Cornwallis Island is located in the south central part of Canada's Queen Elizabeth Islands. With generally flat or rolling terrain, the island is 6996 km2 (2700 sq mi) in size with only a few small bays breaking the island's basically circular outline.
With a high Arctic, polar desert climate and relatively few well-vegetated areas, Cornwallis Island is not as productive biologically as the neighboring islands, Bathurst and Devon. Few muskox or Peary caribou exist on Cornwallis Island, but they occasionally move across the sea ice when conditions on other islands make feeding difficult. Polar bears, beluga whales, and seals are seen regularly along the coast. Arctic char are abundant in several large lakes on the island. Traces of ancient settlements of the Thule Eskimo and earlier cultures are common along the south coast.
The island was named in 1819 by Sir William Parry in honor of the British Admiral Sir William Cornwallis who died in 1819. Parry surveyed part of the coast while on his way to Melville Island. In 1845, Sir John Franklin sailed north up Wellington Channel along the eastern coast of Cornwallis Island and returned by the west side of the island before wintering at Beechey Island. When Franklin's expedition was reported lost, Cornwallis Island became the scene of much activity associated with the Franklin search. In 1850, there were five expeditions in the area, three of which wintered on or near the island's south coast. Four major bays along the southern coast of Cornwallis Island— Pioneer, Intrepid, Resolute, and Assistance—are named for ships of Captain Austin's 1850 naval search expedition. At Abandon Bay on the east coast are the remnants of a Royal Navy whaleboat abandoned by Captain Penny in 1851.
In August 1906, Captain Joseph-Elzear Bernier, in command of the Canadian Government ship Arctic, landed on Sheringham Point on Cornwallis Island and formally took possession of the island for Canada, leaving a cairn and record of the event.
In spite of the many coastal surveys in the 1850s, it was not until 1947 that a US Air Force aerial photographic mission established that what is now called Little Cornwallis Island is separated from Cornwallis Island by a strait. When a US-Canadian task force was unable to reach Melville Island to establish the westernmost of the planned high Arctic weather stations in the summer of 1947, Cornwallis Island was selected as the most suitable alternate. The weather station and year-round airstrip were built in 1947 at Resolute Bay.
In 1950, a three-person geological survey party circumnavigated Cornwallis Island in a 22-foot freight canoe, and demonstrated that the geological stratigraphy of the Arctic islands was not as simple as suggested by early geologists.
In 1953 and 1955, Inuit families were moved from Port Harrison and Pond Inlet to Resolute Bay, the only community on Cornwallis Island. Now also known by the name Qausuittuq, Resolute Bay is served by commercial jets and is the commercial, research, and tourism center of Canada's High Arctic.
David R. Gray
See also Bernier, Joseph-Elzear; Franklin, Sir John; Nunavut; Parry, Sir William Edward; Queen Elizabeth Islands; Resolute Bay
Dunbar, Moira & Keith R. Greenaway, Arctic Canada From the
Air, Ottawa: Defence Research Board, 1956 Harington, C. Richard (editor), Canada's Missing Dimension: Science and History in the Canadian Arctic Islands, Ottawa: Canadian Museum of Nature, 1990 Taylor, Andrew, Geographical Discovery and Exploration in the Queen Elizabeth Islands, Ottawa: Department of Mines and Technical Surveys, 1955
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