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Elisha Kent Kane
Elisha Kent Kane, son of Judge John K. Kane, was born in Philadelphia, February 3, 1820. In his youth he displayed those qualifications of ceaseless activity, daring adventure, and strong personal courage which characterized his mature manhood. Inclined to all efforts involving physical hardships and contact with nature, his early education was devoted to civil engineering and such natural sciences as chemistry, geography, geology, and mineralogy. Unfortunately, in his sixteenth year, chronic and functional heart disease developed, which intermittently affected him through life and deterred him from the profession of an engineer. Applying himself to medicine, he graduated therein in 1842 at the University of Pennsylvania, in the meantime having served as a resident physician of the Pennsylvania Hospital. His inaugural medical thesis, based on personal experiments and observations, gave him a reputation which augured professional prominence. In 1843 he was appointed physician to the United States embassy to China, under Caleb Cushing, who was charged with the negotiation of a treaty with that country. At the way ports and during the tedious intervals of the treaty negotiations, Kane lost no opportunity of travel and adventure. With Baron Loee he visited the Philippine Islands and the volcano of Tael. Not content with the usual point of view, and despite the protestations of the native guides, he was lowered two hundred feet in the crater, whence he scrambled downward to the smoking sulphur lake and dipped his specimen bottles into its steaming waters. In his ascent the loose, heated ashes charred his boots and gave way under his feet, the sulphur vapors nearly asphyxiated him, he fell repeatedly, and was barely able to tie the bamboo rope around him. Drawn up in an exhausted condition, and carried to a neighboring hermitage, he barely escaped violence at the hands of the offended natives, who considered his rash feat a sacrilege.
Resigning his appointment with the legation, Kane established himself as a physician at Whampoa, on the Canton River, where illness shortly broke up his professional practice. Fortunately for his future fame he was unsuccessful in his application to the Spanish Government for permission to practise medicine at Manilla, and Kane returned to the United States by the way of Singapore, India, Egypt, and Europe, his journey marked by adventure and danger. In these, as in all other sea voyages, he suffered excessively from sea-sickness, which required all of his indomitable will to endure with equanimity.
In 1846 he was commissioned assistant surgeon in the United States Navy; his first sea duty took him to the west coast of Africa, where coast fever invalided him within ten months. His desire for active service was so great that before his health was re-established he obtained orders from the Secretary of the Navy to proceed to head-quarters of the army, then in the City of Mexico, for duty in connection with the collection of data relative to field hospitals and surgical statistics. Here his activity and daring resulted in his being wounded in a guerilla skirmish.
Assigned temporarily to a surveying vessel, circumstances soon determined Kane's career and gave full scope to his enthusiastic energies, and insured his future fame. The appeals of Lady Franklin, the recommendations of President Taylor, and the generosity of Henry Grinnell, had culminated in the organization of a search expedition for Franklin in the Arctic regions. It was provided that the vessels should be manned by volunteers from the Navy, and among those offering their services for this mission of humanity none was more importunate than Kane. Persistent efforts brought him orders for this fateful voyage while bathing in the tepid waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and ten days later he sailed from New York for the icy wastes of the North as surgeon of De Haven's flag-ship, the Advance. This search, known in Arctic history as the First Grinnell Expedition, was made under a joint resolution of the Congress of the United States, dated May 2, 1850, "to accept and attach to the Navy two vessels offered by Henry Grinnell, Esq., to be sent to the Arctic seas in search of Sir John Franklin and his companions." Two very small sailing brigs constituted the fleet, the flag-ship Advance, commanded by De Haven, an officer of Antarctic experience under Wilkes, and the Rescue, under Master Griffin; the entire party numbered thirty-three officers and men.
