If you have been to Churchill you probably have heard of Button Bay. If you have been to Churchill in the Summer you might have even ventured by boat to the bay itself.
Sow and cub in the rocks off Eskimo Point. Stefanie Fernandez photo.
Button Bay lies northwest of Churchill just a short spin by zodiac around the tip of Eskimo Point and Fort Prince of Wales. From the fort you can gaze across the thickets of willows and wildflowers to the often glassy surface of the secluded inlet. It’s also possible to look across the Churchill River past Fort Prince of Wales on the point and see the glimmering surface of the bay.
In Button Bay the water is crystal clear and belugas are quite visible under water. Steve Selden photo.
The bay was commemorated by Sir Thomas Button in 1612 when he and the crew of the Resolution ventured to “New Wales”, as he named it for England. He is credited with securing the lands along the west coast of the Hudson Bay for England. The Nelson River estuary and Port Nelson within those lands, were named after the Master of the Resolution who perished on the journey and is buried there.
Sir Thomas Button.
On May 15, 1912, 300 years later, when Manitoba’s boundaries were extended, Port Nelson was included in the new territory designated to the province. Thomas Button is therefore known to be the first white man to visit this area in Manitoba.
Polar Bear along the coast of Button Bay. Natural Habitat Adventures photo.
Button Bay is a well known beluga whale hot spot in the summer. On the fairly rare occasions when whales are scarce in the Churchill River and mouth of the Hudson Bay, the 20 minute motor over to Button Bay usually produces pods of whales following the capelin run. On the journey by boat or zodiac, there’s always the chance of spotting a polar bear or two nestled along the rocky coast. I have often seen bears dipping paws into the bay or pulling up onto the rocks after a swim.
Button Bay is a little secret gem of the region. the bay itself is considered part of the Nunavut territory.
Come see the whales and bears of Button Bay! Arctic summer trips are still available.
In the late 1720’s peace between England and France was on edge, and in 1730 the Hudson Bay Company initiated construction on Fort Prince of Wales at the mouth of the Churchill River (650 meters across at that point) at Eskimo Point. The strategic location – the peninsula at the mouth of the Churchill River and Button Bay to the west – affords an ideal location for defense and spotting ships on the horizon. The availability of raw material, quartzite and limestone for building, and a natural harbor just upriver at Sloops Cove added to the prime location. Severe weather conditions slowed construction considerably to say the least.
Looking for polar bears from inside fort Prince of Wales. Steve Selden photo.
Twenty-four tradesmen and laborers were sent from England in 1731 and the first large, shaped stone was laid on June 3, 1732. It was estimated that construction would take six or seven years to complete using four team of oxen and 84 men. Forty years later in 1771, the fort was completed. In 1782 Jean Francois de la Perouse and his three French warships sailed into Hudson Bay and captured the fort and the 39 non – military men inside without a single shot fired from either side. The men “maintaining” the fort were untrained in cannon operation. The forged steel cannons needed six to eight men to fire them efficiently and accurately.
Fort Governor at the time, Samuel Hearne, realized the mismatch in military strength and surrendered peacefully. In 1783, Fort Prince of Wales was returned to the Hudson Bay Company in a partially destroyed state. With the decline of the fur trade the importance of the fort waned and a downsized post was reestablished farther inland on the Churchill River.
Summer in Churchill is the optimal time to get a walking tour of Fort Prince of Wales. Visit nathab.com for travel options to Churchill!
Fort Prince of Wales on the West side of the Churchill River.
If you venture to Churchill in the summertime with Natural Habitat Adventures there’s a good chance you’ll travel cross-river and tour Fort Prince of Wales with a guided interpretation from a Parcs Canada ranger. An intriguing and somewhat comical history endures.
In 1717, just a few years after the Treaty of Utrecht returned all Hudson Bay posts to England, James Knight from the Hudson Bay Company built the ” Churchill River Post” and it was renamed “Prince of Wales” two years later. The initial trading post/fort was constructed to pretty much take advantage geographically of the more northern location and general accessibility to multiple regional fur traders and native trappers.
Ammunition cache at Cape Merry for cannon protection of Fort prince of Wales. Karen Walker photo.
With the ongoing feud and battle to control the fur industry between the french and English, the need for a stronghold of greater security seemed like a good idea.
In 1731 construction of the current day Fort Prince of Wales began out on Eskimo Point at the mouth of the Churchill River. A mere 40 years later the four-meter-thick stone walls were completed and the 40 cannon mounts were in place. Nearly unbearable winter living conditions made the construction process less than expeditious. With the sparseness of trees in the area, gathering firewood for heat also was a laborious task. If we could hear the stories from those days.
A view across the Cape Merry barrens past the battery and to Fort prince of Wales.
The star fort design, originally conceptualized in the mid-15th century in Italy worked quite well in covering all angles of attack with cannons. Walls were constructed low and thick to withstand cannon fire. A deep ditch surrounding the fort was to compensate for the lower walls.
The grand irony of the entire project culminated in 1782 when three French warships commanded by general La Perouse captured the fort without a single shot being fired. During the whole construction process, the minor details of training the stationed men how to fire a cannon seemed to slip through the cracks. Again, with the severe weather conditions, one can only imagine how basic survival during construction trumped all other endeavors.
In 1934 the process of reconstructing the partially demolished and downtrodden fort began. That process has restored the fort to a most presentable condition. In recent years, an intense archeological effort has produced incredible artifacts used to paint a more vivid picture of life in the 18th century.