The Quest for the North Pole, Episode 4: Inuit and the Explorers

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It’s August, 1818, and two British naval ships are dodging icebergs in Baffin Bay on their mission to find the Northwest Passage. John Ross, commanding the HMS Isabella, and William Parry in the HMS Alexander are farther north along the western Greenland coast than any previous explorers. They assume this land of glaciers and stark mountains is uninhabited. 

But they’re wrong.

They spy several figures running on a hill near shore. Ross assumes they’re shipwrecked sailors in need of rescue, and he steers the Isabella to get closer. But they turn out to be Native people, a community of Inughuit living farther north than Europeans believed was physically possible.

Ross, following the habit of previous explorers, immediately sets out gifts of knives, European clothing, and a Greenland dog with strings of blue beads around its neck to signal that they come in peace. Several hours later, Ross writes, “the dog was found sleeping on the spot where we left him, the presents remaining untouched.”

Undaunted, Ross decides to raise a flag with pictures of the sun, moon, and a hand holding a sprig of Arctic heath—the northern version of an olive branch. At the base of the flagpole he puts out another bag of gifts and a sign with a hand pointing to the ship.

The following day, Ross sees a group of Inughuit approach the gifts. He sends out his Inuit interpreter, John Sacheuse, carrying a small white flag. Eventually he throws a knife on the ground and urges them to take it as a present. But the Native people are terrified of the strange men and looming ships.

They approach the knife cautiously, and gingerly pick it up. After a few moments they begin shouting with approval and pulling their noses, a move that Sacheuse imitates. The curious Inughuit bombard him with questions about his clothing, the ships, and where he came from. Though Sacheuse speaks a different form of the language, he finally understands that these Inughuit have never before seen white people. They’ve never met European explorers. They turn out to be one of the last uncontacted communities of Arctic people in this region.

John Sacheuse's sketch shows John Ross and William Edward Parry (in blue naval uniforms) meeting Inughuit in northwestern Greenland.
John Sacheuse's sketch shows John Ross and William Edward Parry (in blue naval uniforms) meeting Inughuit in northwestern Greenland. / John Sacheuse, Royal Museums Greenwich // Public Domain

From the advent of modern European polar exploration in the 16th century right up until the present day, nearly every community of Indigenous people in Greenland and Arctic North America had some encounter with white explorers, whalers, or traders.

And yet, European explorers often thought of the Arctic as an empty, inhospitable wasteland. When they did describe the people who lived there, they portrayed them as relics of the Stone Age; quote-unquote “savages”; or child-like folk who needed paternalistic guidance from whites. Of course, none of that is true. As the historian Pierre Berton writes, during the whole of European exploration in the North, “the real children in the Arctic would be the white explorers.”

But Native peoples’ full contributions to human understanding of polar geography, wildlife, and climate are often overlooked.

More than 40 Indigenous groups totaling over a million people live in the circumpolar Arctic today, but in this episode, we’re going to focus on the peoples of what is now eastern Arctic Canada and Greenland. They had the most consistent interactions with white explorers over four centuries. In this episode, we’ll try to show the other side of the explorers’ stories. We’ll look at how Indigenous people saw the white explorers, or qallunaat, in their lands, why they helped them, and how they saved those explorers’ lives countless times. 

You’re listening to Mental Floss Presents: The Quest for the North Pole. I’m your host, Kat Long, science editor at Mental Floss, and this is Episode 4: Inuit and the Explorers.

Before European explorers began arriving regularly to Arctic Canada in the early 19th century, Indigenous people there had some memorable encounters with them. The first was with the Vikings. Virtually all we know of the meetings comes from two Norse sagas written 200 years after the events. They say that when Vikings arrived in what is now Newfoundland and set up a small colony, they traded with the Indigenous people, but there were deadly battles as well. It wasn’t a great start to European-North American relations.

Skipping ahead a few hundred years, we come to the English mariner Martin Frobisher, whom you might remember from our first episode. When he and his crew arrived at Baffin Island in 1576, looking for the Northwest Passage, they saw a group of Inuit in kayaks coming toward them. One of the crew described them as having long black hair, wearing sealskin clothing, and paddling boats made of sealskin stretched over a wooden frame. The women had facial tattoos in blue ink. 

“During the first meeting, the Inuit were just in awe. The qallunaat came with their huge ship,” a revered elder named Inookie Adamie told the Canadian anthropologist Dorothy Harley Eber around the start of the 21st century. In oral histories, his ancestors had passed on their first-hand memories of Frobisher’s arrival in the Arctic more than 400 years earlier. 

