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Abandon Ship!

“I hope, speaking on the part of my companions and myself, that we have done all that we ought to do to prove our tenacity of purpose and devotion to the cause which we have undertaken. This attempt to escape by crossing the southern ice on sledges is regarded by me as an imperative duty, – the only means of saving ourselves and preserving the laboriously-earned results of the expedition.” — K. Kane, Com. Grinnell Expedition, Advance, Rensselaer Bay, May 20, 1855

Arctic Exploration in the Years 1853, ’54, ’55
Elisha Kent Kane (1820 – 1857)
Philadelphia: Childs and Peterson, 1856
xG665 1853 K3 1860

Of all the Arctic expeditions, Sir John Franklin’s 1845 journey was, without a doubt, the most famous. This unfortunate fame was attributed to the loss of 128 crew members and their two ships, the Erebus and the Terror. For more than thirty years, the British Admiralty searched for the lost crew and ships, offering a reward of £20,000 (£1,842,800 as of 2018) to any parties of any country that led to their discovery. During that time, twenty search parties came back empty-handed.

Almost. From each expedition that followed Franklin’s came numerous tales of the Northwest Passage, continually enriching the mystery and knowledge of the Arctic. Explorers looking for Franklin would ultimately find new territory and, with the help of the native Inuit tribes, develop new skills for surviving the extreme temperatures. The Grinnell expeditions are such an example.

The First Grinnell Expedition, an American effort financed by Henry Grinnell, set off in 1850 to search for Franklin’s lost ships. Although they did not solve the mystery, they did discover new clues: Franklin’s first wintering camp and three graves found at Beechey Island. After their return, Grinnell decided to fund a second expedition, now with additional support from the Geographical Society of New York, The Smithsonian Institution, the American Philosophical Society, plus a donation of $10,000 from George Peabody.

The Second Grinnell Expedition, led by Elisha Kent Kane, set out on the Advance from New York in May 1853. Kane’s expedition was able to collect valuable geographical, climate and magnetic observations while also setting a new record for northward exploration. During the two years of traveling the northwestern part of Greenland searching for signs of Franklin and his crew, three members were lost. By May of 1855 the crew ultimately had to abandon ship. Their journey now becomes a testament of Arctic survival.

Early September the Advance settled for its first winter in Rensselaer Harbor. Despite the temperature dropping to a low of – 67 degrees Fahrenheit (– 48 C), the crew was able to entertain themselves by holding theatrical events, maintaining the sled dogs, and even publishing an Arctic newspaper which they called “The Ice-Blink.” However, by the end of this first winter their initial enthusiasm was lost to declining health and symptoms of scurvy. In addition to illness and below-freezing temperatures, Kane’s expedition was also often troubled by polar bears sacking their supplies and caches, either eating or spoiling the food.

The warmer summer months were no easier for the Advance became ice-locked. Although attempts to blast the pack-ice freed the ship briefly, she succumbed and became set in an ice floe. Expecting the worst, documents were cached at the observatory marked by a large stone painted “ADVANCE, A.D. 1853-1854.” With nowhere to go, the crew decided their only chance of survival was to separate. Among the seventeen survivors, eight agreed to stay with the ship while others looked for help. Those who stayed with Kane on the ship immediately began winter preparations.

Taking lessons from the Inuit, Kane and his men spent early September insulating the upper and lower deck with moss and turf. The outer decks were striped to provide more than seven tons of firewood for heating and cooking. The Inuit also helped the crew extend their winter rations by hunting polar bear, fox, hare, and walrus. There were also rats – which they shot aboard ship with bow and arrow to pass the time. Unlike Franklin’s expedition, which maintained European behavior, Kane believed that his party’s survival depended on the adaptation of Inuit techniques, which included hunting, building shelters, and using dogsleds. The close relationship with the local tribes was described warmly by Kane:

“When trouble came to us and to them, and we bent ourselves to their habits – when we looked to them to procure us fresh meat, and they found at our poor Oomiak-soak shelter and protection during their wild bear-hunts,  then we were so blended in our interests as well as modes of life that every trace of enmity wore away…”

Even with the help of the Inuit, health and supplies were waning. By January 1855 nearly all the crew were bed-ridden with scurvy. After surviving a grueling another winter, the Second Grinnell Expedition decided to officially call off the search for Franklin’s lost party. All of the remaining effort would be focused on escape. Determining that they would abandon the ship and strip it to make sledges to trek along the ice, Kane and his men designated May 17th as the official day for setting out. They would bring only a small supply of food and supplement the rest by hunting and limited dogsled trips back to the ship. Three dried-out cypress whale boats were fashioned to carry the provisions. Fuel, ammunition, cooking gear and a few precious scientific instruments were packed, along with eight pounds of personal items for every man.

Kane said his final goodbye to his ship on May 20, 1855. It would take nearly one hundred days trekking out in the open before the crew would finally reach safety in Upernavik, from where they would sail home. Although the mysteries of the Franklin expedition would remain unsolved for the years, Kane’s expedition added dramatic and engaging new accounts to the many adventurous tales of the Arctic explorations.

~~Contributed by Lyuba Basin, Rare Books Curator

Our copy of Kane’s adventures was kindly given to us by Ronald Rubin, a friend as steadfast to us as the Inuit were to Kane. Thank you, again, Ron. — LP



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