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by Paul Chrastina
In the summer of 1871, George Tyson joined an expedition outfitted by the U.S. Navy to attempt to reach the North Pole. Tyson was a 41-year old New England whaling captain, and had sailed the Arctic seas for twenty years before teaming up with the expedition as assistant navigator.
The leader of the polar expedition was a veteran Arctic explorer named Charles Francis Hall. Hall's ship, the Polaris, was a specially refurbished navy tugboat. The ship's crew of twenty-five had been selected by Hall from among hundreds of applicants. Two Eskimo men from Greenland, Joe Ebierbing and Hans Christian, along with their wives and children, had also been recruited by Hall to accompany the expedition.
The Polaris sailed out of New London, Connecticut on July 3, 1871. In his journal, George Tyson noted that, "Some of my old friends here think I have started on a wild goose chase."
Charles Hall had planned for a journey to and from the North Pole that might take as long as two years. The Polaris was packed full with canned food and other supplies to sustain its thirty-three occupants for an extended voyage. The Eskimo hunters, Joe and Hans, were expected to bring in the extra meat - musk ox, seal, walrus and polar bear- that would be needed to get through the cold Arctic sojourn.
Tyson and most of the other officers on board the Polaris had a great deal of respect for Charles Hall. This high regard was, unfortunately, not shared by the enlisted men, a majority of whom were German immigrants to America. By the time the Polaris reached the coast of Greenland in August, Hall was having serious problems controlling the surly crew. The men, Tyson observed, "seemed bound to go contrary, and if Hall wants a thing done, that is just what they won't do."
The Polaris sailed north into the icy sea between Greenland and Baffin Island. When the ship first encountered drifting sea ice, many of the enlisted men wanted to turn back. "I believe," Tyson wrote sarcastically, "some of them think we are going over the edge of the world." Disgusted by the low morale of the crew, Tyson spent most of his time in the crow's nest of the Polaris, helping to steer the ship through the constant fog and thickening ice.
By the first week of October, 1871, no further progress could be made. The Polaris was completely surrounded by drifting ice off the rugged northwest coast of Greenland, having sailed further north than any ship had gone before. The crew could walk across solid floes of ice to the coast, and Hall made plans to continue to the North Pole on foot, leaving the ship behind.
On October 24, Charles Hall returned to the Polaris from a scouting trip along the Greenland coast. After drinking a cup of hot coffee, Hall suddenly fell ill. He sank into delirium, and accused various members of the crew of poisoning him. He urged George Tyson to continue to the North Pole in the event of his death.
Fifteen days after falling sick, Hall died. Command of the expedition went to Captain Sydney Budington, who refused to consider the idea of continuing north.
The well-provisioned Polaris remained trapped in the drifting ice for ten months after Hall's death. Budington was unable to maintain any discipline over the crew.
In his journal, George Tyson noted, "Nothing has occurred that is pleasant or profitable to record. I wish I could blot out of my memory some things which I hear and see. Captain Hall did not always act with the clearest judgment but it was heaven compared to this.... If I can get through this winter I think I shall be able to live through anything."
Morale on the Polaris sank lower and lower. The darkness, the cold and the sense of being trapped wore heavily on the nerves of the crew. Budington, Tyson and others began raiding the supply of pure alcohol that had been placed on board for the preservation of biological specimens.
The depressing atmosphere pushed some crewmen to the brink of madness. The ship's young carpenter, Nat Coffin, became convinced that someone was trying to kill him. Bullied by the ship's crew, he became convinced that, while he slept, an unknown enemy was going to drill a hole through the wall by his bunk and spray carbonic acid on him, instantly freezing him to death. Coffin never slept in the same place twice, and began hiding in the ship's hold, in cupboards and storage boxes, frightened and mistrustful of the entire crew.
In August, 1872, the ice pack in which the Polaris was trapped began to break up. While bobbing helplessly among enormous icebergs that could have easily crushed the ship, the dysfunctional crew of the now leaking Polaris argued and fought over who should man the pumps below decks. Moored to a large sheet of drifting ice, the ship began to float slowly southward with the current.
On the night of October 15, during a blizzard, the ship's engineer suddenly began shouting that "the vessel had started to leak aft, and that the water was gaining on the pumps." George Tyson informed Captain Budington of the emergency. At first, Tyson recalled, "the poor trembling wretch stood there, oblivious to everything but his own coward thoughts." He then "threw up his arms and yelled out to 'throw everything out onto the ice!'"
As Tyson watched, the frantic crew began to toss bags and crates of provisions overboard, onto the ice below. In their panic, he realized, the men were not paying much attention "as to where or how these things were thrown," so that some of the goods were falling between the ship and the edge of the ice sheet, disappearing into the frigid water.
