Elisha Kent Kane Historical Society
II: Heroic Ambition: The Beginnings of a Hero
Born into one of Philadelphia's most elite families, Kane grew up learning the ways of power and prestige. Kane's father, Judge John Kintzing Kane, was one of the most influential citizens of Philadelphia. Having graduated from Yale and passed the Bar by 1817, John Kane rose to power under the wing of Andrew Jackson, where he served in a position we would now call press secretary. He wrote the first printed attack on the United States Bank, and his fiery speeches made him the leader of the Democrats in the "Buckshot War," an 1838 Pennsylvania election dispute that grew so heated that federal troops were called in to restore order. In 1844 Kane became Attorney-General of Pennsylvania and in 1846 President James K. Polk appointed him U. S. District Court Judge of Eastern Pennsylvania-a position he used to strictly enforce the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 by handing down stiff punishments to anyone caught helping transport or hide slaves. Kane used his charisma and political power in both business, as he insured the completion of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, and in philanthropic efforts such as the founding of Girard College, the Second Presbyterian Church, the Academy of Fine Arts, and the Musical Fund Society. Kane was also a prominent Mason and the president of the American Philosophical Society. (16)
Put in modern terms, Judge Kane became one of the most powerful Democrats in the nation because he was an incredibly effective political advisor. In 1859, a year after his death, a biographical sketch noted that, "Judge Kane did not aspire to be conspicuous as a politician" but that he viewed himself primarily as "a writer of other men's speeches-a prompter of the stock performers on the stage, who could find his sufficient reward and enjoyment in seeing the drama enacted of which he might have claimed to be the author." (17) Judge Kane was politically powerful because he knew how to manipulate public opinion. He wrote articles and speeches that could tear down national banks and heat political meetings to the point where troops were needed to restore order. This ability to impact society through the press was a skill Elisha would learn as he grew older.
Very bright but not especially disciplined, Elisha was denied admittance into Yale and instead opted for the University of Virginia, where he was not required to meet Greek and Latin requirements but could concentrate solely on his interests-physics, geology, mineralogy, and civil engineering. His professor, William Barton Rogers, was in the midst of mapping the geological formations of the Blue Ridge Mountains and Kane joined him on several of his excursions. Kane enjoyed these rugged outings and hoped to pursue a career in geology or engineering. But these hopes ended in 1838 and 1839 when he suffered several severe attacks of rheumatic fever. (18) William Elder, Kane's contemporary biographer, noted that while home during one of these illnesses Kane's physician warned him that he should not pursue any active occupation for he could die "as suddenly as from a musket shot." Taking this to heart, Kane languished in bed for several weeks. According to family legend, Judge Kane could not bear the sight of his son in such a weak and miserable condition and so ordered him to get up and get back to work saying, "If you must die-die in the harness." (19)
It was decided that it would be best for Elisha to chose a less strenuous career and so in the fall of 1839 he apprenticed himself to Dr. William Harris of Philadelphia. He began studying medicine at the University of Pennsylvania that same fall and graduated in March of 1842. Kane was a diligent student, a hard-working resident, and an impressive researcher as he published an article on kiesteine (a substance found in urine that can indicate pregnancy) in the American Journal of the Medical Sciences. (20)
Just as Kane was ready to begin a medical practice, his life took another change of course. Without telling his son, Judge Kane contacted the Secretary of the Navy, Abel Upshur, and requested that Elisha be accepted in the service as a naval surgeon. No existent records indicate why Judge Kane made this decision regarding his son's life but George Corner, Kane's modern biographer, speculates that he sought the position because he felt the Medical Corps of the navy, with its opportunity for travel and research, better suited his son than would a private practice in crowded Philadelphia. (21) This attitude is congruent with the times, as the common "recipe" for marine travel books during the 1840s and 1850s was to, "Take a weak-eyed Harvard boy and have him ship as a common seaman on a voyage round the Horn, thereby toughening his body, sharpening his sight, and bringing out all the basic strength of his character." (22) Judge Kane may have been wanting to toughen up his young, academically-minded son. He himself had began his work career as a fireman with the Philadelphia Hose Company, a career that apparently ended only after he had a bad fall from the steeple of the flaming State House. (23)
Shipping as a common sailor may have been the solution for toughening up a young man, but it was a bit too pedestrian for the Kane family. Judge Kane used his influence to secure Elisha a position as surgeon on Caleb Cushing's diplomatic mission to China-a popular idea apparently as Daniel Webster also insured that his son, Fletcher, would be on board. Shipping out of Norfolk aboard the Brandywine on the 24th of May, 1843, Elisha spent the next two years traveling the globe. This remarkable adventure, though never told publicly by Kane, became a large part of his legend after his death as Elder dedicated fifty sensational pages to it in his Biography of Elisha Kent Kane (1857). This journey was a turning point in Kane's life as it quickened his incurable hunger for fame and adventure.
