The State of Arctic History: the Preeminent Polar Explorers of Pennsylvania

By Dr. P.J. Capelotti, Professor of Anthropology, Penn State Abington, and Research Associate of the Polar Center at Penn State, University Park, Pennsylvania

“Aurora Borealis” (1865) by American painter Fredric Edwin Church. The piece was inspired by sketches given to the artist by his friend, Pennsylvanian Arctic explorer Dr. Isaac Hayes, following Hayes’ 1860 Arctic expedition. Today the piece hangs in the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC. (Image Credit: Smithsonian.)

Pennsylvania’s interest in the high north goes back more than a quarter century before the founding of our nation itself, when Pennsylvanian missionaries in Greenland brought three young Inuit (then referred to as Eskimo) Christian converts to Philadelphia. The connections between Pennsylvania and the Arctic continue to this day.

The Polar Center at Penn State University, where I am a Research Associate, was recently founded to bring together the interdisciplinary voices at the university, other national and international institutions, and the larger Commonwealth of Pennsylvania community. An inaugural art competition among Penn State undergraduates was won by a student of mine, Ms. Jacqueline Lanning, with her representation of the “North Pole.” This work of art melded different styles with historical accounts of polar exploration to produce a striking representation of the lure of the Arctic for a new generation of Pennsylvanians.

Penn State Abington student Jacqueline Lanning (right) presents Norwegian polar historian Dr. Susan Barr (left) with a copy of her prize-winning artistic print, “North Pole.” (Photo credit Leah Devlin.)

In May of 2015, Lanning presented a copy of this work to Norway’s pioneering woman polar historian, Dr. Susan Barr, at a workshop on the place names of the Arctic archipelago of Franz Josef Land held in Oslo, Norway, funded by a grant from the Office of Polar Programs at the National Science Foundation.

University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) also has strong Arctic connections. The school’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania houses an enormous Arctic collection. It includes items dating back to expeditions made in the early 1900s by then-Museum Director George B. Gordon to Alaska, the Northwest coast, and to the Yukon. Gordon’s travels among the Yup’ik helped to preserve the disappearing material culture of this important indigenous population of America’s Arctic. The Wharton School at UPenn conducts studies of current business trends in the region, including the extraction of resources from a warming Arctic. In the university’s archives, you can also find the papers of Benjamin Sharp, Jr., the zoologist from fellow Pennsylvanian Robert Peary’s first Arctic expedition in 1891.

Modern Pennsylvania’s continuing involvement with the Arctic stems from its long history with the region. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is the birthplace of four of the most significant Arctic explorers in American history: Edwin De Haven (1816–1865), Elisha Kent Kane (1820–1857), Isaac Israel Hayes (1832–1881), and Robert Peary (1856–1920). The explorations of these native Pennsylvanians both inaugurated and concluded the American push to discover the geographic North Pole between 1850 and 1909.

Edwin Jesse De Haven

The author at the grave of Edwin De Haven, America’s first Arctic explorer, in Christ Church Cemetery, Philadelphia. (Photo courtesy of Tramble T. Turner).

Philadelphian Edwin Jesse De Haven is known as the first American explorer of the Arctic. An officer of the U.S. Navy born exactly two centuries ago, De Haven was given command of a U.S. expedition to search for the lost British Arctic expedition of Sir John Franklin. In the summer of 1850, De Haven led group of ships into the Canadian Arctic in search of Franklin and his crew. After discovering the graves of three of Franklin’s men, which gave the search party hope, the expedition unfortunately had to return home after only two weeks as thick ice made it impossible continue. De Haven passed away in 1865 and is buried in Philadelphia.

Elisha Kent Kane

The job of writing the official report of the De Haven-led voyage was given over to another native of Philadelphia, the expedition’s surgeon, a man by the name of Elisha Kent Kane, a UPenn alumnus. Kane’s fascinating and detailed report on the first significant American foray into the Arctic quickly made him the expedition’s most famous veteran, and helped spark what would become an obsession during the next half century with reaching the North Pole, the “Moon Shot” of that era.

Elisha Kent Kane, engraving after Alonzo Chappel. (Image credit: IBiblio.org)

With his newfound fame, Kane quickly seized his chance for further glory in the far north, and gathered financial support from wealthy and prominent supporters to take a second expedition. Kane used the Franklin search as cover for his real objective: a return to northern Baffin Bay in an attempt to reach the Polar Sea thought to lie to the north of it.

In his account of his second voyage, Kane described how two of his men stood at 81° 22’ North latitude, a point Kane later named Cape Constitution, where they heard “the novel music of dashing waves; and a surf.” This sound of soughing waves, Kane believed, was caused by what he described as an ‘Open Polar Sea’, an ocean at the top of the world that would — if one could but reach it — allow a ship to sail directly to the North Pole.

Kane was thirty-years-old when he first witnessed the Arctic with De Haven. By the time he was buried on a bluff overlooking the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery less than seven years later, his imagination of an ‘Open Polar Sea’ had gained a permanent siren grasp on the 19th century theory of Arctic geography.

Kent Kane actually died in Cuba in early 1857. However, due to his fame, his body was returned to Philadelphia in a prolonged national cortège that included a ship, a riverboat and, finally, a train. The last stage by train has been described as the third greatest railway mourning in American history — behind only the funerals of President Abraham Lincoln and Senator Robert F. Kennedy.

Experts from John Morgan Thomas Landscape Architects assist in the restoration of Kane’s crypt in at Lauren Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia. (Photo credit: johnmorganthomas.com.)

