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Whales Tales and the Northwest Passage

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Dr. Elisha Kent Kane led the Second Grinnell Expedition to find the remains of the Franklin party and the elusive Northwest Passage.


From the end of the Mexican War until 1861,  Lieutenant Matthew Fontaine Maury used his international reputation in maritime affairs as superintendent of the National Observatory to shepherd the Navy into a grand age of exploration.1

While bound to a desk in Washington, the invalided officer, as a result of a disastrous stagecoach injury in 1839,  “sailed the globe by proxy and pen.”2

Until the Civil War, Maury did more than any one man to ensure that these fifteen expeditions were undertaken without the delay or fuzziness of mission and command that plagued nation’s first grand exploration, the “Southern Ocean” expedition, as it was first known and eventually led by Lieutenant Charles Wilkes.3

No expeditions better show how the United States Navy undertook these missions, despite a parsimonious Congress’ willingness to invest in exploration, than those to the Arctic. The public-private partnership had a proclaimed popular, among the elite on both sides of the Atlantic, mission — Finding the remains of Sir John Franklin’s lost party. What had been expected to be the culminating expedition for the Royal Navy in finding the Northwest Passage when it was launched in 1845 had plunged into mystery that led to disaster.

And there was a more circumspect one, important to Maury and the American Navy as an institution — beat Great Britain in the race to find the passage.4

The Americans would use  whalemen’s observations and data to find it. The Admiralty dismissed them as amateurs.

By the fall of 1849, the observatory had sent to its engraver eight, 35.3 by 24.1 inch sheets for its Track Charts — covering the Atlantic Ocean, North.  What followed over the years leading up to the attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor were charts for the South Atlantic, the Indian Ocean, North Pacific, and finally the South Pacific.  This was its Series A. After that came other chart series and last but not least, the Whale Chart, critical to the American exploration to find Franklin and the Northwest Passage.

Maury presented the idea of the charts to the Navy hierarchy as a navigational tool and to free the Americans from a reliance on those done by the British.  Having written a book on navigation that the Navy put in ships’ libraries that was an easy sell on both counts. But what the National Observatory was producing wasn’t the usual chart with hydrographic data, as Penelope Hardy noted, but ones showing “accumulated wind, current, temperatures, and other biological data graphically.” That emphasis on graphics to study “the phenomena of the ocean” made them more understandable and useful to mariners, ship owners, insurance underwriters, and scientists.

In another way, look at these charts as the tentacles of a “grasping octopus” as historian Kenneth Hagan did linking them to “Manifest Destiny.” 5

Maury boasted the chart’s value was immense to a fishery that draws “annually from the depths of the oceans, property, in real value, which far exceeds to gold mines of California.”

The whaling chart, however, was singled out for derision  by land-based American “professional” scientists. To them, the accumulated collection of whaling logbooks were filled with so many “fish stories.”   

Over time the whale men became an increasingly valuable source of information for Maury as he leaned toward finding the Holy Grail, the Northwest Passage.

Here’s how.

It started with right whales and also showed how his close relations with his family of cotton brokers in New York City helped in this inquiry.

Was the whale they chased in the Southern  Hemisphere the same as the animal they sought in the Northern Hemisphere? No was their answer. “The equator is a wall of fire” was his conclusion.

Was  the species of whale they hunted in the Bering Strait the same as they chased in Baffin’s Bay.  Their answer was more equivocal.  “So far as we can judge, they are the same fish.” Although, he termed it a “so-called Northwest Passage,” Maury laid out the line of inquiry he intended to pursue — if given the money.

From one of his cousins, Maury knew that he was kindling an interest in the business community of New York.

“I saw a paper of yours about Whales in one of our daily Journals lately & Mr. Hurlbut [E.D. Hurlbut & Co.] came to see me on charge to say something about your theory or opinion being correct & went on to tell me how successful (his I think) ships had been in Whaling in the vicinity of Behring’s Straits- how they went to work anchored under a ridge & the whales merely sounded & then remained still without turning or kicking about until they were killed for fear of striking their fins or tails against the lee.”