From the time of his return, until June of 1846 when he shipped out again for another adventure, Kane seems to have been quite restless. Corner notes that upon his return Kane was ready to give up the Navy because he had suffered constant sea-sickness on the voyage and hated the rigid, authoritarian structure of the military. Elder commented that Kane's distaste for the military was extreme, noting that "The distinctions of rank which our naval service tolerates, without justifying, outraged his frank democracy of feeling." (24) Questioning the military's right to order its officers was common at that time. Mexican-American War historian Robert Johannsen explains that many volunteers of the armed forces "resented military discipline and often refused to be governed by it.... Indeed, many Americans believed that this was but further evidence of the free democratic spirit that prevailed in the United States." (25) The fact that Kane quickly set up a doctor's office in Philadelphia suggests that he did expect to end his military career-a career that had technically never began as his trip with Cushing was not a Navy mission and he had thus never officially been called into active service. (26)
But at this time, tensions with Mexico were heating up and Corner argues that it was for this reason that Kane did not resign from the Navy. The Mexican-American War was certainly a war that appealed to the romantic sentiment of the times. When Congress declared war on May 13, 1846, and ten days later reports of Zachary Taylor's stunning victories in Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma hit the press, America's young men rushed to volunteer. 30,000 Tennesseeans volunteered for 3,000 military positions. It soon became apparent that the question across the nation would not be who would have to go, but, who would have to stay. Many volunteers who were turned away went to Mexico anyway to fight as irregular units. Having studied many of these volunteer's accounts, Johannsen reports that most "reflected their romantic perception of military life in a remote and exotic land" At least one likened his experiences to the adventures in the novels of Sir Walter Scott. (27)
This helps explains why Kane was "bitterly bitter" when in June of 1846 the Navy sent him not to Mexico, but to the West African coast. Kane wanted to be a hero, and Mexico, not Africa, was the place to earn glory. But this desire for adventure and fame does not quite explain why Kane had already signed up for service in early March, two full months before active recruitment began. A likely answer to this date discrepancy can be found in two letters that Corner mentions with a "sense of bewilderment." On February 4, 1846, John Taylor Jr., Kane's cousin-in-law, responded to a letter from Kane which asked him to find a temporary home for a pregnant young woman identified only as "J--." Taylor suggested a good country family he knew and then went on to joke about Kane's prowess as a lover. A second letter dated May 27 from Dr. C. C. Van Wyck of Philadelphia addressed financial arrangements for boarding and caring for the girl, who was about to deliver. This letter is of a serious tone but ends by telling Kane not to trouble himself too much as he had already done "as much and more than could be asked of any individual in a like fix." (28)
A letter by Kane to Helen (Nell) Patterson, the sister of his college roommate and one of his love interests at the time, develops this story further. Kane refers to a letter he recently received from "J-- the impure," exclaiming "(Oh dear Nelly!) in humility-[she] only blessed me." He assures Patterson that his love can do her no harm and that it "demands nothing" but asks that she still love him, "for you have seen your last of poor Elish... I cannot revisit Philadelphia." (29) These letters seem to suggest that scandal as much as romantic adventure may have been Kane's incentive for heading back to sea.
Kane sailed aboard the United States for West Africa in June of 1846 but returned only nine months later as he came down with "coast fever" and was sent home. Though still quite ill, Kane went to Washington D.C. in April of 1847 to petition for a transfer to the Army and an assignment to Mexico. This trip only resulted in another onset of his illness, which left him convalescent for the entire summer. It must have been a difficult time for Kane because the nation was celebrating its war heroes and he was missing out on this opportunity for glory.
In his own home this hope for glory would have been further intensified by the fact that his younger brother, Thomas Leiper Kane, was becoming something of an adventurer in his own right. Having passed the Bar in March of 1846, Thomas began practicing law but quickly realized that such a domestic life was not what he wanted. Unable to serve in the war because of his sickly nature, Thomas threw his energy into philanthropic efforts and soon became a champion of the Mormons and their struggle to survive in the West. Labeled by the Latter-day Saints as their "Sentinel in the East," Kane used his family's political connections and his own gift of press manipulation (undoubtedly learned from his father) to help the Mormons with their flight from Nauvoo, Illinois, to their new settlement of Deseret in the Utah Territory. From June until October of 1846, Kane visited Nauvoo and the Mormon's "Winter Quarters" along the Missouri river close to Omaha, Nebraska. Once he returned to Philadelphia, he became a one-man publicity machine actively working to improve the Mormons' image in the press and lobbying Washington to appoint his new friend, Brigham Young, as the governor of the Utah Territory. (30) It seems, then, that sibling rivalry may have been another factor in Elisha Kane's quest for glory.
Defying his family's wishes and his doctor's warning, in October of 1847, Kane stole away to Washington via a night train and again appealed for a mission to Mexico. General Winfield Scott had captured Mexico City more than a month earlier, but as it turned out, Kane made his request at exactly the right time as President Polk was rightly worried that General Scott and negotiator Nicholas V. Trist were disregarding his authority and negotiating with Mexico on their own terms. Kane's appeal gave Polk the opportunity to have a message carried directly to Scott demanding a full account of his activities. This was an ideal assignment for Kane as he was under the direct orders of the President and was responsible to no superior officer until he reached Scott at Mexico City.
