The initial contacts between the Inuit and the Europeans came as a result of the search for the Northwest Passage. In the Hudson Bay this was as early as 1612. But it wasn’t until the mid 1700’s that explorers following the coastline of Hudson Bay found and were excited by the seeming potential of Chesterfield Inlet as the long sought after westward route. Attention quickly shifted to other more promising areas and to the search for overland routes to the western sea when it was reported that the end of the inlet was reached and no passage was found.

Explorer’s reports of whales along the west coast of Hudson Bay encouraged another burst of activity in the region. The Hudson’s Bay Company launched the initial but economically unsuccessful venture during the 1700’s. In the late 1800’s after the development and decline of a whaling industry in the Cumberland Sound area, whalers moved into the northwestern part of Hudson Bay, which included the Chesterfield Inlet and Wager Bay area. The need for wintering stations and bases for trade with the Inuit of the region resulted in the establishment of permanent settlements. As with other areas in Canada, trading activity and frontier settlements encouraged a variety of other activities. One of the most important of these was the initiative of the churches to send missionaries both to convert the indigenous people to Christianity and to support and facilitate their assimilation into white society. Because of the prominence of Chesterfield Inlet as convenient contact point between white and Inuit involved in whaling and trading, the site became the location of the first mission in the Keewatin.

Similarly, the early government initiatives aimed at regulating the whaling activity and establishing sovereignty in the region resulted in the establishing of permanent outposts of the Northwest Mounted Police (later, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police). In spite of this government interest, it was the church in the early years that provided facility and social service support to the native communities that developed around these focal points of activity. It was much later, during the mid 1900’s, that increasing government involvement began to replace the church’s contribution in the economic and service aspects of the community settlements.


A route to China through the Northwest Passage was the primary reason that early explorers were attracted to Hudson Bay and more specifically to Chesterfield Inlet. Sir Thomas Button’s entry into the Hudson Bay in 1612 marked the beginning of a sequence of explorers focused on the same objective. However, it wasn’t until 1747 that Captain William Moor as a potential route identified Chesterfield Inlet. The Hudson’s Bay Company Ltd. took an immediate interest in this new possibility and supported further exploration of the area with expedition 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. Christopher’s trip reports recording the lack of westward passage through Chesterfield Inlet were important also because of his sightings of whales off Marble Island. The Hudson’s Bay Company Ltd. eagerly undertook to develop whaling activity in the area between 1765 and 1782. However, the attempt proved to be unprofitable and the company ceased its efforts.

Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum

The main period of whaling in northwestern Hudson Bay (1860-1915) was initiated by two American whalers who had until that time been whaling in Cumberland Sound. Captain Christopher Chapel and his brother Edward decided to move their whaling activity after hearing positive reports regarding whale sightings in northwestern Hudson Bay. Their efforts were well rewarded as they departed from the area in 1861 with more whale bone then had ever been obtained from a Davis Strait fishery. In the decade that followed, over 59 voyages were made to Hudson Bay with all but two being from American ports. The Hudson Bay whaling grounds extended along the northwest coast from Marble Island in the south, along the coast into Roes Welcome Sound and on up to Lyon Inlet in the north. Given the large stock of whales found in the Bay, it was believed that they were from a different stock than those of the Cumberland Sound area. Flow whaling, the employment of the local population, the initiation of ongoing trade, and the establishment of wintering stations were all to find their place in the Bay whaling industry.

The Hudson’s Bay Company Ltd. in Chesterfield Inlet, circa 1928
Credit: N.W.T. Archives Collection, Prince Of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, Yellowknife, N.W.T.

Wintering stations at locations along the coast developed permanence from repeated use. Major locations were Depot Island, Fullerton Harbour, Marble Island, and Repulse Bay. It was around these locations that groups of Inuit, particularly the Aivilingmiut and the Qaernermiut would congregate to trade with the whalers who offered guns, whaleboats, utensils, telescopes and other useful items that greatly changed the material culture of the Inuit. Employment opportunities were numerous as the Inuit were relied upon to hunt caribou and other traditional 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 establishment of trade and employment between the Inuit and the whalers resulted in a more centralized distribution of the Inuit along the coast. Although this new distribution pattern developed, traditional game resources, such as caribou, seal and musk ox were still sought with the gun and whaleboat greatly increasing the success rate.