"I decided I had better get overboard, calling some of the men to help me," Tyson recorded, "and try to carry whatever I could away from the ship so that it would not get crushed and lost." In the dark and snow, Tyson, along with one officer and eight enlisted men, tried to rescue the goods that were being thrown overboard by moving them to the center of the ice floe to which the ship was moored. The two Eskimo men, along with their wives and children, also left the ship.
For four hours Tyson and his crew worked to salvage provisions being thrown from the Polaris. In time, the thin ice at the edge of the floe became stressed by the weight of the jettisoned cargo. "Very shortly afterward," Tyson recorded, "the ice exploded under our feet and broke in many places, and the ship broke away in the darkness and we lost sight of her in a moment.
"It was snowing at this time and it was a terrible night. We did not know who was on the ice and who was on the ship... the last thing I had pulled away from the ship were some musk-ox skins. They were lying across a wide crack in the ice and as I pulled them toward me I saw that there were two or three of [the Eskimo] children rolled up in one of the skins. A slight motion of the ice, and in a moment more they would either have been in the water and drowned in the darkness or crushed."
Tyson heard the shouts of some men who were trapped on smaller pieces of shattered ice, about 40 yards away from the main floe. "I took the small scow and went for them, but the scow was almost instantly swamped. Then I shoved off one of the whaleboats and took what men I could see, and some of the other men took the other boat and helped their companions, so that eventually we were all on firm ice together." Exhausted, the men collapsed onto the ice. "Those who had lain down on the ice to sleep were snowed under-but that helped to keep them warm," Tyson noted.
The next morning, Tyson and the eighteen other castaways took stock of their situation. The ice floe on which they were marooned was huge, nearly four miles in circumference. The floe was surrounded by smaller pieces of snow-covered ice, that were continually forming, breaking apart and reforming under the influence of the wind and the current. The supplies that had been saved from the Polaris included fourteen large cans of dried meat and lard, eleven bags of bread, one can of dried apples, and fourteen hams. The group also had the two small boats Tyson had used the night before, and two sealskin kayaks. The Polaris was nowhere in sight.
Later that day, Tyson spotted the Polaris through his spyglass, about ten miles away. Raising a makeshift flag and spreading a large piece of dark cloth on the ice, he tried to get the ship's attention, but was frustrated when the Polaris dropped anchor and apparently took no notice of his signals. "Either, I thought, the Polaris is disabled and cannot come for us or else... Captain Budington does not mean to help us," he concluded. The Polaris was soon lost to sight as the ice pack continued to drift south with the current.
Noticing an opening in the ice pack, Tyson decided to take the largest boat and try to reach the coast of Greenland, which was visible to the east. Most of the other men, however, were tired, hungry and wet, and insisted on loading the boat with all of their salvaged possessions, until it became too heavy to drag across the ice. Finally getting the boat into the water, the group was forced to turn back as the drifting ice floes closed in on them once again, making it impossible to escape. The Eskimo families began to build igloos from the loose snow that covered the ice. By the end of a week on the ice, the stranded party had broken up into two camps. The enlisted men all lived together in a large snow house, while the Eskimo families, Tyson, and another officer lived in separate igloos. The Eskimos tried to teach the sailors to use seal-oil lamps for heat and light, but "somehow the men could not seem to understand how to use it, and they either got the blubber all in a blaze or else got it smoking so badly that they were driven out of their hut." Tyson wrote in his journal, "They have begun to break up one of the boats for fuel. This is a bad business, but I cannot stop them."
In the frenzy of trying to save provisions from the Polaris, Tyson had left behind his weapons and spare clothing, while the sailors had seen to saving their own possessions first. As a result, the crewmen were well armed and had dry clothes to change into, which they guarded jealously. Although he was the ranking officer in the group, Tyson wrote, "I am without any other authority than such as they choose to concede to me.... I can only advise them."
On October 23, the sun sank below the horizon for the last time, marking the beginning of the long, dark Arctic winter. Tyson insisted on rationing the food that had been saved from the Polaris, doling out just 11 ounces of bread and meat each day to the adults, and less to the children. In temperatures of fifty below zero, the two Eskimo hunters, Joe and Hans, left the camp to hunt for seals by moonlight, while the sailors huddled in their igloos. The raw seal meat that the Eskimos brought back was distributed equally. Tyson confided to his journal, "No doubt many of my friends who read this will exclaim `I would rather die than eat such stuff!' You think so, no doubt. But people can't die when they want to, and when one is in full life and vigor and only suffering from hunger he doesn't want to die. Neither would you."
As weeks passed by, the hunters returned with less and less meat, and the supply of canned food steadily diminished. Tyson and the Eskimos began to fear the enlisted men. Concerned that the men might be driven by their hunger to murder and cannibalism, one of the Eskimos gave Tyson his pistol one night, saying, "I don't like the look out of the men's eyes." Tyson resolved to protect the Eskimos at all costs, realizing that "they are our best and only hunters. No white man can catch a seal like an Eskimo, who has practiced it all his life."
