chapter  3
19 Pages

Charles Francis Hall’s Arctic researches


Some generalizations about nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century AngloAmerican polar exploration have solidified into givens: for one, expeditions comprised experienced navigators, scientists, seamen, and naturalists; and two, white expedition members were reluctant or refused to adapt to indigenous modes of Arctic survival (such as eating raw seal to prevent scurvy or wearing furs instead of woven cloth). British and American scientific and discovery-minded ventures to the northern polar regions were consistently undertaken as if learning about the Arctic and learning from the Arctic were incommensurate modes of knowledge. This essay turns to an exception to these givens: the American explorer and autodidact Charles Francis Hall (1821-1871), who is usually classified as a colorful footnote to (or as a doomed eccentric within) the history of Anglo-American polar voyaging. A onetime newspaper editor in Cincinnati with no prior nautical experience, Hall first went to the Arctic as part of a personal quest to find traces of the 129 members of a lost British Northwest Passage expedition helmed by Sir John Franklin. Hall became best known to his contemporaries, however, for developing a long relationship with an Inuit couple, Ebierbing and Tookoolito (Figure 3.1), and for living with the Inuit for more than seven years, in two-and five-year continuous periods – which was an extraordinary act for a white, Western explorer in the mid-nineteenth century. My interest in this essay is in the tension between Hall’s proud amateurism – “if he was enthusiastic in the extreme, there was some method in his enthusiasm,” as one account put it – and the broad-based Arctic expertise he adopted from and championed in the Inuit. 1

Hall’s own adventures, sketched briefly here, have had their chroniclers. 2 His first two expeditions in search of Franklin relics were not voyages in the usual Arctic sense, since Hall traveled without his own ship or crew; instead, he hitched rides with other vessels and prepared for his own residencies among the Inuit. After his initial two years living on Baffin Island in the same igloo as Ebierbing and Tookoolito, Hall returned to the U.S. in 1862, along with the Inuit couple and their children (who had already been exposed to the English language and to white Westerners when a whaling captain took them across the Atlantic for a two-year visit to England

ria). In between his first two Arctic sojourns, Hall embarked on a lecture tour and contracted the Inuit pair (known to whaling crews of Cumberland Sound as “Joe” and “Hannah”) to P. T. Barnum’s American Museum as part of his fundraising for his second trip north. 3 Although Hall was a relatively agreeable member of the Inuit community in his two Northern residencies, he had a more fractious time in the United States and among white sailors. During his second expedition, he shot and killed a member of a whaling crew (with whom he had contracted transport) for threatening mutiny, for example. He otherwise spent five years with Ebierbing and Tookoolito in the northern Canadian isles, continuing his Arctic researches in the Gulf of Boothia, King William Island, and the Melville Peninsula. By 1870, however, Hall had established enough polar bona fides that the U.S. Navy entrusted him with command of a state-sponsored North Pole mission. This cataclysmic final expedition, on the ship Polaris (1871-3), ended early for Hall: during the mission’s first winter on the ice, he was poisoned to death by arsenic at the hands of his own men; most suspicion rests with the ship’s doctor and Hall’s rival in expeditionary science, Emil Bessels. 4 The remaining crew of the Polaris venture, in turn, secured an even more sensational place in polar history when nineteen members were separated from the leaking ship and endured an extraordinary six months on a diminishing ice floe that traveled 1,800 miles before they were rescued. Among the floe-floating survivors were Tookoolito and Ebierbing, the latter of whom (along with another Inuk man) kept the party alive by his skill at seal hunting. All survived the fractured Polaris mission except Hall.