The octopus’ tentacles were creeping upward. 6

Public financing naval explorations of any kind was far down the list of Capitol Hill priorities in the post Mexican War years.  Congress was tied in knots trying to decide these questions.

Were the vast territories won from Mexico to be free or slave,

where was the boundary between Texas and New Mexico,and the Constitution and existing federal law were too constrained to be effective in returning runaway slaves to their owners.

Complicating matters in the capital was the death of President Zachary Taylor, putting the executive branch in a state of flux.7

Nevertheless. as perceptive as Maury was at reading the politics of his time, he wrote, “Seeing that water runs through Behring’s Straits from the Pacific, as well as around the Capes, into the Atlantic, where, therefore, is the escape-current from the Atlantic?” He would have to wait — not only for the public’s money, but also its ships. 8

Across the Atlantic, John Barrow, the long-serving second secretary of the Admiralty,  looked down his fine nose at whalers such as William Scoresby with years of personal and family experience in the Arctic as unfit to lead or command the expeditions to mark the Northwest Passage. Yet these were the very men who invented the crow’s nest so invaluable in the hunt and battle.

Barrow wanted Navy men —  heroic in battles from Copenhagen to Trafalgar to New Orleans. When you looked at these heroes in peacetime, they had been rudely dumped ashore at half pay and commonly dank prospects.  Years after Waterloo, many were eager to prove their worth anew.

Officers such as Commander John Ross, Lieutenant William Edward Parry, Captain David Buchan and Lieutenant John Franklin “were hand-picked and certain to succeed” to Barrow’s mind.9

As heroic as they might have been in naval combat and rejoicing to be back on full pay when called to lead an expedition northward, none had spent much time in the Arctic.

Barrow, who demanded his commanders write about their experiences to move the Royal Society, in particular, to sway  Parliament to spend more on its navy and the navy to spend more of its money on exploration.

Ignoring results he did not want like Franklin’s near disaster in 1819, Barrow fanned the flames of public interest in exploration in the broadest sense through his own writings in the Quarterly Review.  His model for publicity was that of the Baron Alexander von Humboldt, the Prussian geographer and botanist who chronicled his journeys through Latin America.  His was travel writing with a difference, although Barrow disparaged it when done by the baron. When done by his commanders, he extolled their Romantic Age  style.   It was a model Maury would follow religiously on the other side of the Atlantic, starting with the Dead Sea expedition of his friend William Lynch.10

Maury understood the value of the template for exploration Barrow had created.

These American expeditions, named for Henry Grinnell, who underwrote the costs, in the search for Franklin, was first commanded by Lieutenant Edwin J. De Haven. “Considered an authority on meteorology,” Maury called his aide at the observatory and a veteran of the Wilkes expedition, “the best man for the position.”11

But how did Maury, born far from the ocean, who grew up near Nashville, Tennessee, become the man driving American naval exploration? His first interest began with the stories of adventure in the Pacific with Captain David Porter in the War of 1812 that his older brother John regaled him with as a boy.

The American captain had tracked the British whaling fleet to its hunting grounds. He was sending a delayed message to London that its ships were not safe halfway around the globe.

At his showdown battle off Valparaiso with two British warships, John Maury was second in command of one of the seized whalers, renamed Essex Junior. Porter’s most able lieutenant John Downes commanded the rest of the small flotilla. 12

Coupled with his memories of these  stories was his own naval experience.

One of the most formidable came early in his career. Maury became friends with newspaperman Jeremiah N. Reynolds when the young lieutenant came aboard Potomac. Reynolds was serving as secretary for the ship’s commander John Downes on its historic circumnavigation voyage.

Maury’s and Reynolds’ shared interests were far-ranging and similar — the need for a great American naval scientific expedition and whaling’s centrality to economic well-being.