Tyson's disdain for the sailors grew stronger with each day. "From the talk in the men's hut I hear they plan great things," he wryly observed on December 27. "But when they get outside and face the cold, and feel their weakness, they are glad to creep back again to their shelter." On January 16, Joe and Hans brought back an especially large seal which they had killed. The carcass was seized by the sailors, who greedily divided the meat among themselves. "It seems hard on the natives who have hunted day after day, in cold and storm, while these men lay idle on their backs, or sit in the shelter of their huts, which were mainly built by these same natives the men are wronging," Tyson wrote.
On New Year's Day, 1873, Tyson gloomily recorded, "I have dined today on about two feet of frozen seal's entrails and a small piece of congealed blubber."
On January 20, the sun rose for the first time in 83 days. Tyson noted, "The sun means more than light to us: it means better hunting, better health, relief from despondency. It means hope in every sense. The sun has come this time earlier than I expected. We must have drifted faster than I had realized." As the ice continued to drift south, more game, including narwhal, migratory birds, sea lions and a polar bear were killed by the Eskimo hunters, each time temporarily pressing back the constant fear of starvation.
Battered by storms and collisions with towering icebergs, the ice floe on which the group had lived for almost four months began to crack and break apart. On March 12, during a fierce storm, the ice floe was "suddenly shattered into hundreds of pieces, leaving us on a piece about seventy-five by one hundred yards." Ten days later, Tyson noted, "We can stand in our own hut door and shoot seals now, for our piece is so reduced that it is only twenty paces to the water."
On March 30, the small piece of ice on which the group was stranded became separated from the rest of the floe and seemed likely to completely disintegrate. Tyson convinced the others that they had to abandon their makeshift homes to try and reach a larger piece of ice.
Crowded into the remaining small whaleboat, the group rowed toward a large ice pack about twenty miles away, leaving behind a month's supply of meat and most of their ammunition. Reaching the edge of the pack, they set up a temporary camp, but had to abandon it several days later when the ice beneath them began to melt. Tyson joked to his journal, "This sort of real estate is getting to be very `uncertain property.'"
On April 20, a violent storm swept over the bobbing ice cake on which the group had settled. Huge waves crashed over the floe, washing away everything that had not been fastened down. The Eskimo women and children were put in the boat with the remaining supplies, while the men held on to it to prevent it being washed away.
"We stood from nine at night until seven in the morning... Every little while one of the tremendous seas would lift the boat up... and carry it and us forward almost to the extreme opposite edge of our piece of ice. Several times the boat got partly over the edge and was hauled back only with superhuman strength, which the knowledge of our desperate condition gave us. Had the water been clear it would have been hard enough. But it was full of loose ice rolling about in blocks of all shapes and sizes, and with almost every wave would come an avalanche of these, striking us on our legs and bodies.... For twelve hours there was scarcely a sound uttered except the crying of the children and my orders to `hold on,' `bear down,' `put on all your weight,' and the responsive `Aye, aye, sir,' which for once came readily enough." Finally, the men crawled into the boat and rode out the storm. The next day they found a larger piece of ice on which to camp.
By April 30, the group of eighteen starving castaways had drifted into commercial shipping lanes off the coast of Labrador, 1,800 miles from their starting point seven months before. In a heavy fog, the first two ships that were sighted steamed by with no one on deck to notice the frantic group, who shouted, fired their guns in the air and waved flags, hoping to be rescued. Finally they spotted a third ship, a Canadian seal hunter named Tigress. Hans Christian, the Eskimo, paddled his kayak across to the ship, got the attention of the captain, and led a rescue party back to pick up the rest. The nineteen ragged castaways were taken on board the ship, where they were asked, "How long have you been on the ice?" Tyson replied, "Since the fifteenth of last October."
The next summer Captain Budington and the men who had remained aboard the Polaris were rescued. They had abandoned their sinking ship, and then had reached the coast of Greenland, where they had survived with the help of Eskimos.
During a long naval inquiry, Tyson criticized Budington for the lax discipline on board the Polaris, for drinking while on duty, and for abandoning his party on the ice. Budington admitted to the drinking, but claimed to have never seen Tyson and the others on the day after they were separated. Of Tyson, Budington testified, "He was a man that was rather useless aboard, and complained bitterly about the management generally... I got so that after a while I did not pay much attention to him."
After extensive cross-examination of the crew of the Polaris, the navy was content to accept that the expedition's leader Charles Hall had died of a stroke. In 1968, however, Hall's deep-frozen corpse was exhumed on the coast of Greenland, and an autopsy proved that he died from acute arsenic poisoning. The identity of Hall's murderer is unknown.
Weird and Tragic Shores: The Story of Charles Francis Hall, Explorer. by Chauncy C. Loomis. Alfred Knopf. 1971.
The Arctic Grail. by Pierre Berton. Viking Press. 1988.
The Polar Passion. by Farley Mowat. Gibbs Smith. 1967.
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