Elisha Kent Kane Historical Society

Up Donald Mac Millan Elisha Kent Kane Adolphus W. Greely Sir John Franklin Ladies Repository:1856 Isaac I. Hayes Kane Obituary




(as published in the Frederick A. Cook Society's Polar Priorities: Volume 20, September 2000)


One of the major Arctic events during the 19th century was the loss of Sir John Franklin, his two ships, and his crew of 128 in their quest for the Northwest Passage. The search for Franklin, begun in1849, four years after his departure from England ranks as the greatest rescue effort in history. Over the years, over 40 ships were involved in the search and in 1851 alone, no less than 28 sledding parties were sent to many of the islands of the Canadian Archipelago, all without success. Despite these failures, expeditions continued to sail from England and United States. Much of this effort was related to the tireless efforts of Lady Jane Franklin, Sir John's indomitable widow. She had written a personal letter to President Zachary Taylor, soliciting the support if the United States in the search. Her efforts were rewarded. She was successful in gaining the support of Henry Grinnell, a wealthy U.S. financier, who sponsored a search party, the so-called "First Grinnell Expedition". In company with other parties on the same mission, the expedition under the leadership of Lieutenant George De Haven, explored the area of Wellington Channel, west of Devon Island (Figure 1), but were unsuccessful in discovering Franklin's fate. The search parties in that area, however, were successful in locating Franklin's 1854-55 winter encampment and the graves of three crewmen who had died during the early part of the expedition (Figure 1).

The first Grinnell expedition is perhaps best noted for its ship's surgeon, Elisha Kent Kane, whose previous exploits and his colorful, highly personalized account of the Grinnell expedition had captured the public eye, and had vaulted him into the position of a national hero

Despite the first failure, Henry Grinnell did not lose his enthusiasm for Lady Franklin' and the search for her husband. He and George Peabody joined with the scientific community in organizing a second expedition from New York under the leadership of Dr. Elisha Kent Kane. Kane had remained prominently in the public eye following his return from the first Grinnell expedition. After many delays, the second Grinnell expedition under the leadership of Dr. Kane left New York in May, 1853. His plan was to proceed from Baffin Bay into its northern outlet, Smith Sound. He still held to the widely held but unproven theory of the open polar sea, and having experienced the ice-bound Wellington Strait, felt that his best chance of reaching the open sea and any Franklin survivors was through Smith Sound. Actually. Inglefield had been the only navigator to have entered Smith Sound and he had penetrated only about 50 miles before being forced by dense ice to turn back. It is quite likely, especially in the light of subsequent events that Kane had eyes on reaching "farthest north" and perhaps the North Pole.

Kane's ship, the Advance was small but sturdy and designed to withstand the Arctic's fury. His surgeon was Dr. Isaac Israel Hayes who had just completed his medical education at the University of Pennsylvania. Kane felt that his own experience would offset Hayes's inexperience. In addition to Kane and Hayes, the ship's company was comprised of 16 additional men. Unfortunately, Kane had a bout of severe rheumatic fever just prior to sailing and two of the crew, William Godfrey and John Blake had been acquired during the period of Kane's incapacity. The antecedent histories of these two seamen were unknown and they posed serious problems during the trip

At stops in Greenland during July, 1853, Kane added two men to his crew, Hans Hendrick, a 19 year old Eskimo youth, and Carl Petersen, a 38-year old Dane who had emigrated to Greenland and had mastered the Eskimo language and was familiar with dog-team driving.

Progressing north through Baffin Bay, the Advance made its way into Smith Sound, passing Inglefield's point of farthest north, and entered a wider expanse of water between Ellesmere Island and Greenland, now known as the Kane Basin. Ice blocked further northward progress, and the winter of 1853-54 was spent on the western coast of Greenland in Rensellaer Cove, named by Kane after his father's home in suburban Philadelphia.

The expedition was beset by misfortune and near disaster. For one thing, Kane frequently was faced with problems presented by Godfrey and Blake, at times forcing their confinement below deck. The party survived the winter; however, provisions were low and everyone in the crew manifested some signs of scurvy. With the onset of the winter darkness, the crew became listless and depressed, but improved with the arrival of the sun in March, 1854.

