Mystery killer on the Churchill River

Canada’s History magazine on newsstands

SHIPS OF MISFORTUNE // A ‘rare and extraordinary’  illness ravaged the crew of Jens Munk’s 1619 voyage in search of the Northwest Passage

By Ken McGoogan

Almost a century after a catastrophe that unfolded on the Churchill River, Cree hunters told a French fur trader a strange and grisly tale. Their ancestors had stumbled upon dozens of dead bodies lying unburied on the shore, near the coast of Hudson Bay. Shocked, they had panicked and fled.

But then, collecting themselves, they cautiously returned to the site. They boarded a wrecked ship, found valuable metal items at every turn, and began a salvage so great that it lived on in oral history. Also remembered: The hunters threw apparently worthless white powder into a fire and caused a stunning explosion. The ensuing blaze destroyed a rough hut they had built.

In fur-trade country, such was the lingering memory of the disaster that befell the 1619 Jens Munk expedition. Having received the story from across generations, the Cree relayed it to the French fur trader Monsieur Jeremie when he was based in the area between 1694 and 1714. The Cree remained baffled over what had caused the death of those strangely dressed white men. Indeed, among history buffs, discussion continues to the present day.

But to the beginning. Jens Munk was born to Danish parents in Arendal, Norway, on June 3, 1579. His father, Erik Munk, was a tyrannical nobleman who collected unlawful taxes and made so many enemies that in 1585 he was stripped of his fiefdoms and jailed. His mother, never formally married, was evicted from the family estate with her two sons. In 1588, she sent nine-year-old Jens to live with his father’s sister and her husband in Aalborg, a flour­ishing Danish city of seventy thousand.

Three years later — with his disgraced father, who would later commit suicide, languishing in a dungeon — Jens Munk went to sea as a “ship’s watch” or cabin boy. Over the following thirty-one years Munk pursued a life at sea: He sailed the trade routes of the Atlantic, surviving gales, pirates, and shipwrecks. He led two ships into the Arctic Ocean north of Russia in a failed search for a Northeast Passage to China. He served as a captain in the Danish navy and triumphed in some significant battles against Sweden in 1611. In 1615, while serving under Danish Admiral Jør-gen Daa, he captured the pirate Jan Mendoza after a desper­ate chase and hand-to-hand fighting, and he brought the outlaw back to Copenhagen for hanging. . . .

To read the rest, visit a newsstand and pick up a copy of Canada’s History June-July 2023. 

Senior editor Kate Jaimet chatted with me for a podcast about the search for the Northwest Passage. Check it out!




  1. Mardy Langford on May 20, 2023 at 5:33 pm

    I’m hooked!

    • Ken McGoogan on May 25, 2023 at 4:05 pm

      Glad to hear it!

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