Maury, an inveterate note-keeper, was willing to share his observations on whales in the “unknown west.” In turn, Reynolds, who would become the most vocal salesmen for American naval exploration, passed along his own tale of a great white whale he named “Mocha Dick.”13

Now in the mid-1840s as superintendent of the observatory and left permanently lame by a stagecoach accident, Maury wanted to do everything he could to tighten those bonds between the Navy and the whalers. The whaling chart was a start. The way Maury sized up the situation: the whalemen could be central to the Navy’s desire to be a rising power with a clear need to understand distant waters. 14

Maury’s approach to these data from this source was almost one-hundred and eighty degrees different from Barrow’s and the Admiralty’s.15

The superintendent had signaled his intention to use whaling information to explore the Arctic Ocean in a letter to von Humboldt in Germany when he sent a copy of the Navy charts.  In the accompanying letter, he cryptically noted that in the Arctic there was “occasionally a water communication from [Bering] strait to [Davis] strait.” 16

In all these regards, Maury, De Haven, and the Navy were fortunate to have Elisha Kent Kane, detached from Coast Survey duty. The short, slender man was already a war hero when he reported to De Haven in New York. Seriously wounded by a lance while trying to deliver diplomatic dispatches to General Winfield Scott during the Mexican war, Kane treated the other casualties in his party at his own peril.17

Kane’s taste for adventure was extraordinary—climbing the Himalayas, exploring craters in the Philippines, venturing out to archaeological digs on the Upper Nile, and being stopped only by coastal fever from reporting back on West African slave markets. His health—the lingering effects of a childhood bout with rheumatic fever—remained questionable.

Historian Michael Robinson summed up Kane as a “man of many talents” with almost perfect pitch” in dealing with the audiences of his time.

The American public image of the quest was that with men like Kane  filled with “zeal, intelligence, and perseverance,” the expedition was bound to succeed.18

After the first expedition returned almost empty-handed, the Democratic-controlled Congress refused to pay for the publication of its results. Bitter soup for Maury and Kane.  De Haven was too ill from the effects of snow blindness to continue. He also had fobbed off on Kane the chore of writing up an account of the expedition. 19

Using the continued hook of searching for Franklin to gain public support, maybe even Lady Jane Franklin’s indirectly, Maury felt he had more evidence to press on. In these years before the explosive charge was added, harpoons from whalers in Greenland were found in whales killed in the Bering Strait. Likewise, harpoons from whalers in the Pacific were pulled from whales taken in the North Atlantic.

The superintendent also adopted a new explanation on why the passage was proving so elusive. The “open sea in the Arctic Ocean is probably not always in the same place, as the Gulf Stream is not always in one place.”20

* * *

The means to the end of future explorations during tight budget times and roiling congressional distraction was born in the same month that DeHaven’s expedition  arrived in the United States.

The New York-based American Geographical and Statistical Society, loosely patterned on the Royal Geographical Society,  proved the perfect vehicle. In the future when the government hesitated, the society became the conduit for Maury, its “strategic adviser,” to employ for maritime exploration.21

The members were men of station and wealth. Henry Grinnell, the financier of the Franklin expeditions, became a longtime officer. John Aspinwall served as a vice president, and his partner John Howland in the Pacific Mail Steamship Company was an active member, as was the restless Cyrus Field, the driving force in the laying of the transatlantic telegraph cable.

Important editors and writers were counted among its founders: George Bancroft, the historian, former Navy secretary, and diplomat; Charles Dana, soon to be the editor of the New York Sun; Henry Raymond, founder of the New York Times; and Freeman Hunt, editor of the business publication Hunt’s Merchant Magazine.