Their objective point was Lancaster Sound and its westward extension, Barrow Strait, whence either or both Wellington Channel and Cape Walker were to be visited. The squadron passed safely through Davis Strait, and skirting the dreaded land-ice of Melville Bay, reached Cape York after three weeks of constant and dangerous struggle with the heavy ice, which nearly destroyed the Rescue, borne almost on her beam-ends by the enormous pressure from a moving ice-pack. De Haven fell in with the English squadrons on the same errand, August 19, 1850, and, entering Lancaster Sound with his British consorts, devoted his energies to the search in hand. Griffin, of the Rescue, shared with Captain Ommaney, R. N., the honors of the discovery, at Beechy island, of the wintering-place of Franklin's squadron in 1845-46. Later three graves of members of Franklin's party were found, and numerous evidences of the good condition and activity of the expedition during that winter. About three weeks later, on September 10, 1850, De Haven concluded that the position attained was not sufficiently advantageous to justify his wintering, and so decided to return to the United States. Unfortunately, strong gales and very cold weather prevented immediate action, and in a few days both brigs were frozen immovably in an enormous ice-pack, where they were destined to drift helplessly to and fro at the mercy of the winds and currents for many months.
Beset in Wellington Channel, to the north of Beechy Island, the American squadron first found itself drifting slowly, but with alarming steadiness, to the north, into waters and along coasts that had, as far as they then knew, never been visited. The drift carried the Advance to latitude 75* 25' north, longitude 91* 31' west, and on September 22d they discovered new land, to which De Haven gave the merited name of Grinnell. It proved to be an integral part of North Devon, of which it was the northwestern extension. Every few days there was a partial breaking up of the pack and consequent danger of destruction. On one occasion, says Kane: "We are lifted bodily eighteen inches out of water. The hummocks are reared up around the ship, so as to rise a couple of feet above our bulwarks, five feet above our deck. They are very often ten and twelve feet high, and threaten to overwhelm us. Add to this, darkness, snow, cold, and the absolute destitution of surrounding shores." The temperature fell below zero and the ships seemed destined to winter in Wellington Channel, but fortunately a strong northwest gale, in conjunction with heavy tides, disintegrated the main pack and set ships, ice and all, southward into Barrow Strait. Here they fell under the action of a southeasterly current and, drifting all winter, passed slowly through Lancaster Sound into Baffin Bay, where the opening polar summer found them yet fast in the ice, from which the two brigs were freed off Cape Walsingham, June 5, 1851, after drifting in eight and a half months a distance of ten hundred and fifty miles. It is impossible to adequately describe their physical discomforts and dangers, the mental depression of the sunless midwinter of eight weeks, and the even harder experiences of the Arctic spring-tide, when excessive cold and increasing lassitude made steady inroads on their impaired constitutions. Kane tells us they were continually harassed by uncertainties as to their ultimate fate. Yesterday the unbroken floe, stretching as far as the eye could reach, seemed so firm and stable as to insure months of quiet, uninterrupted life. Today, the groaning, uneasy pack, yielding to an unseen power, split and cracked in all directions, throwing up huge masses of solid ice, that threatened to destroy instantly the ship, and occasionally opened in wide cracks through which rushed the open sea. Indeed, the conditions were so critical and the ice-movements so rapid, that the entire party, within the brief space of twenty-four hours, had four times made ready to abandon their vessels.
In March the cold became intense, and for a week it averaged fifty-three degrees below the freezing-point. Scurvy assailed all but five of the crew, and De Haven was so ill that all his duties devolved on Griffin, who heroically bore up under disease and the mental and moral responsibilities that the situation forced on him. In all his efforts Griffin had no more effective coadjutor than the fleet-surgeon, Kane. Whether acting as a medical officer, treating skilfully the diseased crew; as a hunter, supplementing their scanty stock of anti-scorbutic food with the fresh meat of the seal; or as a man, devising means of amusement and stimulating them to mental and physical exertions, Kane incessantly displayed such qualities of cheerfulness, activity, and ingenuity as tended to dispel the pall of despair that sometimes enveloped the whole expedition.