During the winter, all of the sledge dogs became ill and 9 died, prohibiting any future travel by sled. Several forays to the north were made on foot. On one of them, the immense Greenland glacier, named Humboldt by Kane after Alexander Humboldt, was discovered. draining the northwest area of Greenland. Open water was sighted beyond the glacier, but attempts to reach the hoped-for polynya were unsuccessful. One such expedition to the north ended in disaster with all of the party suffering from exposure to the severe cold. All were frostbitten and some required amputation. One crewman died following such surgery, presumably from tetanus.

In March, 1854, a party of Smith Sound Eskimos made their appearance, Their settlement was at Etah, the northernmost permanent habitation of humans in the world. about 80 miles south of the Advance. The fragile friendship that Kane formed with the Eskimos, though tenuous at times, was instrumental in the survival of the expedition. Much needed supplies of food were provided. The friendship formed also opened the way for relationships between the Eskimos and future explorers in the area latter in the 19th century and the early 20th century.

Kane continued to make plans for future explorations. He was particularly interested in establishing whether there was an outlet of the basin to the north and whether there was a westward passage leading out of the basin. Kane had names the land to the west of the basin, Grinnell Land, after his benefactor, but he was not sure whether it was distinct from Ellesmere Island. Subsequent explorations determined that Grinnell Land was indeed the northern portion of Ellesmere Island.

In Late April, 1854, a party, including Kane, headed north to investigate these issues, but was forced back by the severe conditions. The crew was now beginning to show signs of scurvy and suffered severely from fatigue and snowblindness. In May, 1854, Hayes and Godfrey crossed the basin to Grinnell Land, but found no evidence of a passage to the west. Another party was successful in penetrating beyond the Humboldt Glacier to the north. They reported seeing a narrow channel leading northward beyond Smith Sound. Kane names this Kennedy Channel after his friend and supporter, John Pendleton Kennedy. The party reported clear water free of ice in the channel, reinforcing hopes of an open polar sea. Kane was cautious about accepting this as factual, but Hayes was much less cautious. He accepted the open polar sea theory and it became a goal in his own 1860-1 expedition.. Subsequent explorers have convincingly disproved the theory of a polynya in the Arctic Sea and explain Kane's observation supporting it as a transient phenomenon.

During the summer of 1854, contrary to Kane's expectation, the Advance did not free itself from its icy prison in Rensselaer Bay and there seemed no chance for escape by ship. In July, 1854, Kane and one crewman, using a small whaleboat, started south, hoping to obtain help from the Franklin searchers that Kane knew were in Lancaster Sound, 800 miles away. Again, impenetrable ice thwarted this valiant effort and they were forced to return to the ship.

Although Kane still hoped for a break in the ice, his crew did not share his optimism. Some of the crew felt that their only chance for escape and survival lay in proceeding southward on foot Kane tormented over this, but decided to allow the crew the opportunity of remaining with him and the ship or "seceding" and proceeding south on their own. His reluctant acceptance of this option distinguished their action from mutiny..

The secession group included 8 of the crew including Dr. Hayes and 2 officers, Mr. Bonsall and August Sonntag, a young German astronomer. Godfrey and Blake, the two trouble makers, were also included in the group. Ten men remained on the ship. Although Kane was externally calm and dispassionate, his pride was hurt and his indignation and wrath was expressed in his journal entry for that evening: " I cannot but feel that some of them will return, broken down and suffering, to seek a refuge on board. They shall;; find it......but if I ever get home and should meet Dr. Hayes or Mr. Bonsall or Master Sonntag, let them look out for their skins" (5 ). However, the three members who subsequently wrote accounts of the episode - Dr. Hayes, Petersen, and Godfrey, testify as to Kane's outward fairness and generosity.

The secessionists left the Advance on September 5, 1854. On the ship, Kane and his men prepared for the approaching winter. Food and fuel were already severely compromised. Kane provided for himself by catching and eating the rats that overran the ship's hold. He described the soup he made as "palatable and nourishing". His crew, however, disagreed and would not join him in the repast. During the winter, valuable supplies of food were obtained from the Eskimos at Etah and Anoatok, a relatively short distance to the south of Rensellaer Bay. Relationships with the Eskimos, however, continued to be tenuous and strained.

