Between the end of the 15th century and the 20th century, Europeans attempted to establish a commercial sea route north and west around the American continents, calling this route the Northwest Passage. This goal helped motivate much of the European exploration of the Canadian Arctic, including the discovery of Hudson's Bay.
In 1845 a well-equipped two-ship expedition led by Sir John Franklin attempted to force a passage through the Arctic ice from Baffin Bay[?] to the Beaufort Sea[?]. When the expedition failed to return, a number of relief expeditions and search parties explored the Canadian Arctic between the two bodies of open water resulting in final charting of a possible passage. A few traces of the expedition have been found including records that indicate that the ships became icelocked in 1845 near King Williams Island[?] about half way through the passage and were unable to extricate themselves the following summer. Franklin himself apparently died in 1847. It is unknown why all 134 members of the well-equipped and well-provisioned expedition perished, and explaining the failure of the expedition has become something of a cottage industry.
The Northwest Passage was not conquered by sea until 1906, when the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who had sailed just in time to escape creditors seeking to stop the expedition, completed a three-year voyage in a converted 47-ton herring boat. At the end of this trip, he walked into the city of Circle, Alaska, and sent a telegram announcing his success. His route was not commercially practical; in addition to the time taken, some of the waterways were extremely shallow. The first single-season passage was not accomplished until 1944, when the St. Roch, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police schooner, made it through.
The Northwest Passage is the subject of a territorial dispute between Canada and the United States. The United States considers the Northwest Passage to be international waters, while Canada considers it internal Canadian waters.
In the summer of 2000, several ships took advantage of thinning summer ice cover on the Arctic Ocean to make the crossing. It is thought that global warming is likely to open the passage for increasing periods of time, making it attractive as a major shipping route. Routes from Europe to the Far East save 4000 km through the passage, as opposed to the current routes through the Panama Canal.