When release from the ice permitted the voyage to be renewed, De Haven decided to refit in the Greenland ports and again return to Lancaster Sound; fortunately, as the squadron was not fitted for a second year's work, the ice in Melville Bay was such as to prevent immediate passage, and so they turned southward, reaching the United States on September 30, 1851.
Such desperate experiences as those involved in the midwinter drift of the Advance, would have deterred most men for a time from a second voyage, but with Kane the stimulus to future work apparently increased with every league that he sailed southward. The ship was hardly in port before he initiated a plan for another expedition in the spring of 1852. This failing he wrote Lady Franklin in May, offering to go with Captain Penny, or any good sailing-master, to give his services without pay, and pledging himself to go to work and raise funds.
Finding it impossible to go with any British expedition, he turned his entire efforts to organizing another from America. His chivalric enthusiasm enlisted the sympathies and active support of Henry Grinnell and George Peabody, the first loaning the ship and the latter contributing $10,000 for general expenses. The United States again aided, not only putting Kane on sea-pay, but also attached ten men of the Navy, under government pay. Instruments, provisions, etc., were likewise supplied by the Secretary of the Navy, and aid in other directions was afforded by the Smithsonian Institution, the Naval Observatory, and other scientific associations. At this juncture the discoveries of Captain Inglefield, R. N., in Smith Sound, afforded to Kane a new route for his activities. The scheme, as far as the search for Franklin was concerned, was well-meaning, but none the less fallacious and illogical. Kane was personally cognizant of the fact that Franklin had gone into Lancaster Sound, and had wintered in 1845-46 at Beechy Island, plainly following the direct and positive orders of the Admiralty, that he should push southward from Cape Walker to the neighborhood of Behring Strait. Moreover, the last mail ever received from the Franklin expedition contained a letter from Captain Fitz-James, in which he stated that Franklin had shown him the orders, expressed his disbelief in an open sea to the north, and had given "a pleasant account of his expectations of being able to get through the ice on the north coast of America."
A search for Franklin by the way of Smith Sound, seventeen degrees of longitude and four degrees of latitude to the north and east of his last known position, was to assume not only that Franklin had disobeyed the strict letter of his instructions, but had also abandoned his voyage after having accomplished one-third of the distance from Greenland to Behring Strait.
As the initiator and inspirer of the expedition, Kane was the natural head of it, but there were difficulties in the way.
The assignment of a surgeon to the command of a naval expedition was unprecedented; but somehow Kane succeeded in overcoming even the time-honored observances of the Navy, and was placed in command by a formal order of the Secretary of the Navy in November, 1852.
Kane repeatedly set forth his belief in an open Polar sea, and announced his expectation of reaching it. The expedition was not alone a proposed search for Franklin, but especially contemplated the continuation to the northward of the discoveries made in 1851 by Captain Inglefield, on the west coast of Greenland. Kane declared his intention of reaching "its most northern attainable point, and thence pressing on toward the Pole as far as boats or sleds could carry us, examine the coast lines for vestiges of the lost party," and "seeking the open sea ... launch our little boats, and embark upon its waters."
