DARRELL, HUBERT, farmer, Arctic explorer, mapper, and guide; b. c. 1875 in southern England, one of the nine children of Charles Darrell and Lily Elizabeth —; vanished late November 1910 in the Anderson River region, N.W.T.
At the age of 16 Hubert Darrell immigrated to Birtle, Man., to help on the farm of his elder brother Charles. In the summer of 1897 he joined the Klondike gold-rush, hoping to make his fortune and pay off the debts and mortgage of the farm. Although he panned for gold and prospected off and on for over a decade, riches eluded him. But he fell in love with the land and people.
In order to support his passion for exploring and mapping the northland, Darrell worked at various trades. The skills he acquired – he quickly became an expert hunter and trapper – allowed him to maintain financial solvency between periods of employment and generated work as a fur trader, guide, mail carrier, and riverboat sailor. His hunting and trapping also led to friendships with aboriginal people, a key one being with Yinto, chief of a band of Yellowknife Indians at Great Slave Lake. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Darrell usually dispensed with canoes and dog-teams, averaging 1,500 miles annually on foot and guiding himself by means of his sketch maps. He had no faith in others’ maps; “they’re good to get oneself lost by,” he wrote to his family in England. It is believed that he came to know the interior of Canada between Hudson Bay and Alaska better than any other white, and he developed an extraordinary reputation for travelling alone in all seasons, living off the land miles from human settlements.
By 1901 the explorer David Theophilus Hanbury knew of Darrell’s unusual abilities, and he included him as an assistant on a 16-month journey through the lands west of Hudson Bay. Darrell kept a journal and sketched maps, and after reading Hanbury’s published account of the expedition disagreed with him on several points. A contemporary said, “I believe Hubert considered Hanbury both inefficient and over-rated, but then Hubert’s standards were rather high.” The two men did, however, get along well, and Hanbury named a lake and a river after Darrell.
Darrell maintained good relations with other reputable Arctic explorers. Vilhjalmur Stefansson* extolled him, citing his lone trip through the Endicott Mountains of Alaska as a typical feat. Privately Stefansson stated that Darrell had more achievements to his credit than many famous Arctic explorers. Roald Amundsen* was equally complimentary. He intended to include Darrell on his expedition to the South Pole and said that with men like him “I could go to the moon. . . . One of the finest men of the northern breed.” Darrell was a member of Alfred H. Harrison’s expedition in the western Arctic in 1905 but left it because he thought the surveying and mapping inefficient and because of disputes with its leader. On the other hand, he had great praise for the Comte de Sainville’s surveying and mapping in the Mackenzie River delta. In 1909 he had only scorn for Robert Edwin Peary’s claim to have reached the North Pole. Three years earlier he had refused to join the much-touted Anglo-American Polar Expedition and questioned its viability. When the expedition encountered the trouble Darrell had predicted, he was exploring on foot in the vicinity, and he carried news of its problems to the outside world. His deepest disappointment came when he was not included in Captain Joseph-Elzéar Bernier*’s 1910 expedition to eastern Arctic waters to strengthen Canadian claims to sovereignty.
Soon after the Hanbury expedition Darrell had travelled to Birtle and England to visit family and friends. In Birtle he assisted Charles for a time and worked the farm while his brother was in England. He also became engaged to Agnes Dudley. A schoolteacher, Agnes could not bring herself to live in the north. After his disappearance she would keep the search for him alive; she later married Charles.
From time to time the Hudson’s Bay Company employed Darrell in several capacities, most notably in carrying mail between Fort McPherson, N.W.T., and Arctic outposts, often across hundreds of miles of uncharted wilderness. One trip in 1906 took him to a beleaguered American whaling fleet near Herschel Island (Y.T.). Some ships had been ice-bound for three years, and the lives of five hundred whalers were saved when Darrell made their plight known to the outside world.
As a special constable for the Royal North-West Mounted Police from November 1906 to June 1910, Darrell guided, broke trail, and otherwise helped the police in four long patrols in the region bounded by Fort McPherson, Dawson, and Herschel Island. Among his friends in the police were A. E. Forrest and W. J. D. Dempster, themselves noted travellers. Had Darrell not vanished he would have encountered the Lost Patrol of Inspector Francis Joseph Fitzgerald*, whose members perished in an attempt to journey from Fort McPherson to Dawson in the winter of 1910–11, since he had been planning to follow the route taken by the patrol.
Darrell’s disappearance remains a mystery. In the summer of 1910, with his friends the trader Joseph Jacquot and his wife, he went on a lengthy exploration and prospecting trip, part of which involved the correction of Harrison’s inaccurate maps of the Anderson River region. The Jacquots and Darrell parted on 21 September and agreed to rendezvous on 5 December. The last persons known to have seen Darrell alive were some Inuit travelling southwest of Liverpool Bay. Had he lived longer, Hubert Darrell would undoubtedly have ranked with Stefansson and Amundsen as a giant of polar exploration.
[In addition to the sources cited below, Darrell’s biography is based on the author’s correspondence and notes of discussions with Stephen North and W. E. Bailey of Birtle, Man., and with Dr Margaret Dudley of Winnipeg, all of them now deceased.
Hubert Darrell’s journals for 1899–1906, his sketch maps of 1900–6, and his correspondence with his parents in England from 1899 to 1910 are preserved in the Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge, Eng., and are available on microfilm at NA, MG 30, B58. The microfilmed journals are also available at the GA. p.l.n.]
Dartmouth College Library (Hanover, N.H.), Stefansson Coll., Vilhjalmur Stefansson corr., letter to Agnes Dudley, 30 Sept. 1912. Dawson Daily News (Dawson, Y.T.), 6 July 1911. P. L. Neufeld, “The Birtle days of Arctic explorer Hubert Darrell,” Eye-Witness (Birtle), 6 Dec. 1979–30 March 1980; “Hubert Darrell and Arctic furs,” Eye-Witness, 19, 26 Feb. 1975; also articles on Darrell in the Star (Whitehorse, Y.T.), 15 Aug. 1973; Sun (Brandon, Man.), 14, 21 July, 25 Aug. 1973; and Western Producer (Saskatoon), 16 Aug. 1973. Roald Amundsen, Roald Amundsen – my life as an explorer (Garden City, N.Y., 1927), 59–60. Can., Parl., Sessional papers, 1906/7–1911, annual reports of the Royal North-West Mounted Police, app., 1906–10. D. T. Hanbury, Sport and travel in the northland of Canada (London, 1904). P. L. Neufeld, “Arctic explorer Darrell on steamers,” “The unpublished sketch maps of an Arctic explorer,” and “The Hanbury expedition” in Seaports and the Shipping World (Montreal), September 1980: 26–27, 79; May 1982: 36–37; and March 1985: 24–25, 65, respectively; “Darrell, [Arctic guide of the Royal Mounted]” and “De Sainville: forgotten Mackenzie mapper,” North (Ottawa), 20 (1973), no.3: 34–36 and 27 (1981), no.4: 54–56; “De Sainville and Darrell: newly discovered Arctic explorers” (unpublished paper presented at the CHA, n.d.; copy in NA, MG 28, I 4, 41); and “Hubert Darrell, forgotten giant of the north,” Canadian Frontier (New Westminster, B.C.), 3 (1974), no.3: 4–7. Vilhjalmur Stefansson, My life with the Eskimo (New York, 1913), 340–44. A view of the Birdtail: a history of the municipality of Birtle, the town of Birtle, and the villages of Foxwarren and Solsgirth, 1878–1974, [comp. M. W. Abra] (Birtle, 1974).