Speaking in Inuktitut, Inookie said the Inuit had never seen such a big ship and such strange people. They were wary. “The qallunaat fired two warning shots in the air. I’m sure the qallunaat had good intentions, but they had never seen Inuit before and Inuit had never seen qallunaat.”

The scene quickly turned confusing, heightened by the Inuit’s bewilderment at the Englishmen’s outfits.

Here’s Krista Ulujuk Zawadski, an anthropologist and curator of Inuit art from Rankin Inlet on the western shore of Hudson Bay. She’s a Ph.D. candidate with a research focus on Arctic anthropology, archaeology, and Inuit oral histories.

Krista Ulujuk Zawadski: I think that for Inuit, when they encountered these people, in these ships that were lost or shipwrecked or stuck in the ice, that I think Inuit probably thought that, "These guys are very ill-prepared for the Arctic. They're not wearing fur clothing like we are."

Cordial relations went south when five crewmen, who were ferrying an Inuit man from the ship to shore, never returned. Winter forced Frobisher to go home without their comrades. But before leaving, he gathered quote-unquote “proof” that he had found the Passage to Asia: a rock sample and an Inuit hostage

The man was taken to London, where artists painted his portrait and sculpted his likeness. Frobisher surely expected to show him off to the public as a curiosity of the new world. But, sadly, the Inuit man lived only a couple of weeks after arriving. Frobisher’s sponsors paid a surgeon 5 pounds to embalm the man with the idea of sending him back to his homeland. But for some reason, that didn’t happen. Instead, the company paid for his burial in St. Olave’s churchyard on Hart Street, London—though the church has no record of his burial. We know of his fate only from an accounting book belonging to Frobisher’s chief sponsor.

The sponsors were much more interested in Frobisher’s rock samples, anyway. They believed they contained gold. In 1577, they sent Frobisher back to Baffin Island with a direct order to stop exploring and focus on gold mining.

As the men hacked at the ore, Inuit watched from a nearby hill, wondering why the qallunaat were obsessed with this worthless rock. The scene made a big impression on them. Even in the mid-20th century, a respected shaman pointed to the shiny flecks in a river, and said to his grandson, “Never show that to the qallunaat—it steals their minds.”

Though mining was their sole objective, Dionyse Settle, one of the ship’s masters on this voyage, took note of the Inuit customs. He saw that they hunted marine mammals and birds for food. They lived in sealskin tents—which were the traditional summer housing of the Inuit, easily moved from place to place as they hunted migrating animals. He admired their resourcefulness in putting every part of an animal to good use. He wrote, “Those beasts, fishes, and foules, which they kill, are their meat, drinke, apparell, houses, bedding, hose, shooes, threed, and sailes for their boates, with many other necessaries whereof they stand in need, and almost all their riches.”

Meanwhile, Frobisher and another crew member searched for the missing sailors. Encountering two Inuit on a beach, he tried to abduct them, intending to ransom them for the return of his men. One of the captives shot Frobisher in the buttocks with an arrow and escaped. The other was wrestled to the ground as he tried to run away and was brought back to the ship. Some of the English later explored the area and found what they thought was evidence that their missing comrades were nearby. So they chased down the Inuit and cornered them on a beach.

The Inuit defended themselves with bows and arrows. “The old stories say that the Inuit were so terrified of these white men in the rowboats, that thinking they were not of this world, they started shooting arrows at them,” Inookie said, several centuries later.

In one account, five or six Inuit were killed. The crew kidnapped a young mother and her baby. Frobisher attempted to negotiate a hostage trade for the five missing men, but that failed. So, as soon as they filled their ships’ holds with 200 tons of ore, they left the island—with the three Inuit captives.

What we know of the captives after their abduction comes only from English sources—unfortunately, their own words and experiences are not recorded by history. The Inuit man was named Kalicho, while the woman was called something like Arnaq, and her baby was called Nutaaq or Nutioc, although these words may have meant “woman” and “child” in their language. To the sailors on the ship, the man and woman appeared not to know one another when they were brought together in their cabin. But they seemed solicitous of each other, and Arnaq prepared meals for Kalicho.

They arrived in Bristol, England, in September 1577. Like an Elizabethan P.T. Barnum, Frobisher wanted to show off the Native people for paying customers and to the leaders of the city. Kalicho allegedly met the mayor of Bristol and showed off his hunting skills by shooting ducks on the River Avon with darts—even though he was also suffering from broken ribs and other injuries, apparently from being tackled by the English sailor. All three had their portraits drawn and printed for the public.

