Elisha Kent Kane Historical Society
III: An Arctic Adventure
The search for Sir John Franklin and his men caused a boom in Arctic exploration as England and the United States sent out forty expeditions between the years of 1848 and 1859. (37) Franklin had set sail for the Arctic on May 26, 1845 and was last seen by a whaling ship in late July in Melville Bay. In February of 1847, James Clark Ross (who had successfully explored the Antarctic aboard the Erebus and Terror which Franklin now had in the Arctic), proposed a rescue expedition to the British Admiralty. The Admiralty initially ignored this request but, as public pressure mounted, agreed to fund an expedition in the summer of 1848. (38) When this expedition came back without any trace of the lost men, Lady Franklin began an extensive campaign to ensure that expeditions would continue to be sent. On April 4, 1849 she wrote to President Taylor pleading that the United States assist in the search. She offered a £5,000 reward (to which the British government added an additional £20,000) for the effective discovery and relief of the crews of the Erebus and Terror. Lady Franklin again wrote Taylor in December of 1849, this time inspiring him to request funds for an expedition. Congress was reluctant, but a private investor, whaling-tycoon Henry Grinnell, responded to Lady Franklin's pleas by purchasing two vessels suitable for the journey and persuading Congress to place them under naval orders. It was this effort that resulted in what became known as the First Grinnell Expedition. On May 20, 1850 the Advance and Rescue set sail from New York under the command of Lieutenant Edwin J. De Haven with the young Dr. Elisha Kent Kane serving as surgeon. (39)
It is important to note that humanitarian efforts were hardly the only incentive for the United States to send an expedition to the Arctic. Lady Franklin knew this when she wrote Taylor. She told him that the United States should participate in the "noble spectacle" because it was one of the three great nations (England and Russia being the others) that were "possessed of the widest empires on the face of the globe." (40) This was in essence a veiled threat that if the United States did not begin exploring in the Arctic, they would soon lose their status of "great nation." Manifest Destiny lay to the North as well as West.
Scientific prestige also offered an incentive to send an expedition. Matthew Fountain Maury, one of America's leading scientists and the father of modern oceanography, had a theory that the North Pole was surrounded by an "Open Polar Sea." He postulated that this open sea, together with the waters off the Antarctic at the other end of the globe, governed the circulation of the currents of the world's oceans. Maury had devised a charting system that tracked ocean currents, wind direction, and other oceanic information. From this he noted that ice flows and currents suggested that warm water flowed south from the North Pole suggesting a mild climate at the top of the world. This evidence was further supported by the fact that whales caught in the North Pacific sometimes had harpoons from Baffin Bay whaling fleets stuck in their hides. Since these whales could not tolerate the warm waters around the equator, the only possible way they could cross from the Atlantic to the Pacific was via an ice-free Northwest Passage. (41)
Finding the long searched for Northwest Passage or proving that the Open Polar Sea existed was of utmost importance to oceanography. And to the nation at large, it was an issue of national prestige much like the space- and moon-race of the 1950s and 1960s. Though Maury's hypothesis was not publicly presented until the 1855 publication of his book The Physical Geography of the Sea, his theory was clearly set forth, perhaps for the first time, in De Haven's instructions from the Navy. This explains why De Haven was told to begin searching in Baffin Bay but to then proceed not southward, the logical (and indeed actual) route of Franklin's escape, but northward along the supposed openings of Jones and Smith Sounds. (42) It is thus clear that the expedition was as much about exploration and science as about the rescue of Franklin. After all, the larger of the ships was named Advance, the smaller Rescue.
As the Grinnell Expedition followed the coast of Greenland into Baffin Bay and then crossed north and east into Lancaster Sound, they were hardly alone. In August of 1850 the Advance and Rescue were joined by ten other ships searching for Franklin. The British navy had sent four vessels, the Resolute, Assistance, Pioneer, and Intrepid, and had reassigned two whaling ships, the Lady Franklin and Sophia, to help in the search. British explorer John Ross had two privately funded ships, the Felix, and Mary, as well as a supply ship, the North Star, in the area. Lady Franklin's personally funded Prince Albert was also on hand. This Arctic traffic jam resulted in the first evidence of Franklin's whereabouts, as his winter quarters of 1845-46 were discovered on Beechey Island in the fall of 1848. (43)
Lady Franklin's Prince Albert was the first ship back from the Arctic, as it left in August shortly before the discovery of Franklin's winter quarters. Prince Albert's surgeon, W. Parker Snow, quickly wrote up the results of their trip in Voyage of the Prince Albert in search of Sir John Franklin (1851). In an April 1851 article, Harper's magazine summarized Snow's book, focusing heavily on the American Expedition's contributions. This article is especially important to this study because it is the first account we have of Kane as an Arctic explorer. On August 22, the Prince Albert and the Advance met and Snow boarded the Advance for the afternoon. During this time he had a long talk with "the exceedingly slim and apparently fragile" Elisha Kent Kane. The Harper's article dedicates nearly a full column to Snow's account of Kane (more than triple the amount given to any other member of the expedition) and provides a clear view of both Kane's role on the ship as well as of his exuberant story-telling. (44)
Snow noted that Kane was the "surgeon, naturalist, journalist, &c., of the expedition." Having no skill for writing, De Haven had happily turned over the responsibility of journaling to the young surgeon. (45) And, as Kane was a trained scientist, his observations and impromptu studies often found their way into his report. But, as Snow's account shows, what made Kane especially memorable was his ability to tell a good story.