Canton (Bark)
Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum

Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum

The whaling journal Captain Comer (1903-04) provides recognition of the fact that Chesterfield Inlet was one of locations at which the Inuit would congregate to established trade and seek employment. Many entries illustrate the point: September 23, 1903, Comer refers to having met with officers of the ‘Neptune’ and that Commander Low was about to enter Chesterfield Inlet with a launch to recruit natives; Saturday, March 18, 1904, a sled arrived from Chesterfield Inlet with muskox with skins for the steamer; May 31, 1904, his entry describes how two native boats, probably whaleboats sold to the Inuit by the whalers, had been used for hunting walrus just south of Chesterfield Inlet. It is obviously from Comer’s journal that Chesterfield Inlet had definitely felt the influence of whaling in Hudson Bay.

Whaling Boats
Whaling Boats
Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum

Photo of Inuit man – ca. 1929-1934
Credit: Ronald W. Stewart Library and Archives Canada

During the fifty-five year history of the whaling industry in the area, the gun and the whaleboats were probably the most significant items introduced into the Inuit material culture. The gun ensured more individual success while hunting and therefore contributed to the independence of the Inuit. The sale of the whaleboats, which required a small crew, encouraged the need for cooperation. The year round contact with the whalers wintering in the Bay had a more far-reaching impact than the previous two hundred years when contact with explorers looking for the Northwest Passage had been very infrequent and for short periods of time. By the time whaling drew to a close in 1915, the life of the Inuit along the northwest coast of Hudson Bay had been greatly altered by this prolonged contact, which resulted in the incorporation of many aspects of the Euro-American culture.

The long term whaling industry along the coast of Hudson Bay contributed to the achievement of the Inuit excellent navigational skills and their independence during the early whaling era with American and Scottish whalers. Long after the whaling era was done, the influence of the American and Scottish whalers continued, and like the wild tone of accordion music introduced, it is still dominant today in the life of the Inuit people.

Titled “The Boatsteerer’s Dance,” this photograph was made by Pardon B. Gifford aboard the New Bedford Whaling Bark, Charles W. Morgan in August, 1906. Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum

An Inuit elder Maria Teresa Krako in Chesterfield Inlet recalled her father Qimuksiraaq, one of the most renowned on the coast; “probably worked for the Americans”, and believes that when she was a child her father travelled with the American whaling captain George Comer. The Beaver article of The Wreck of the ‘FINBACK’ by W. O.  Douglas, Mr Douglas sailed into the Arctic in 1916 and served there for 17 years, first with the RNWMP and then with the Hudson’s Bay Company. Read his account of The Wreck of the ‘FINBACK’. In earlier days, once ship was seen in the distance upon arrival, some people would be heard yell, ship! in Inuktitut, umiarjuaraapiik!

Royal Canadian Mounted Police

By 1880, most of the lands now known as the Northwest Territories had been transferred to Canada from Great Britain, however, the Canadian government had done nothing to established sovereignty over the arctic. The activities of whalers had been without regulations and there were suspicions that the American might claim the arctic using the whalers as a pretext the Americans wintering stations had been established on Canadian lands.

Barracks at Cape Fullerton, Nunavut, Canada, 1904
Photo by J. D. Moodie.

Fearing that the United States was planning to annex the Canadian Arctic Territories and in an attempt to establish sovereignty, the government decided to send the North West Mounted Police into the arctic to provide a year round presence. The North West Mounted Police (predecessor to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) was established in 1873.

Royal North-West Mounted Police barracks, Fullerton Harbour July, 1904
Credit: Glenbow Archives, Alberta, NE-11-23

On September 23, 1903, under the direction of J.D. Moodie, the first North West Mounted Police outpost was established at Cape Fullerton in Inuktitut Qatiktalik, which is north east of Chesterfield Inlet (Igluligaarjuk) along the coast of Hudson Bay. While sovereignty was the primary reason for the establishment of the post, the police officers were responsible for the administration of whaling licenses, collecting customs, controlling the flow of liquor and maintaining order in the north. When the ‘Neptune’ sailed from Cape Fullerton in 1904, three policemen were left to man the outpost, which was maintained continuously for the next ten years.