This 16th-century drawing depicts Kalicho, Arnaq, and Nutaaq (in Arnaq's hood) after they arrived in England.
This 16th-century drawing depicts Kalicho, Arnaq, and Nutaaq (in Arnaq's hood) after they arrived in England. / Zentralbibliothek Zurich, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Before Frobisher could exploit them as a sideshow, though, Kalicho died of his injuries in Bristol. The physician who treated him, Edward Dodding, made Arnaq attend the burial to show her that the English people didn’t practice human sacrifice or cannibalism, as he believed the Inuit did. Arnaq was unwilling to see the ceremony, and Dodding commented that she appeared stoic throughout. She was also suffering from a disease that historians believe was measles, and died four days later. She was buried next to Kalicho in Bristol’s St. Stephen’s Church.

Frobisher sent little Nutaaq to London because Queen Elizabeth I was especially keen on seeing him. But, tragically, the baby died just over a week after arriving in the capital. He too was buried at St. Olave’s Church.

And just as tragically, none of their family and friends on Baffin Island knew what had happened to them.

Frobisher was not done yet. His sponsors arranged a fleet of 15 ships, 400 sailors and settlers, and supplies for setting up a colony next to the mines on Baffin Island. But on their way there, the ship carrying their prefabricated house sank in a storm, a sight that “so abashed the whole fleet, that we thought verily we should have tasted the same sauce,” wrote Thomas Ellis, another ship’s master.

The Englishmen built a few workshops and a kiln for making bricks, surely planning to return the following year. An elder named Udluriak Inneak told Dorothy Harley Eber in the 1990s that her ancestors “used to talk about the Queen’s people. […] They had this deep trench and used it to repair their boat. And also they had a water supply area. And the building they made for themselves. And also there was a place on a cliffside where they fixed their masts. That’s how it got its name, Naparuqsivik—’where the poles are set up.’ That name is still in use today.”

But unbeknownst to Frobisher, they would not be returning. Their “gold” was actually worthless iron pyrite—just like the Inuit knew. It ended up as building material all over Elizabethan England.

While a few other European explorers poked around the Canadian Arctic, they didn’t stay long. And Inuit life continued on as usual. Here’s Krista Ulujuk Zawadski.

Zawadski: The explorers didn't have a huge impact on Inuit, other than adding to the stories that Inuit shared or told. I don't think Inuit today necessarily think about explorers as like a detriment. I don't think that Inuit necessarily think of them as like, "Oh, this was first contact. And it went downhill from there." Or, "It was great from then on." There's not that sort of mentality among Inuit, not that I know of. Like I said, a lot of the change that occurred for Inuit was around the whaling era. And so I think that Inuit appreciate when there's stories about first encounters with explorers, in the sense that these are old stories and they've been passed on for hundreds of years, and that's kind of cool. I think people appreciate that aspect of it. But in terms of their attitudes towards explorers, at least in where I'm from, people don't give much thought to explorers other than James Knight, and there might be a story here or there that said, "Oh yeah, my grandfather remembers this story about his elders when they remembered seeing the first ship arrive, they'd never seen a ship before and it was shocking to them. And they saw it from far away and they thought it took them so long to come to shore because they didn't realize how big it was." There's those types of stories, but compared to other later encounters, they're not as impactful.

We’ll be back in a minute.

In 1818, when John Ross and William Edward Parry sailed up the western coast of Greenland to find the Northwest Passage, they were lucky to have John Sacheuse on board.

Sacheuse was born in western Greenland around 1797. When he was about 18 years old, he found his way aboard a Scottish whaling ship called the Thomas and Ann and arrived in Leith, the main port of Edinburgh. Reports from the time indicate that he was interested in learning English and becoming a missionary. Unlike the Inuit brought to England against their will in the 16th century, Sacheuse is the first known Inuit person who came to the United Kingdom by choice. 

Sacheuse seems to have enjoyed living in Edinburgh. He sketched passers-by at the harbor and even demonstrated his paddling skills against those of six men in a whaleboat, outmaneuvering them in his canoe as a huge crowd watched.

The Inuit guide and interpreter John Sacheuse
The Inuit guide and interpreter John Sacheuse / Alexander Nasmyth, National Gallery of Scotland // Public Domain

Prominent artists painted or drew Sacheuse’s portrait. One, by the Scottish painter Alexander Nasmyth, shows him in a sealskin jacket and holding a harpoon. Sacheuse was himself a talented artist, and Nasmyth offered him drawing lessons. Sacheuse also traded lessons in Inuktitut for instruction in English and writing. 

He joined Ross’s expedition as an Inuit interpreter. Ross perhaps hoped that Sacheuse’s presence among the white men would put Native people they met at ease, and that he would be able to sketch scenes that few Europeans could imagine.

In fact, Sacheuse’s drawing of Ross and Parry meeting the Inughuit is a revealing depiction of contact. When the Inughuit accepted the gift of the knife, Sacheuse found that their languages were close enough that they could communicate. After a brief chat, Sacheuse motioned to Ross and Parry to come over where he and a group of eight Inughuit stood. 