Kane, like Maury, was bursting to take another shot at the Arctic. To keep interest alive, Kane produced the very popular book The U.S. Grinnell Expedition in Search of Sir John Franklin and hit the lecture circuit, theorizing that Franklin had drifted into the “Open Polar Sea,” Maury’s Poliniya, the Northwest Passage.22

Maury’s ambitions, Kane’s eagerness, and the society’s influence converged in “a mutuality of interest in naval exploration on the seafaring frontier.” The superintendent told his New York representative, George Manning, to send Kane the print of the Arctic to boost his fundraising efforts.

Grinnell was in for a second try.23

Kane was deft, determined, and diligent in his dealings with the scientific Lazzaroni, the joking name Alexander Dallas Bache had applied to his friends, and Congress. He had served in the Coast Survey, a plus with Bache, its long-serving superintendent and great grandson of Benjamin Franklin.

Kane’s father John, a federal judge, was active in the American Philosophical Society, another plus with Bache and Joseph Henry at the Smithsonian. Both were society members.

Kane so differed from Maury that the Smithsonian secretary pledged more equipment than proposed for the first attempt, and the Coast Survey would do likewise. The endorsement of the American Philosophical Society followed.

When Congress ignored Representative Hamilton Fish’s request for a second expedition, Navy Secretary John Pendleton Kennedy approved the transfer of provisions and kept Kane and his men on active duty in orders received in December 1852. No one publicly challenged the maneuver. 24

When Kane as commander, a surprising selection to many since he was a physician not a line officer, set out from New York in May 1853, expectations of finding Franklin and the Northwest Passage were high. Little did they know that events in the Arctic had beaten them to both.

To the expedition’s lasting credit, the meteorological record being developed was meticulous. In addition, Kane, a superb artist, provided a powerful visual record of the expedition. Like others, on the announced public mission of finding Franklin’s party’s remains, Kane’s men came up empty.

But the last mission, the one dearest to Kane’s and Maury’s hearts, seemingly crowned the expedition’s achievements. As summer 1854 began, Kane sent a sledge party northward. After days on the ice looking for the boundary between the ice on the land and ice on the water, William Morton, one of Kane’s crew, and Hans Cristian, an Eskimo, reached the top of a 480-foot black cliff, later named Point Constitution. What they saw was “a boundless waste of water” stretching out 40 miles toward the North Pole. Kane believed they had found the “open polar sea.” 25

What Kane’s  men likely found one of the waterways that formed a Northwest Passage, as Maury’s letter to von Humboldt several years before speculated.

But it was one “Barrow’s Boy — Now Once Removed” following the secretary’s death in 1848 Lieutenant Robert McClure who is given the credit for being first. The logbooks and the relief party’s testimony bore out McClure’s claim.

Based on late found evidence but not yet in the Admiralty’s or Parliament’s hands, Lady Jane Franklin stomped her feet and proclaimed   McClure had done nothing more than what her husband had accomplished.

The British awards committee, established decades before to recognize the discoverer with money and prizes, found a way to finesse the matter.

When the committee announced the award of 10,000 pounds the stress was put on the discovery of a, not the passage — Maury’s and others growing understanding of northern waters — leaving the door open for other claimants but likely no prize money. 26

Across the Atlantic, the New York Times agreed with the committee that McClure had found the passage.  The acknowledgement was contained in an extended almost full-page story that also welcomed Kane and his men back to the United States.

The anonymous reporter wrote, “It is to be hoped that we shall not have many more Arctic Expeditions.” The reason to call an end: the expeditions have “resulted in a great increase of human knowledge and the gratification of a wholesome curiosity.” They also had left a trail of starvation, madness, and death. 27




The last word belongs to whale-man Scoresby. He is writing this letter in 1817 to Sir Joseph Banks, a friend of his and mentor of Barrow decades before Franklin lost his way a final time and Kane gave his last full measure of strength.  Banks, a great  natural scientist,  had sailed with Captain James Cook through the Pacific:

“Had I been so fortunate as to have had the command of an expedition for discovery, instead of fishing, I have little doubt but that the mystery attached to the existence of a northwest passage might have been resolved.” 28




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