On May 30, 1853, the expedition left New York in the sailing brig Advance, there being seventeen members all told. The vessel was stanch, well-fitted, and suitable, the scientific instruments satisfactory, but the provisions were illy chosen for Arctic service, and the equipment in many respects inadequate or deficient. The Greenland ports supplied skin-clothing, dogs, and Eskimo dog-drivers; the latter being destined to play an important part in establishing harmonious relations with the Etah natives. On reaching Melville Bay, Kane decided to take the middle passage, direct through the dreaded pack--a most venturesome route for a sailing-vessel. Favored by an off-shore gale, the Advance escaped with the loss of a whaleboat, and emerged into the open sea near Cape York, known as the North Water. Stopped by the ice, Kane wisely decided to cache his metallic life-boat, filled with boat-stores, on Littleton Island, so as to secure his retreat, since, as he says: "My mind was made up from the first that we are to force our way to the north as far as the elements will let us." The ice opening with the tide, Kane rounded Cape Hatherton and was now in Kane Sea; but the Advance was immediately driven into a cove for shelter. At the first opportunity sail was again made and a short distance gained to the east-northeast, when a violent gale nearly wrecked her. Repeated efforts to work the vessel to the eastward, along a lee coast, destroyed fittings and boat, and were so fruitful in danger that on August 26th seven out of his eight officers addressed Kane in writing, to the effect "that a further progress to the North was impossible, and [they] were in favor of returning southward to winter." Unfortunately, Kane was not "able conscientiously to take the same view," as such retreat would have left him in a less favorable situation to pursue his explorations. Two weeks longer the brig was warped to the east during high water, whenever she was not jammed by huge floes against the rugged coast; but at low water the brig grounded and was daily in danger of total destruction. Finally, on September 9th, she was put in winter-quarters in 78* 37' N., 71* 14' W., in Rensselaer Harbor, which, says Kane, "we were fated never to leave together--a long resting-place to her, for the same ice is round her still." Winter now advanced with startling rapidity and excessive severity; freezing temperatures now permanently obtained, the water-fowl were gone, and the scanty vegetation blighted. All were busy, some constructing a building for magnetic and meteorological observations, others making journeys along the eastern coast. Kane visited the high land adjoining Mary Minturn River, some fifty miles away, whence he could see Washington Land in the vicinity of Cape Constitution. Hayes and Wilson journeyed on the inland ice, while McGary with six others made three caches on the coast, the farthest being under the face of the largest of all Arctic glaciers, now known by the name of Humboldt. The winter proved to be unusually cold, the temperature, from December to March inclusive, averaging fifty-four degrees below the freezing-point of water. Most fortunately the men remained in health, but Kane grieved over the loss of his dogs, only a dozen surviving out of the original eighty.
In this contingency Kane decided to put his men in the field, and after two weeks of excessive cold, the temperature averaging seventy-seven degrees below freezing, a party was sent out while the mercury was yet frozen. Their orders were to reach Washington Land, about one hundred miles distant across the sea-ice. It soon became evident to Brooks, the commander of the party, that the journey was impossible of execution, and after eight marches, in which less than forty miles were traversed, he turned back on March 29, 1854. The cold that day was intense, about ninety degrees below freezing, and the next morning four men were frozen so badly that they could not walk. Only four men were left for work. The distance to the brig was thirty miles, while the intervening ice was so rough that they could not drag their disabled comrades. Hickey volunteered to remain, while Sontag, Ohlsen, and Petersen should go to the brig for help. The three men finally reached the Advance, but they were so physically exhausted and in such mental condition that they could not even indicate in what direction they had left their comrades.
Kane appreciated the gravity of the situation and the necessity of prompt measures. A relief party was at once started, which Kane led himself, despite his impaired health, physical weakness, and general unfitness for such a desperate journey; as always, he spared not himself when danger threatened. Ohlsen, being the clearest-headed of the sledgemen, was put in a sleeping-bag and dragged on a sledge as a guide.
Eighteen hours' travel were without tangible result; Kane fainted twice on the snow; his stoutest men were seized with trembling fits, and as yet no signs of the missing party. Fortunately Kane had taken the Eskimo, Hans Hendrik, whose keen eye discovered the track that led to the tent of the frozen men. They were alive, but crippled beyond the possibility of marching. The weather remained fine or all would have perished, and as it was, Hayes, the surgeon, in his report of their condition on reaching the brig, said: "I was startled by their ghastly appearance. When I hailed them they met me only with a vacant, wild stare. They were to a man delirious." Of the eight men only one returned sound; two shortly died, two others suffered amputations, and three escaped with temporary disabilities.
