Thursday, May 8, 2008

To the Frozen North: Arctic Exploration & Philadelphia

Later this month, in Philadelphia, the 'International Conference on Arctic Exploration: 1850-1940,' will be held, entitled, 'North by Degree.'

When one thinks of Arctic exploration, visions of adventure, hardship & trajedy vividly come to mind, yet too few realize, that Philadelphia has played a significant role in this fascinating period of history.

As early as June of 1749, through the missionary efforts of the Moravians in Greenland, three young Eskimo Christian converts arrived in Philadelphia. Benjamin Franklin, in his publication, the Pennsylvania Gazette, recorded how these individuals were "clad in Seal Skins...their Eyes and Hair black, like our Indians, but their Complexion somewhat lighter." (Pennsylvania Gazette, June 15, 1749)

On March 4, 1753, one of the earliest attempts of Colonial Americans, to search for the elusive 'Northwest Passage' for the riches of the Orient, left Philadelphia, financed by a group of merchants, in the ship Argo, under the command of a Captain Charles Swaine, a venture supported by Benjamin Franklin as well. Capt. Swaine had made previous attempts to find the Northwest Passage, as recorded in a document written by Governor Samuel Ogle of Maryland, in November of 1750, which states:

"Whereas an Act of Parliament hath been made for the Encouragement of his Majesty's Subjects to attempt a North West Passage, with a Bounty assured of Twenty Thousand Pounds for any Person or Persons who shall discover the same, And Whereas Charles Swaine, late clerk of the ship California..." (Samuel Ogle, November 3, 1750, Society Collection at HSP).

Like Arctic & Antarctic explorers of the future, Capt. Swaine would once again attempt another expedition into the frozen North country in 1753, as stated, but was forced to return to Philadelphia because of "heavy ice in Hudson Bay," though he was successful in mapping the coast of Labrador. Undeterred, Swaine journeyed once again into the Arctic, during the spring of 1754, but lost some of his crew to death by conflicts with the Eskimos, and returned to Philadelphia in October, presenting the Library Company with "some tools and Eskimo parkas."

Though Capt. Swaine would venture into the Arctic during the 18th century from Philadelphia, he would by no means be the last individual to leave the Delaware Valley, for the Northern frontier.

The most famous Arctic explorer from the 'City of Brotherly Love,' was Elisha Kent Kane (1820-1857), a veteran of the 'Mexican-American War,' graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, accomplished naval surgeon, and the son of U.S. District Judge, John Kintzing Kane.

'Elisha Kent Kane Portrait,' Gratz Collection, Case 6, Box 6

Almost exactly one hundred years after Capt. Swaine's voyages, Elisha Kent Kane would make two voyages into the Arctic, from 1850 through 1855, not to discover the 'Northwest Passage,' but to locate the lost expedition of the famed British Arctic explorer, Sir John Franklin. One of Kane's Arctic boats, 'The Faith,' is rendered in a watercolor housed here at the Society.

The Faith
, Dr. Elisha Kent Kane's Arctic Boat.' David M. Kennedy Collection, K: III-5.

In a letter dated July 7, 1854, to his brother, Thomas Leiper Kane, Elisha relates the familiar but horrendous trials and tribulations, which plagued Arctic exploration for generations. Kane states:

"My Dogs died of tetanus...during the winter darkness. It extended to the men and scurvy came-and the daylight found us diseased-but we fought...Two men dead from exposure-two living with amputated toes...Two men down-bears eat up our provisions-scurvy...I have 800 miles of newly discovered coast...more than any navigator since Parry...Fresh trials are ahead for the ice is unbroken around me-and I am well aged and worn. Yet the brig and my comrades must get back to tell their story..." (Letter of Elisha Kent Kane, to his brother, Thomas Leiper Kane, July 7, 1854, John Kintzing Kane Papers: 1826-1860, Collection No. #1851, in the 'Kane Family Letters Box.')

Elisha Kent Kane would die in Cuba, in 1857, as the result of the fatigue & hardship experienced during his Arctic explorations, but many of his writings survived and have been published, which are available here at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, another example once again, of the 'Hidden Histories' waiting for researchers at our repository.


For references to primary source material & further reading about Philadelphia and its 'Arctic' connections, the following resources may be examined at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Also remember to consult the 'on-line' card catalog & 'Guide to the Manuscript Collections' of the Society, for both published & unpublished materials, at:

One should also visit the Society to utilize the 'Card Catalogs' to the Mss. collections which are NOT online, as well as the 'Graphics Card Catalog,' for further materials, available in the Reference Room of the Society's Library):

John W. Jordan, "Moravian Immigration to Pennsylvania," PMHB 33 (1909): 228-248. {This contains an account of the three Eskimoe Greenlanders, and their 'Christian' names, that of 'John, Matthew & Judith}

Edwin Swift Balch, "Arctic Explorations Sent From the American Colonies," PMHB 31 (1907): 419-428. See also, 'Journals of the Argo,' in the 'Notes & Queries' section, of PMHB 3 (1879): 236.

Bertha Solis-Cohen, "Philadelphia's Expedition to Labrador," Pennsylvania History 19, no.2 (April, 1952): 148-162.

Gentleman's Magazine XXIV (1754): 46, 542-543, 577.

Leonard W. Labaree, ed., The Papers of Benjamin Franklin. IV:July1, 1750, through June 30, 1753 (New Haven: Yale University Press., 1961): 381-383, 446-449; ibid: Vol.5: July 1, 1753, through March 31, 1755, pp's. 12-13, 190-191, 227, 330-331, 438-439.

John Kintzing Kane Papers: 1826-1860. Collection no.1851 at HSP.

William Elder, Biography of Elisha Kent Kane (Philadelphia: Childs & Peterson; Boston: Phillips, Sampson & Co., 1858).

Elisha Kent Kane, Arctic explorations: the second Grinnell expedition in search of Sir John Franklin, 1853, '54,' '55.' (Philadelphia: Childs & Peterson, et al, 1856).

Elisha Kent Kane, Arctic Explorations: the second Grinnell Expedition in search of Sir John Franklin, 1853, 54, 55, ed. by Chauncey Loomis & Constance Martin (Chicago: R.R. Donnelley & Sons, 1996).

For information concerning the 'North by Degree,' International Conference on Arctic Exploration: 1850-1940,' to be held in Philadelphia: May 21-23, 2008, contact:

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