Popular Science Monthly/Volume 3/July 1873/In Quest of the Pole

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FOUR centuries ago the great commercial question of Western Europe related to a new way of getting to the Indies. Columbus struck boldly westward to solve the problem, and, when he encountered land, supposed he had solved it; and named the country India, and the people Indians. But it was at length found that the supposed discovery of Columbus was an illusion, and that a great, new continent barred the way to India. Nothing remained, then, but to go round it if possible, and so navigators struck for a northwest passage. The Cabots traced the American coast from Virginia to Labrador, and attempted to make the passage to India by the north. They failed, and navigators then tried the northeast passage, and, disappointed there, after many years, they turned back again to the alternative route. In May, 1501, Gasper Vasco sailed from Lisbon with two ships to accomplish the northwest passage. These parted company in a storm off the Greenland coast, and Vasco's ship was never heard of again. The next year a brother of Gasper went in search of him with three ships; the expedition failed, however, and but two ships returned.

In 1576 Martin Frobisher, after begging money of merchants for 15 years to undertake "the only great thing left undone in the world," got off with two small vessels, one of 25 tons and one of 10, and reached Labrador in safety, discovering the strait which is called by his name; but he accomplished nothing more.

In 1585 Captain John Davis started for the northwest with two ships, and got as far as latitude 70°, discovering the strait which bears his name.

In 1607 Henry Hudson was commissioned by certain London merchants to find a route to India across the pole, and, in a little vessel manned by 10 men and one boy, reached the east coast of Greenland, in latitude 70°. He had gone beyond the 80th parallel before his way was blocked by the ice. He made several voyages, the last in 1610 in an ill-provisioned ship and with an unruly crew; but he made his way through the strait and into the bay which bear his name. He was frozen in during the winter; his mutinous crew took control of the ship, and set him adrift in an open boat with his little son and six invalid seamen, and they were never heard of again. After this, expeditions followed rapidly, led by Poole, Button, Bylot, Baffin, Munck, and others. After 1631 little was done in this direction for a century. There was a revival of adventure between 1741 and 1746, but ill-success again discouraged efforts for more than half a century. In 1773 Lord Musgrave attempted to reach the pole, and in 1776 Captain Cook tried to circumnavigate the northern shore of America by way of Behring's Strait.

With the opening of the present century arctic enterprise began to assume a new phase, and was pursued more in the interest of science. If the northwest passage was impossible, it was determined to find out how much was possible in exploring the northern region. To reach the magnetic and geographical poles, and ascertain the conditions of the polar sea and the accompanying phenomena, were now the main objects of adventure. Captain Scoresby, in 1806, reached a point north of Spitzbergen in latitude 81° 30'—510 geographical miles from the pole. He saw an open sea before him, but his vessel was only a whaler, and he was answerable to her owners, so he reluctantly turned back. In 1818 two expeditions sailed—Buchan's and Ross and Parry's. In 1819 Parry set out again, and discovered Prince Regent's Inlet, Barrow Strait, Wellington Channel, Melville Sound, and wintered at Melville Island. Clavering's expedition (1823), Grabb's (1828, Danish), De Blosseville's (1833, French), and Parry's third (1827), were strictly for the purposes of scientific exploration, and not for the discovery of the northwest passage. Sir John Franklin commenced his career as a northern navigator with Captain Buchan, in 1818, as a lieutenant. In 1810, in connection with Dr. Richardson, he set out from Fort York, Hudson's Bay, on an overland expedition to circumnavigate the northern coast. They were accompanied by Midshipman George Back, afterward Captain Back, a courageous and enterprising explorer. In 1825 Franklin, Richardson, and Back, again set out on an overland expedition for surveying the northern coast. In 1829 Captain John Ross entered Prince Regent's Inlet, and, after surveying the coast of the Boothian Peninsula, he went into winter-quarters. In the spring of 1831 his nephew, James Ross, discovered the north magnetic pole.

In 1837 the coast between Return Reef and Point Barrow was surveyed by Dean and Simpson, in the service of the Hudson's Bay Company. Simpson was the soul of the expedition, and had already made a tramp of over 2,000 miles through the wilderness, and in the depth of winter. Simpson afterward continued the survey, and accomplished a boat-voyage of over 1,600 miles. He died, at the age of thirty-six, by the hand of an Indian assassin.