Members of “M” Division R.N.W.M.P. – Royal North West Mounted Police, Fullerton Harbour, 1905
Courtesy of the RCMP Historical Collections Unit, Regina, SK

In 1906, the second detachment was open in Churchill, MB to serve as Division Headquarters. The coast between the two posts was then patrolled regularly. In 1914, following the establishment of the Hudson’s Bay Company Trading Post, and the Roman Catholic Mission in Chesterfield Inlet, the Royal North West Mounted Police detachment was established in Chesterfield Inlet and the Fullerton detachment post closed. Although the Fullerton detachment was later open temporarily, it was closed permanently in 1919.

Bay Rupert, Chesterfield Inlet, 1927
Credit: N.W.T. Archives Collection, Prince Of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, Yellowknife, N.W.T.

The network of detachments also continued to grow. Besides the Division Headquarters in Churchill, MB, a post was established at Baker Lake, serving as an important contact for the Chesterfield Inlet detachment. First established in 1915 by Inspector Beyts, it was closed shortly thereafter (1918) but was reopened in 1938.

R.N.W.M.P. – Royal North West Mounted Police Barracks Post, Cape Fullerton in Inuktitut Qatiktalik

In 1921, the Royal North West Mounted Police became the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Their expanded activity in the Chesterfield Inlet area is evidence by the construction of a new four man post in Chesterfield Inlet and by the many patrols they undertook. Records describe especially long or dangerous patrols in some detail. Inspector Joyce, for example, comments on a patrol in 1930 by Constable McCormack who travelled from Chesterfield Inlet to the post at Wager Bay and Repulse Bay and back again by dog team, covering 1,000 miles. Patrols varied in length up to a few months. Officers contacted the Inuit residents on route to establish friendships, confidence and good will. The Chesterfield Inlet detachment was responsible for summer patrols by boat to Southampton Island, Baker Lake, Marble Island and Depot Island. Winter patrols by dog sled were made to places such as For Churchill, Cape Fullerton, Rankin Inlet, and Baker Lake.

Unloading the Ship by using two boats lashed together, Chesterfield Inlet, Hudson Bay
Courtesy of Canada, The Department of Interior/ Library and Archives Canada

Many stories relating the exceptional, unusual and ordinary tasks of the officers at Chesterfield Inlet are documented in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Annual Reports, which appear in the Sessional Papers of Canada. The number of officers at the detachment varied, but usually one or two senior constables and special constables, often Inuit, were employed. Generally the special constable would be hired during peak work periods to work with dog teams, for extensive boat travel, at ship time and for construction. Like the church, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police provided non-traditional job opportunities for the Inuit.

The annual reports also illustrated the growth of Christianity among the Inuit and the implications for the responsibilities of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. In 1925, it is recorded that “Notwithstanding the fact that missionaries have been here for some years now established in the district they have made few converts to Christianity, and the few who have been received into the church still practice and believed in shamanism, etc.” By 1928, negative incidents were recorded, “but are now things of the past amongst the Christians, and I might add, also amongst those natives who have been coming in contact with the Christian natives, but who have not become Christians”. These statements reflect the success that was experienced by the mission workers in attempting to convert the Inuit to Christianity. As well, it shows how traditional religious or superstitious beliefs were altered over time, often in a way that reduced the type of crime in which Royal Canadian Mounted Police might otherwise have become involved.

Overall, it appears that the Chesterfield Inlet detachment had an extensive area of responsibility. Dog sled and launch fulfilled most transportation needs of the detachment depending upon the time of year. Additional facilities were built for the Chesterfield Inlet detachment in 1949 and 1950. First, two separate quarters were built for Inuit special constables. In the second year, a residence was constructed. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police remained and integral part of Chesterfield Inlet until 1963, when the detachment was closed and Chesterfield Inlet was administered from the newly establishment base at Rankin Inlet.


Throughout northern Canada the activity of the fur traders and whalers was followed by representatives of two major religious denominations; the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches. In eastern Canada, particularly the arctic region, missionaries followed the routes explored and exploited by the whalers, while inland and further to the west in the Mackenzie Valley the establishment of fur trade posts initiated the spread of Christianity.