Kane left for Mexico City on November 6, 1847 and after a routine trip to New Orleans and an exciting voyage to Vera Cruz on a ship that nearly sank, he set off for Mexico City on January 2, 1848, in the company of a rag-tag group of armed Mexican "skinners, bandits, and traitors" who were loyal to General Scott. On the fourth day of their trip, near the little village of Nopaluca, the party encountered a company of Mexican lancers accompanied by several high ranking Mexican officials including Brigadier General Antonio Gaona (the former Governor of Puebla), and his son, Major Gaona. A battle quickly ensued and in it Kane gained what he most sought, fame.
Reports of Kane's conduct in this battle began pouring back to Philadelphia by early March. The following came from The Pennsylvanian of March 24.
At one period of the charge, when Dr. Kane was some distance ahead of the rest of his company, his fine horse carried him in between a spirited young major and his orderly, who fell upon him at the same moment. The lance of the latter failed at the thrust, except so far as to inflict a slight flesh-wound upon the doctor, who, being able to parry the major's sabre-cut, ran that officer through the bowels. The fight over, Dr. Kane was attending his own hurts, when the poor wounded youth seized him by the arm, crying `Father! my father! save my father!' The renegade Mexicans [of Kane's party], having determined to slaughter their prisoners, had commenced operations by attacking their chief man, an aged person [General Gaona], who had surrendered to Dr. Kane.... Dr. Kane saved him and numerous others... at considerable personal risk. As soon as the old general was rescued, he sat down by the side of the major, his son, to comfort his last painful moments. When the doctor observed that the individual was bleeding to death from an artery in the groin, he made an effort in his behalf. With the bent prong of a table-fork he took up the artery and tied it with a ravel of pack thread, and the rude surgical operation was perfectly successful. (31)
The story did not end here though. Kane's party took their captives into Puebla, where General Gaona was soon paroled to his personal mansion. The Gaona family was so grateful to Kane that they offered him the choice of their stables to replace the mount he had lost in battle. They were preparing a fiesta in his honor when Kane fell deathly ill. The Gaona family took Kane into their household, where their lovely daughters cared for him for nearly a month. The Philadelphia papers reported all of this in detail; one editor exclaimed that "the remarkable adventure of our young friend Doctor Kane surpasses the wildest dreams of romance." (32) Upon recovery, Kane traveled to Mexico City where he delivered his message (by that time old news) to General Scott. But the fact that his mission was, in the end, unnecessary was forgotten. All the public remembered was the high-romance of his well-reported battle and illness. When he finally returned home in late March, Philadelphia gave him a hero's welcome.
But fame wore off quickly. As Kane lay ill in bed that summer, and then awaited his next commission in the fall, he was depressed to find that he was still just a common naval surgeon. He tried to get a post at the Philadelphia Naval Yard, but was denied because his rank was still only assistant surgeon. His father spoke directly to President Polk about getting him on a coastal survey of California and Oregon, but nothing came of it. Frustrated and tired of waiting, in March of 1849 Kane sailed aboard a store ship that ran a routine cruise to Madrid, the Mediterranean, and Rio de Janeiro. It returned in September at which time Kane joined another routine mission aboard the Walker, a steamer sent on a surveying mission to Mobile Bay. (33)
On this cruise, Kane wrote his mother a letter from Charleston that nicely illustrates the young man's yearning for adventure.
My dearest Mother,
Here is the romantic restlessness that characterized the age. Todd Lieber, a scholar interested in the psychology of the hero in American Romanticism, noted that at times "the heroic experience is characterized by an apocalypse of the imagination, a total abandonment of conventional external reality for private adventures, in effect the creation of a new world patterned solely by the imagination." (35) The joking yet depressed prose of the above letter seems to reflect this imaginative apocalypse. Kane, hungry for adventure and fame but stuck doing mundane assignments, turned to daydreams of disaster to satisfy his longing for excitement. Fortunately, relief was only a few months away.
The Walker reached Mobile Bay, Alabama on the first of May, 1850, the same day the Senate, after a long and heated debate, voted 28 to 16 in favor of sending an American mission to the Arctic to join in the search for the lost British explorer, Sir John Franklin. Rumors of this expedition had been circulating since April of 1849 when Lady Franklin, Sir John's wife, first made an appeal to President Zachary Taylor to aid in the search. Kane knew of Lady Franklin's request before he left on the Walker, and on March 20, 1850 he posted a letter from Southwest Pass, Louisiana to the Secretary of the Navy expressing interest in a post on the expedition. (36) On May 12 Kane received a telegram ordering him to report for duty with the Arctic expedition at once. In just ten days Kane managed to travel from southern Alabama to Philadelphia, pack and prepare for a year in the Arctic, and report for duty at the New York Navy Yard on May 22, 1850.