Elisha Kent Kane Historical Society

VII: A Heroic Endeavor: The Second Grinnell Expedition

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Ultimate Romantic Adventure

Kane's second expedition to the Arctic was in many ways the ultimate romantic adventure. As Goetzmann noted, the romantic adventurer provided the public with exciting narratives, scientific illustrations, paintings, prints, and photographs of the new lands and new peoples that they discovered. Though funds were tight, Kane had obtained good scientific instruments thanks to sizable donations from the Geographical Society of New York, the Smithsonian Institute, and the American Philosophical Society. Following Matthew Maury's suggestion, Kane also acquired a camera which crew member Amos Bonsall was taught to operate. While in the Arctic, even when he was under extreme duress, Kane kept strict scientific records, paused to sketch interesting phenomena, and took the time to write detailed accounts of daily events. Unfortunately, however, conditions proved too harsh for Bonsall's camera to operate, so no daguerreotypes were taken. (98)

Though all were excited about the cause and had eagerly volunteered, Kane's crew was far from ideal. Arctic scholar L. H. Neatby has even argued that the Second Grinnell Expedition may have been the least well-prepared expedition in Arctic history as its "captain was a physician in poor health, his chief officer a boatswain..., and his principal navigator a landsman astronomer." But what Kane lacked in experience and man-power he made up for in sheer romantic optimism. As Neatby noted, "[Kane] was one of the last of the race of brilliant and versatile amateurs which the early Scientific Revolution had produced and which the growing specialization of the modern age was soon wholly to extinguish."  (99)

I will not take the time here to rehash the story of Kane's Arctic journey for I can add nothing new to either Kane's exciting two-volume account, Arctic Explorations, or Corner's scholarly evaluation of the trip, Dr. Kane of the Arctic Seas. For the sake of this work it is only necessary for me to briefly mention a few of Kane's trials and accomplishments.

Frozen In

Kane sailed north through Baffin Bay and Smith Sound, entering what became known as Kane Basin, where the Advance was frozen in on September of 1853 at latitude 78° 38'. From this location, named Rensselaer Harbor after the Kane family mansion, Kane sent sledge crews forward to set up stashes of provisions which would facilitate an eventual dash to the Open Polar Sea. Kane hired a 19-year-old Eskimo, Hans Christian Hendrik, to join the expedition. Hans proved to be an incredibly valuable resource and his services were thus sought by many other Arctic explorers in later years. (100) Through Hans and Greenland native Carl Petersen, Kane was able to communicate with the local Inuit people and from them he managed to secure supplies as well as survival skills.

Arctic Wonders and the Open Sea

After their first winter, Kane sent several small sledding groups out to explore the area. Isaac Hayes and William Godfrey were able to map a large stretch of Kane Basin's western shore, and Kane discovered and named the huge Humboldt Glacier as well as an interesting rock formation, Tennyson's Monument. But the most important discovery was made by Hans and William Morton. In late July of 1854 they pushed passed Humboldt Glacier and at 81° 22' north latitude spotted open water. From their report Kane felt he had proof of an Open Polar Sea. Kane attempted to reach this point and see it for himself but the oncoming winter and harsh ice formations stopped his efforts.

A Crew Divided

The Advance remained locked in ice throughout the summer of 1854 and as winter began to approach again, many of the crew members wanted to make an effort to escape to the Greenland whaling port of Upernavik. Not wanting to be like the dictatorial officers he had so despised during his Navy career, Kane agreed to let anyone who wanted to, to leave with a fair share of provisions and complete immunity from the charge of desertion. To his shock, all but five said they would go. On August 28 these men left, leaving Kane and his loyal men to face the winter by themselves. The escape group failed and by mid-December they all returned to Rensselaer Harbor. They had exhausted or lost all their resources in their effort to escape and were now in desperate need of the limited resources that Kane and his men had conserved. Kane took them back as members of the crew but struggled with insubordination issues for the rest of the journey. Though he publicly forgave these men, his own journals show that he privately despised their abandonment as he fumed "God's blessings go with them, for they carry not the respect of good men." (101)

A Daring Escape

On the first of May, 1855 Kane began a daring escape. Over the next three months he held his rag-tag crew together as they dragged and sailed their small escape ships over hundreds of miles of ice and choppy water. The expedition finally reached safety in early August when a Danish whaling ship picked them up and took them to Upernavik. After over two years in the Arctic, he and his men were finally safe.

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