Sir Martin Frobisher, the English explorer, was the first European to explore (1576–78) the eastern approaches of the passage. John Davis also explored (1585–87) this area, and in 1610 Henry Hudson sailed north and visited Hudson Bay while seeking a short route to Asia. Soon afterward, William Baffin, an English explorer, visited (1616) Baffin Bay, through which the passage was finally found. English statesmen and merchants, anxious to have the passage found, encouraged exploration. Luke Fox and Thomas James made (1631–32) voyages into Hudson Bay.
Although one of the avowed goals of Hudson's Bay Company was to find the Northwest Passage, little was accomplished until a century after its charter, when Samuel Hearne, a British explorer with the company, went overland as far west as the Coppermine River (1771–72) and demonstrated that there was no short passage to the western sea. The British government offered prizes for achievements in northern exploration, and Captain James Cook was inspired to make the first attempt at navigating the passage from the west. He died before he could accomplish anything. The British, Spanish, and Americans, however, pushed explorations on the Pacific coast, and the explorations of the Russians about Kamchatka and Alaska, together with the voyages of Alexander Mackenzie, the Canadian explorer, and the expedition of the Americans Lewis and Clark, revealed the contours of the continental barrier.
Wars between Britain and France interrupted the search for the Northwest Passage, and when resumed after the wars the explorations were made in the interests of science, not commerce. The desire to extend human knowledge was the chief motive in arctic exploration after the expeditions of British explorers John Ross and David Buchan were sent out in 1818. Ross's later voyages, and those of Sir William Edward Parry, F. W. Beechey, Sir George Back, Thomas Simpson, and Sir John Franklin pushed forward the knowledge of the Arctic and of the Northwest Passage. The last tragic expedition of Franklin indirectly had more effect than any other voyage because of the many expeditions sent out to discover his fate. In his expedition (1850–54), Robert J. Le M. McClure penetrated the passage from the west along the northern coast of the continent and by a land expedition reached Viscount Melville Sound, which had been reached (1819–20) by Parry from the east.
The actual existence of the Northwest Passage had been proved, and the long search was over. It was many years, however, before a transit of the passage was made. This feat, which had been attempted by so many men, was first accomplished (1903–6) by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. Interest in the Northwest Passage slackened until the 1960s, when oil was discovered in N Alaska and there was a desire for a short water route to transport oil to the east coast of the United States.