Sir John Franklin set out on his last voyage in 1845, being then in his sixtieth year, with two ships, the Erebus and the Terror. These vessels were last spoken, July 26th, in the same year, in Baffin's Bay, latitude 77°. In 1848 commenced the search for Franklin. The Plover and Hecla took out supplies for him to Behring's Strait. His old companion Richardson went out the same year, as did also Sir James Ross and Captain Bird. In 1850 twelve ships joined in the search, and in 1852 six vessels sailed from England on the same errand. McClure, commanding the Investigator, passed through Behring's Strait in 1850, and safely reached Marcy Bay in 1852, thus discovering the northwest passage. McClintock at length, in the spring of 1859, learned from a party of Esquimaux, on the southwest coast of Boothia-Felix, the mournful story of the fate of Franklin and his men.

Elisha Kent Kane accompanied the first Grinnell expedition (Advance, Lieutenant De Haven) in 1850-'51, and was commander of that vessel in the second Grinnell expedition in 1853. On August 7th he entered Smith's Sound, and, after encountering fearful perils, found a harbor in Rensselaer Bay, latitude 78° 38'. The Advance was fated never to come out of that bay, and had to be abandoned there two years later. April 25, 1854, he set out on a sledge-journey northward, drawn by dogs. May 4th he saw Great Humboldt glacier, and, though scurvy, cold, and dropsy, had wasted his strength, he would still have insisted on advancing, but he now became delirious, and his companions turned their faces shipward. On August 24th, when it was seen that there was no hope of getting the ship free from the ice, Kane called his officers and men together and announced his determination to remain. They were in all 17, and of these nine chose to leave their commander and essay a return home. Kane now adopted the Esquimaux form of house and the Esquimaux diet, as best suited to the climate. He also entered into friendly relations with the natives; and thus he was enabled to live with comparative comfort in that high latitude. The deserters returned, in great distress, December 12th the thermometer being then 50° below zero. The entire party abandoned the ship May 20, 1855, and set out on their long journey homeward. They reached New York October 11th.

Dr. Hayes was with Kane in his second voyage, and in 1860 commanded an expedition himself, intending to reach the pole. He took up his winter-quarters at Port Foulke, in Smith's Sound, and penetrated as far north as 82° 45' on sledges. Dr. Hayes again visited Greenland in the following year, but restricted his labors to the survey of the southern coasts of the peninsula.

The last great polar expedition, which has just closed so eventfully, was in command of Captain Charles Francis Hall, who was born in Cincinnati in 1825. He was apprenticed in early life to a blacksmith, and worked for a time at his trade. He was a man of vigorous and robust development, of courteous and agreeable manners, and, although without a regular scientific education, he had an acute and practical mind. Without having studied the science of navigation, he took to it with enthusiasm, and by tact and experience became a competent commander. In his first voyage (1860) he spent two years and three months in the arctic regions. He went out again in 1864, and stayed five years, and then fully ascertained the time and places where the Franklin company had perished. His last expedition was fitted out by the United States Government, and he sailed from New York June 29, 1871, in the ship Polaris, his object being to find the north-pole. She took supplies from the United States ship Congress at Disco, in Greenland, and in August Captain Hall bade adieu to civilization at Tussisack, and pushed on toward the pole, while for nearly two years nothing was heard from him. A portion of the crew have now returned, from whom we learn that the ship reached latitude 82° 16', but put back and took up winter-quarters in latitude 81° 38', and there she was frozen up. On October 10th Captain Hall started on an expedition north, with sledges drawn by Esquimaux dogs, and accompanied by the mate and two Esquimaux. The party was absent two weeks, and returned to the ship on October 24th. Captain Hall was immediately taken sick, and, after fifteen days' illness, he died November 8, 1871. The following year, on August 12th, the Polaris left winter-quarters, got on her beam ends on the 15th of the same month, and was driven south to latitude 77° 35', when, owing to the heavy pressure of the ice, the vessel was thrown up, and while landing stores broke from her moorings October 15th, with a part of the crew, and drifted away. The party remaining on the ice consisted of 19 persons, five of whom were women and children. They had two boats, and a stock of provisions sufficient for a month, which, by short rations, they determined to make last for five months. One of the boats was used for fuel, and there were no materials for fire. Snow-huts were erected on the ice-floe, which drifted southward, and was frequently broken up by storms. To add to the horror of their situation, the arctic night set in the sun disappearing early in December, and not reappearing until the end of January—day being distinguishable from night only by the diurnal streak of light which appeared on the southern horizon. Fortunately the party had rifles and ammunition, and prolonged their lives by killing a few seals, bears, and birds. This life of almost indescribable suffering was continued for over six months, or 197 days. They were at last rescued off Newfoundland by the British steamer Tigress, after having drifted in winter upon the ice a distance of more than 1,500 miles. That the party all survived, and were saved at last in good health, was attributed to the admirable discipline of the company under the intrepid management of Captain Tyson. Of the scientific results of the expedition we as yet know little, but shall perhaps learn more when the Polaris, in charge of Captain Buddington, returns, as she is expected to do this summer.