In 1894, as a result of whaling in Cumberland Sound, the Anglican missionary Reverend Edmond Peck was given the task of establishing a permanent mission at Black-lead Island. It is not surprising that the Anglican Church was first to establish in the Cumberland Sound area since, ‘Anglicanism was closed linked to the Honourable Compagny, which was desirous of making the natives faithful subject of his Britannic Majesty.’ This policy was certainly to the advantage of the Anglican clergy. ‘Spreading the word’ was a challenge in the eastern arctic as the sparse population distribution necessitated extensive travel by sled and dog team or aboard various types of whaling vessels, which frequented first the Cumberland Sound area and later northwest Hudson Bay.

Both the Anglican and the Roman Catholic churches worked diligently in their efforts to convert the Inuit, with varying results from place to place. With both churches active certain communities inevitably became divided along religious lines, having representation from both denominations. The strength of each church depended on when missions were established, the individual characteristics of the church representatives, and the degree to which one denomination could operate without competition from the other. The history of Chesterfield Inlet was undoubtedly shaped by these factors. In 1899, the Diocese of Keewatin was created as the result of a decision to divide the Diocese of Moosonee.

Later, in 1910, the Keewatin Vicariate was formed and Father Turquetil was selected to direct the establishment of a church mission in Chesterfield Inlet. As yet, neither the Anglican nor the Roman Catholic Church had established missions on the northwest coast of Hudson Bay. Indeed, the absence of the Anglican Church at Chesterfield Inlet allowed for the expansion of the Roman Catholic Church to the extent that virtually the entire population of Chesterfield Inlet became Roman Catholic. On September 3, 1912, Father Turquetil and Father Leblanc arrived on the Hudson’s Bay Company supply ship, the Nascopie and by September 22, the first mission building was sufficiently complete to hold a high mass, the first witnessed by the Inuit of the area. Although, initially depended on the Hudson’s Bay ship Nascopie, the Roman Catholic missions eventually acquired their own vessel, the Therese, to provide transportation to other missions in the Hudson Bay area.

When in 1925, Father Turquetil was installed as Perfecture Apostolic, his efforts and energies extended well beyond Chesterfield Inlet, as missions were initiated at various locations: Eskimo Point (1924), Coral Harbour (1926), Baker Lake (1927), Igloolik (1929), and Pond Inlet (1929). To a large extent he was responsible for the expansion of the mission field in the Keewatin area. Meanwhile, the physical growth of the Roman Catholic denomination was evident in the form of the addition of a church to the mission building in 1927. As, well, in 1931, a hospital was built by the Roman Catholic Church and was served by the Sisters of Charity, the Grey Nuns of Nicolet. They arrived on July 5, 1931 to operate the hospital and were able to move into their new premises on October 3.

Roman Catholic Mission, circa 1928

From the first high mass of the September 22, 1912, until his retirement in 1942, Father Turquetil dominated and directed the religious life of Chesterfield Inlet, giving inspiration to all of the many priests, sisters and staff who worked with him. During his thirty years at Chesterfield Inlet, thirteen missions were established, a ship had been acquired and a hospital built to provide for the physical needs of the local people who fondly remembered him as ‘Grand Father’. In 1942, Father Lacroix replaces Father Turquetil as Bishop and the importance of Chesterfield Inlet as a significance religious centre continued under his direction. The Ste. Therese Hospital, which was expanded in 1949 and 1956, now serves as a well equipped home care for special needs adults. A Federal Day School was built and opened in 1951.

Inuit waiting to unload ship near the Roman Catholic Mission buildings bayfront beach, 1955
Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada

A new mission building was a major addition to the church’s facilities in 1954. A hostel was also constructed in 1954-55 to accommodate students from outlying areas. In 1969, the hostel saw its last group of children, as education was becoming available at a number of places in the Northwest Territories resulting from government involvement. Named Turquetil Hall, the former hostel was demolished in 1984, after serving as an adult education centre since the late 1960’s. A new church was also built in 1964 to accommodate the growing congregation.

The major role that Chesterfield Inlet has played from 1912 to the present day in terms of religious, educational and medical centre for the Keewatin area is clearly a function of the initiative and effort of the Roman Catholic Church.