Dr. Kane turned his attention to me, and a congeniality of sentiment and feeling soon brought us deep into pleasant conversation. I found he had been in many parts of the world, by sea and land, that I myself had visited.... Old scenes and delightful recollections were speedily revived. Our talk ran wild; and there, in that cold, inhospitable, dreary region of everlasting ice and snow, did we again, in fancy, gallop over miles and miles of lands far distant, and far more joyous. Ever-smiling Italy... sturdy Switzerland... France, Germany, and elsewhere were rapidly wandered over. India, Africa and Southern America were brought before us in swift succession. Then came Spain and Portugal... next appeared Egypt, Syria, and the Desert; with all of these was he personally familiar, in all had he been a traveler, and in all could I join him.... Rich in anecdote and full of pleasing talk, time flew rapidly as I conversed with him, and partook of the hospitality offered me. (46)
Years before Kane's books transported his readers to the brutality and beauty of the Arctic, his gift for story telling was already developed enough to operate in reverse: to take cold and miserable Arctic explorers back to southern climes and sunnier days. Snow's account is a testimony to Kane's ability to verbally recreate a location so vividly as to bring its exotic nature clearly into the listener's mind. This ability to convincingly put together a descriptive narrative certainly helps explain the enormous appeal and success of his later literary endeavors.
Unlike the Prince Albert, which headed for home in August, the Advance and Rescue continued on northward. After getting stuck in an ice floe and drifting north for several weeks, De Haven discovered and named the far northern portion of Devon Island, Grinnell Peninsula. The ships broke from this ice floe only to get trapped in another, this time drifting south. During the long, dark winter the crew suffered terribly from scurvy. As De Haven was desperately ill, Kane took the health of the crew into his own hands, ordering them to get out into the air for exercise (even in temperatures less than -50° F) and had De Haven increase the men's rations. Trapped in an ice pack which Kane measured at 5½ miles by 3½ miles, the ships drifted south along Baffin Island until June 5, 1851, when the pack suddenly broke apart, freeing the Rescue and, three days later, the Advance.
The ships headed South, making it to Greenland's Disco Island by the 17th of June where they stayed for several days and purchased much-needed provisions. Kane recorded that they "drank largely of the smallest of small beer, and danced with the natives, teaching them the polka." (47) He was fascinated by the rugged people of Greenland's shore, especially the women. However, his finer senses, if not sensibilities, kept him at arm's length. He asked, "But what favorable impression that the mind gets through other channels can contend against the information of the nose![?] Organ of the aristocracy, critic and magister morum of all civilization, censor that heeds neither argument nor remonstrance... it bids me record, that to all their possible godliness cleanliness is not super-added." (48)
The expedition set off for the north again in late June, hoping to cross Lancaster Sound for another season of exploration, but they soon became entangled in a young ice field. By July 10 the expedition was at a standstill before solid pack ice. Two days later they were again hailed by the Prince Albert, fresh from England, and this time under the command of William Kennedy. The three ships stayed together for over a month, battling to gain entrance into Lancaster Sound. On August 13, Kennedy gave up and headed for home, and after another week of fruitless labor, De Haven also turned south. The Advance reached New York on September 30; the Rescue arrived a week later. (49)
Writing fifty years after the event, Ellis Paxson Oberholtzer, in his literary analysis of Kane's The United States Grinnell Expedition in search of Sir John Franklin, stated the obvious. "Little was achieved by this party. It left for the north in May, 1850, remained in the ice during the following winter and returned in the summer of 1851." (50) De Haven's men found traces of Franklin's party, but with them they found cairns indicating that Sir John Ommanney had found them ten days earlier. The expedition participated in finding three graves from the Franklin party, but it was a member of Captain William Penny's party who first spotted the stone markers. They discovered and named "Grinnell Land," but this discovery was taken from them as late in 1851 a British map labeled the spot "Albert Land"; England claimed that Ommanney had discovered the area on August 26, 1850, thirty-four days before De Haven claimed to have seen it. (51) As the Grinnell Expedition also failed to bring back any solid evidence about the Open Polar Sea or Northwest Passage, the voyage was basically a complete loss from the standpoint of science and discovery.
But as Oberholtzer pointed out, the one important thing the expedition did do was to leave "Kane's appetite well whetted for a greater performance." (52) Having spent a month with the Prince Albert and having received both newspapers and letters from home via a whaling ship in the early summer, Kane surely knew that Snow had sung his praises and that he was thus already becoming a recognized name in Arctic exploration. Upon arrival in New York, Kane quickly set to work to keep this public recognition.