On December 12, 1854, the secession party returned to the ship. All were in serious physical condition suffering from scurvy and frostbite. Dr. Hayes had a seriously frostbitten foot, necessitating toe amputations by Dr, Kane. Kane received the men and was tireless in his efforts to relieve their physical problems. He gave Hayes the use of his personal berth.

The winter of 1854-55 was a nightmare. The entire crew, including Kane suffered from various degrees of scurvy. All were depressed and apathetic and Kane himself was subject to delusions and hallucinations. There is a distinct possibility that they were suffering from the seasonal affective disorder (SAD syndrome) due to deprivation of light and later vividly described by Dr. Frederick A. Cook during his experience in the Antarctic on the icebound Belgica. Again, they were saved from almost certain death by the help of the Eskimos. On One occasion when fresh meat was available, Kane wrote: "flesh, flesh, flesh. Kreatin (creatine) and its attendant mysteries is at work in our vitals".

The appearance of the sun in March, 1855 resulted in general improvement in the mental status of the crew members. Godfrey and Blake continued to be serious problems and Kane was forced to use physical force and the threat of firearms on several occasions to control them. Despite the disparities in size and strength, Kane himself physically assaulted them, and they apparently were in fear of him.

The escape to the south by sledge and three small boats began in late May, 1855 and the Advance was left to its fate, still firmly entrapped in the ice at Rensellaer;; Bay. Again, the crew endured the hardships of cold, fatigue, and famine. On their 84th day, August 6, 1855 they arrived at the settlement of Upernavik, Greenland. They were warmly received by the inhabitants, fed, clothed and housed.

No word had been received from Kane in over 2 years and, after extensive political maneuvering, a relief part was authorized by President Franklin Pierce. The party left New York on May 31, 1855, unsuccessfully scoured the area from Etah southward and finally met Kane and his party just as they were about to leave Godhavn for the Shetland Islands on a Danish ship.

Undeterred by the extreme hardships he had endured as ship's surgeon on Elisha Kent Kane's Second Grinnell Expedition in 1853-55, Dr. Isaac Israel Hayes could not resist the lure of further Arctic exploration. He was a firm believer in the Open Polar Sea. Following his return from the second Grinnell expedition, Hayes had raised money by lecturing and succeeded in finding a number of volunteers for his proposed expedition to the Open Polar Sea. In 1860, he took his tiny schooner, the United States, to the north. He was accompanied by August Sonntag, who had been Kane's astronomer and by Hans Hendrick, the Greenland Eskimo, who had played an important role in Kane's expedition. Hendrick came aboard with his wife and young child.

The party explored the coast of Ellesmere Island from Smith Sound and ventured inland to a considerable distance, reaching previously unexplored territory. Unfortunately, many of Hayes' dogs on whom he relied heavily for sledging expeditions. died. He therefore sent Hendrick and Sonntag to nearby Eskimo settlements on an attempt to replenish the supply of dogs.. It was on this trip that Sonntag slipped into icy waters and, despite Hendrick's attempts to save him, died that night, apparently of hypothermia.

Though despondent over this tragedy, Hayes pushed on to the north Smith Sound was blocked by heavy ice and the ship broke down. Hayes pushed on by land through Kane Basin into Kennedy Channel.

Looking off into the distance, he noted that the land mass veered off, leaving only the ocean which he presumed would be clear of ice. He wrote in his journal "All the evidence showed that I stood upon the shores of the Open Polar Sea". He convinced himself without definite proof that this was indeed the case. Not only was Hayes subsequently proven wrong, but it was also learned that many of his measurements and calculations were erroneous. Some even accused him of falsifying his data. His land trip had covered 1300 miles, but he had achieved essentially nothing.

Hayes returned from his voyage still convinced of the presence of an Open Polar Sea, but apparently if he had seen open water, it represented a transient polynya rather than any permanent open polar sea.

During the Civil War, Hayes was an army surgeon at Satterlee General Hospital in Philadelphia. Following another brief expedition to Greenland after the War, he eventually settled in New York City and served as a member of the New York State Assembly from 1876 until his death in 1881.

Dr. Ralph A. Meyerson, MD, 1999

Up Donald Mac Millan Elisha Kent Kane Adolphus W. Greely Sir John Franklin Ladies Repository:1856 Isaac I. Hayes Kane Obituary