American Book of Golden Deeds - James Baldwin

In Arctic Seas

For three hundred years the discovery of a northwest passage around the continent of America was the dream of European navigators. English merchants and sailors were especially anxious to find some way of reaching the Pacific Ocean and China which would be shorter and quicker than by the long voyage around Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope. Vessel after vessel was sent into the Arctic seas to grope darkly along wintry shores, to lose themselves in a wilderness of ice, and finally to return with the report that no such passage could be found.

Look upon a map of the Arctic regions. You will find it strewn with names in commemoration of the brave men who risked their lives in the effort to solve the great mystery. Baffin and Davis and Frobisher and Parry and Hudson and a score of others, each made some new discovery of bay or strait or frozen promontory, but none was able to find a way through the icy barriers which opposed them.

One of the most daring, and, indeed, one of the most successful of these northern heroes was Sir John Franklin. His first voyage was made in 1819. his object was not so much to discover an open passage through the seas as to determine the position of the northern coast line of America. He landed on the southwestern shore of Hudson Bay and made his way overland to Great Slave Lake. Then traveling northward he reached the Arctic shores which he followed for more than five hundred miles. Five years later he led a second expedition; and this time explored the coast for nearly four hundred miles west of the Mackenzie River. In 1845 he was appointed to the command of an expedition sent out by the British government for the discovery of the northwest passage. He set sail early in the spring, having two well-equipped ships, the Erebus  and Terror, with picked crews of a hundred and thirty-four men. On the 26th of July, a whaling vessel passed the two ships in Baffin's Bay, and all were well. They were never seen again.

Two years passed without much anxiety, and then the question began to be asked, "Where is Sir John Franklin?" a ship was fitted out to sail to Baffin's Bay, find him, and give him such help as might be needed. Little fear did anyone have that any serious misfortune had befallen him.

But when the relief ship came back and reported that no trace of the Erebus  and Terror  could be found, everybody became anxious and alarmed. Expedition after expedition was sent out, all charged with the one great duty of finding Sir John Franklin. For six years the search was kept up, and during that time no fewer than fifteen such expeditions were equipped, some at public, some at private expense, and dispatched into the Arctic seas.

In 1850, Henry Grinnell, an American merchant, offered to fit out two ships for the purpose of making a more careful search for the lost explorers. "It is possible," said he, "that Sir John Franklin's vessels are still safe and sound, and floating in an open sea of clear and warmer water, which we may suppose surrounds the North Pole. In such case they are imprisoned by an encircling wall of icebergs, and will escape as soon as the shifting of these icebergs opens a convenient channel."

Mr. Grinnell's vessels were small sailing ships, the larger one called the Advance, the smaller, the Rescue. They were placed under the command of Naval Lieutenant De Haven with a young surgeon, Elisha Kent Kane, as second in command. From the beginning, Dr. Kane was the leading spirit of the expedition, and to his golden deeds was due whatever of success it achieved. Instruments, ammunition, and rations for three years were supplied by the government.

Northward, northward the two small vessels sailed, drawing nearer every day to the mysterious region of cold and darkness and danger. They were so far north on the 24th of June that the sun scarcely dipped below the horizon. In September they were farther north than any other vessel had ever wintered. The ice closed around them; they were helpless and motionless in the midst of a vast frozen sea.

[Illustration] from American Book of Golden Deeds by James Baldwin


Then the darkness of the long Arctic night set in. For one hundred and forty days the light of the sun was not once seen. On every side there was naught but a solid sea of ice stretching north, south, east, west, no man could tell how many leagues.

But those dark days were not spent in idleness. Every man had something to do. Some kept the ships in order, some went hunting, some provided games and amusements to cheer the spirits of the more despondent. When at last daylight returned and the ice began to break up, it was found that nine other vessels had wintered at no great distance from the Advance  and Rescue. All were on the same golden errand—to learn tidings of Sir John Franklin and his men.

The American vessels gallantly led the way wherever they could go. Indeed, their commander appeared to be so indifferent to danger that the more cautious English captains nicknamed him "the mad Yankee."

At a place called Cape Riley, one of the English captains discovered the first traces of the lost party. At this place, Sir John had no doubt encamped for a while, for here were found some remains of a tent, a great number of birds' bones, and some empty tin cans. Farther on, still other traces were discovered, showing that the first winter quarters of Sir John Franklin must have been there.

After this no further sign could be seen, no word could be heard of the unfortunate Franklin or of any of his crew. The short summer was spent in cruising through dangerous seas, and on the 3d of October, 1851, the Advance  and Rescue  were both safely back in New York harbor.

On the 30th of May, 1853, Dr. Kane sailed in command of another expedition to the Arctic seas. He had but one ship, the Advance, and it had been equipped and furnished by Mr. Grinnell, with the aid of George Peabody of London.

Still believing that Sir John Franklin's vessels might be imprisoned in an open polar sea, he pushed northward as far as possible before being caught in the ice. The Advance  last went into winter quarters in Van Rensselaer Harbor, far up the western coast of Greenland. No other ship had ever wintered so far north.

While his vessel lay imprisoned in the ice, Dr. Kane made long excursions into frozen Greenland. He explored the coast for more than a hundred miles northward and eastward, traveling in sledges drawn by dogs.

Late in May, he made a still longer journey, and finally discovered open water far to the north. All along this open channel there were numbers of animals, such as bears, seals, and birds. Dr. Kane believed that if he had been prepared to follow this channel he would have reached the open polar sea. But his ship was still fast imprisoned in the ice in Van Rensselaer Harbor.

When he returned, it was the 10th of July. The ice-pack around the Advance  instead of melting away was growing thicker. The only thing to be done was to abandon the vessel and try to reach the coast settlement of Greenland, by land. It was determined, however, to remain at Van Rensselaer Harbor through another winter.

In the following May, taking their light boats and sledges with them, they party set out on their long and tiresome journey. To tell of their hardships and of the many perils which they narrowly escaped would make too long a story. For eighty-four days they toiled onward, almost ready to despair, but cheered and strengthened by the hopeful words and example of their leader. At length, on the 9th of August, weary, disheartened, and half famished, they reached the Danish settlement of Upernavik.

A new weeks later they were found there by Captain Hartstene of the United States navy, who had been sent with two vessels to their relief.

From his boyhood, Dr. Kane had never known what it was to be robust and strong. The rough life, the exposure to cold, the many privations he had experienced, told sadly upon his health. When he returned to New York, it was plain that his days were numbered. He visited Cuba in the hope that, with a change of climate, health might return.

It was all in vain, however. One pleasant day, while sitting with his mother, he gently fell asleep to be awakened no more in this life.

After his death people began to recognize and appreciate his noble character. In England, no less than in America, his name was honored as that of a true hero and a doer of golden deeds.