Three weeks later, on April 26th, Kane set out on what, to use his own words, "was to be the crowning expedition of the campaign, to attain the Ultima Thule of the Greenland shore." Impressed with the impracticability of a direct journey across the main ice-pack, he decided to follow the shore-line, five men dragging a sledge, while Kane and Godfrey travelled by dog-team. He had been led by his resolute spirit to overestimate the physical strength of his men and himself, and the party broke down before it had even approached the Humboldt Glacier. Their enthusiastic leader was stricken with fainting spells and rigidity of limbs, but Kane would not admit his illness to be more than temporary, and bidding the men strap him on the sledge, proceeded onward. His diminished physical powers now became evident through the freezing of his rigid and swollen limbs. Delirious and fainting at the end of the march, he was carried in an almost insensible condition to his tent, when his men wisely took the matter in their own hands and started back for the brig. Nine days later, through forced marches and heroic efforts of his sledge-mates, themselves partially disabled, Kane was carried on board the Advance fluctuating between life and death. Hardly conscious, his mind clouded, and his swollen features barely recognizable, his general condition was such that the surgeon regarded his ultimate recovery as nearly hopeless.
While Kane's recuperative powers were simply marvellous, yet he did not recover sufficiently to make another journey that spring. In this extremity he turned to his surgeon, Israel I. Hayes, who volunteered to explore the unknown shores of Grinnell Land, which lay in sight to the west of Smith Sound. With the seaman Godfrey as a companion and a dog-team as the means of transportation, Hayes struggled through the almost impassable floes and bergs of the main strait and finally attained Cape Hayes, on the western coast, in about 79* 45' N. latitude. The return journey to the Advance was possible only by abandoning everything that in the slightest degree impeded the progress of the exhausted men and famishing dogs.
This success caused Kane to make one more effort to reach the hitherto inaccessible Washington Land, and for this purpose he placed all his means at the disposal of one of his seamen, William Morton. A supporting party accompanied Morton to Humboldt Glacier, whence he proceeded with Eskimo Hans Hendrik and a dog-team on the advance journey. Their track lay over the sea-ice, about five miles from, and parallel with, the face of the glacier. Five days took them to the new land to the north, and three days later, June 24, 1854, Morton reached alone an impassable headland, Cape Constitution. From the highest attainable elevation Morton found his view completely cut off to the northeast, but between the west and north he could see the southeastern half of Kennedy's Channel as far north as Mount Ross, 80* 58' N. He says "Not a speck of ice was to be seen as far as I could observe; the sea was open, the swell came from the northward ... and the surf broke in on the rocks below in regular breakers." Morton described accurately the general landscape, but he was an incompetent astronomical observer, and his estimates of distances were excessive. The farthest point was charted nearly a hundred miles north of its true position, while Cape Constitution was placed 31 miles too far north by Morton and 52 geographic miles by Kane, who "corrected" Morton's observations by a series of erroneous bearings. Morton's general account of his explorations has been confirmed by Hans Hendrik in his Memoir written some years since in Eskimo.
In the meantime the Etah Eskimo, natives of Prudhoe land, had discovered the brig, and through the interpreter, Hans Hendrik, promptly established friendly relations with Kane. It may be said that the expedition owed its final safety to these natives; their supplies of fresh meat checked scurvy, and later their dog teams rendered retreat possible. Slight misunderstandings, not always the fault of the natives, naturally occurred, but the Eskimo were honest, humane, and willing, and never committed a hostile act.