Kane was interred in the ‘Tomb in the Rock’, an overhang of stone above what is now Kelly Drive, where as a boy he and his siblings had warmed themselves by a fire after ice-skating on the Schuylkill River below.

Kane’s crypt was last entered about a decade ago — to reveal that the glass windows above his face and hands in the unique metal sarcophagus in which he was interred had been smashed, presumably by vandals from decades earlier who wreaked havoc on the tomb before it was permanently sealed. Whoever broke into the crypt and scattered Kane’s bones probably had little idea of who he was or why he had been buried in such an elaborate tomb. We now have a chance to correct that. On August 26, 2016, a new historical marker approved by the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission (PHMC) and dedicated to Kane’s brief but spectacular Arctic career will be unveiled at the site (more details on the ceremony here). This effort is, “the result of a decade of research by students in Penn State Abington’s ‘American Way to the Pole’ seminar. The students conceived, wrote, and carried the marker through to final approval in 2014 by the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission.”

Plans are also underway to bring the tomb area back to what it was on the day Kane was buried, as the most famous polar explorer in Pennsylvania, indeed the most famous explorer in the world on the day he was laid to an ultimately greatly-disturbed rest.

Isaac Israel Hayes

With such an example of national and international fame laid before him, it was more than enough to entice Kane’s own expedition surgeon — and yet a third Pennsylvanian — Isaac Israel Hayes, to return to Baffin Bay to search for Kane’s “Open Polar Sea.” Not nearly as well-connected as Kane, it took him five years to raise the money required to fund an Arctic expedition. Finally, in the summer of 1860, Hayes sailed from Boston in a small refitted schooner rechristened the United States. Ten months later, on May 18, 1861, after a winter in which local Inuit women made new fur clothes for him and his crew, Hayes reached the northern terminus of his efforts. Ascending to a cliff he reckoned was about 800 feet above the sea, Hayes looked out over a polar ocean filled with loose ice, arrayed so as to appear as a magical road leading northwards.

“…like the delta of some mighty river discharging into the ocean, and under a water-sky, which hung upon the northern and eastern horizon, it was lost in the open sea…” — Hayes’ observations of the Kane Basin

Unfortunately Hayes was unable to capitalize on his voyage and observation the way that Kane had. He returned to a nation torn apart by Civil War and suddenly entirely disinterested in Arctic exploration.

Penn State Abington students Janet Stock and Steven Mangier locate the grave of Arctic explorer Isaac Israel Hayes during a research trip to the Friends cemetery in West Chester, PA, in 2013. (Photo by the author).

Isaac Israel Hayes died in 1881 and was buried in a small Quaker cemetery near West Chester, PA. His fame lasted very briefly. There is one report of his grave being visited a year after his death on what was then known as Decoration Day (now our Memorial Day), but thereafter he faded into obscurity. It took my students at Penn State Abington several years and a lot of luck to finally track him down in the spring of 2013.

Robert Edwin Peary, Sr.

It was left to a fourth Pennsylvanian, the titanic and volcanic Robert Peary, to finish what De Haven, Kane, and Hayes had begun. Peary was born in a small railroad town in western Pennsylvania called Cresson. He was only three when his family moved to Maine, and as a young man was heavily influenced by the writings of Kane. He made a brief reconnaissance of the interior of Greenland in 1886 and then five years later, in an expedition that included a recent medical school graduate and future rival named Frederick Cook, Peary crossed the northwestern corner the Greenland icecap and showed that Greenland was not some kind of massive peninsula hanging southwards from the North Pole, as many of the time believed.

Before Peary, the area north of Greenland was uncharted, as seen in this map from 1814. Many thought Greenland was perhaps a peninsula attached to an Arctic land mass. (Image credit: Duraglobes.)

After 1897, Peary’s goal became the North Pole itself. With his base in northwest Greenland, he claimed Kane’s ‘American route’ as his own and guarded it jealously. Peary’s subsequent expeditions were filled with claims of new lands discovered and latitudes achieved — including, in 1909, the North Pole itself.

During the Great Depression, Peary was formally remembered by the home town in Pennsylvania in which he had only lived for three years, Cresson, with the 1937 dedication of a park and statue erected as a project of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration. Peary died in 1920 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery underneath an enormous globe with the North Pole prominently marked with a star. He had become the very symbol of American heroism, achieving the fame he had sought all his life.

Memorials to Rear Admiral Peary at Arlington National Cemetery (left) and in his birth town of Cresson, Pennsylvania. (Photo credits: (L) USSRobertPeary.org; (R) the author.)

Thanks to our universities, our historic ties, and the examples set by Peary and his fellow Arctic explorers, the Keystone State continues to play a key role in the Arctic, inspiring a new generation of Arctic explorers.

The North Pole on August 18, 2006. The author continued the tradition of Pennsylvanians exploring northward when he visited the North Pole as part of research expedition in August 2006. (Photo credit: the author)

About the author: Dr. P.J. Capelotti, is professor of anthropology at Penn State Abington College and a research associate of the Polar Center at Penn State, University Park. His latest book is The Greatest Show in the Arctic: the American exploration of Franz Josef Land, 1898–1905 (University of Oklahoma Press, 2016). He is the author or editor of twenty books, including Life and Death on the Greenland Patrol (University Press of Florida, 2006) and Shipwreck at Cape Flora (University of Calgary Press, 2013). His Arctic fieldwork has taken him several times to Svalbard and Franz Josef Land and twice to the North Pole. A retired Master Chief Petty Officer in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve, the Coast Guard decorated him with the Arctic Service Medal and twice with the Meritorious Service Medal. Follow him on Twitter at: @PJCapelotti.

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