The summer of 1854 justified the expressed fears of Kane's officers, for it passed with the ice yet unbroken in Rensselaer Harbor. It was evident in July that the brig would never be freed from the ice, and in this critical situation, Kane, taking five men in a whaleboat, attempted to reach Beechy Island, several hundred miles to the southwest, whence he expected to obtain succor from the English searching squadron. The unfavorable condition of the ice in Smith Sound caused the failure of this attempt, and, yet worse, encouraged the idea of dividing the party; an idea that culminated in the well-known "Arctic Boat Journey," as Dr. Hayes termed it. Despite Kane's futile experiences in July, the majority of the party maintained that a boat journey to Upernavik was both practicable and advisable. Confronted by this attitude of the expeditionary force, Kane assembled them, set forth the dangers of such an attempt, and vehemently urged them to abandon the project, which the lateness of the season and the unfavorable ice conditions rendered most improbable of success. Finally he granted the privilege of unfettered action to such as believed the journey practicable, stipulating only that those leaving the vessel should renounce, in writing, all claims upon the expedition and should elect a leader. Nine elected to go, eight to remain. Kane displayed a magnanimous spirit, equipping them most liberally, and assuring them, in writing, that the brig should be ever open should disaster overtake them. The boat journey was a failure, and Kane bade them welcome when, early in December, he learned that the party, some two hundred miles distant and in imminent danger of perishing by starvation, was desirous of returning to the Advance. Kane promptly sent supplies to the suffering men, and, on December 12th, the entire crew was once again upon the brig.
The winter of 1854-5 passed wretchedly; the physical condition of the party steadily deteriorated; failing fuel necessitated the burning of the upper woodwork of the brig; their food was reduced to ordinary marine stores, and game failed equally to the hunters of the Advance and the persistent efforts of the Etah natives on the ice-clad land and in the frozen sea. In addition scurvy attacked the crew; Hayes lost a portion of his frozen foot, and hardly a man of the crew remained fit for duty. The necessity of abandoning the brig and retreating by boat to Upernavik, Danish Greenland, was now forced upon Kane's mind. The co-operation of the natives greatly facilitated, if it did not alone render possible, the transportation of their provisions, boats, and stores to Cape Alexander. Kane says the Eskimo "brought daily supplies of birds, assisted in carrying boat stores, and invariably exhibited the kindest feelings and strictest honesty."
Bidding farewell to the natives at Cape Alexander on June 15, 1855, Cape York was passed, the land ice of Melville Bay followed, and the northern coast of Danish Greenland reached in forty-seven days. In the meantime a relief squadron under command of Lieutenant Hartstene, United States Navy, had visited Smith Sound, where the natives informed him of Kane's journey southward. Taken on board the returning flag-ship at Disco, Kane and his men reached New York, October 11, 1855.
Kane had hardly reached home when it became evident that his undermined constitution could not longer withstand the inroads of a disease which for twenty years had afflicted him. Change of climate was tried without avail, and he died at Havana, Cuba, February 16, 1857, at the early age of thirty-seven.
Between his first and second voyages Kane had become deeply interested in Margaretta Fox, one of the well-known spiritualists, who later published their correspondence under the title of "The Love Life of Dr. Kane." Their relations, it is believed, resulted in a secret marriage shortly before Kane's death.
The rare literary skill shown in the account of Kane's expedition has charmed millions of readers with its graphic account of the labors, hardships, and privations of Kane and his men. It should not, however, be considered that this expedition merits attention alone from its tales of suffering and bravery, for none other of that generation contributed so materially to a correct knowledge of the Arctic regions. In ethnology it gave the first full account of the Etah Eskimo, the northernmost inhabitants of the world; in natural history its data as to the flora and fauna of the isolated and ice-surrounded extremity of western Greenland were original, and have been to this day but scantily supplemented; in physical sciences, the magnetic, tidal, and climatic observations remained for twenty years the most important series pertaining to the Arctic regions. Kane's voyage not only extended geographically Inglefield's discoveries a hundred miles to the northward, but it also opened up a practical and safe route for Arctic exploration, which has been more fruitful of successful results than any other.
Kane was a man of generous impulses, enthusiastic ideals, and kindly heart. His chivalric nature, indomitable will, and great courage often impelled him to hazardous enterprises; but he stands out in this modern age as an unselfish character, willing to brave hardships and risk his own life on a vague possibility of rescuing Franklin and his companions.