In the drawing, Ross and Parry are in full naval dress, complete with bicorne hats and gold-fringed epaulets, looking extremely out of place. The Inughuit, shouting and raising their arms, wear fur parkas and tall boots, and some are gazing at themselves in mirrors that Ross gave them as presents. Sacheuse captured a meeting that boded well for future explorers in their lands.

The descendants of these very people would play important roles in explorers’ quests for the North Pole nearly a century later.

According to the anthropologist Jean Malaurie, who lived with the Inughuit in the 1950s, Ross and Parry’s visit to their home in 1818 “was a cardinal date in their history.” Ross made a similar impact with Inuit on the other side of Baffin Bay too.

After the embarrassing Croker Mountains experience—in which he mistook a common Arctic mirage for a mountain range, which we talked about in our second episode—Ross was basically blacklisted from leading any more naval expeditions. But he didn’t give up. He got a wealthy gin distiller named Felix Booth to give him more than 10,000 pounds, with which he bought a steamship named the Victory. In 1829, Ross set off toward Prince Regent Inlet, a large channel leading south from Lancaster Sound, hoping to locate the Northwest Passage.

The Victory spent the summer of 1829 cruising the eastern shore of a peninsula that he named Boothia, after his benefactor. As winter came on, the Victory hunkered down in a small bay Ross called Felix Harbour. There, they encountered a group of Inuit, the Netsilingmiut, who had had no prior contact with qallunaat.

The Netsilingmiut called the spot where they encountered the Victory Kablunaaqhiuvik—”the place for meeting white people.” An elder named Bibian Neeveeovak described the famous meeting to Dorothy Harley Eber: “A group of hunters happened to be in the Thom Bay area. One hunter”—named Abiluktuq—”wandered away from the group and saw something strange. He went toward it and found the qallunaat. He was scared because he had never seen them before. He ran so fast that the tail of his parka flew out behind him. When he got back home, he told everybody that these were really different people with long necks and long faces. He scared everyone.”

The other hunters were not sure if they should go toward the ship. The shaman in their village spoke through his spirit to the qallunaat, in English, and then told the Inuit that the qallunaat were not dangerous. The following day, they went to the Victory. According to Eber, the tale of Abiluktuq, his flying parka, and meeting the qallunaat is still shared with laughter among communities all across the region.

Ross presented the Netsilingmiut with gifts of metal implements. Soon a cluster of igloos went up, which Ross sketched and called “snow cottages.” Ross also instructed the ship’s carpenter to fashion a wooden leg, inscribed with the ship’s name, for an Inuit man who had lost his to a polar bear. The man was able to resume hunting and providing for his family, Ross noted, and wrote in his journal, “I am sure the simple contrivance of this wooden leg raised us higher in the estimation of this people than all the wonders we had shown them.” The wooden leg is now in the collection of the Manitoba Museum.

The first winter passed with the Victory crew and the Netsilingmiut enjoying friendly relations. But Ross would soon face a nightmare: throughout 1830 and 1831, ice in Prince Regent Inlet trapped the Victory along a 20-mile sliver of coastline. What Ross had envisioned as a one- or two-year expedition turned into an ordeal lasting four years. Four dark, frigid winters. Four years of surviving on canned food and ship’s biscuit, four years of facing the same few people, four years of waiting to go home. 

The one bright spot was that, for the most part, Ross’s crew avoided scurvy—the often-fatal vitamin C deficiency that was the bane of sailors—because the Netsilingmiut shared fresh meat with them.

The crew mounted the first phase of their escape in January 1832, by removing every useful thing from the Victory and piling it on shore. Some of the supplies were bundled into caches and left along their planned retreat. Valuable instruments were buried in permafrost. The rest of the supplies were left for the local people. On May 29, they abandoned the Victory and began marching toward Fury Beach—a depot of supplies salvaged from the wreck of the HMS Fury, Parry’s old ship from an earlier expedition.

There, the crew hoped to repair the Fury’s whaleboats, obtain provisions, and sail to Lancaster Sound, where they hoped the European whaling fleet would be able to rescue them. But whalers always left the area in August ahead of winter, and the Victory crew didn’t make it in time. That meant a fourth winter in the Arctic. The men built a hut out of the Fury’s timbers and packed snow all around the walls and roof for insulation. They called it Somerset House, after the elegant London building that houses several of Britain’s learned and scientific societies. 

Now, without interaction or food from the Netsilingmiut, days turned into a grind of boredom and malaise. Everyone in the crew had a touch of scurvy, which made them irritable and depressed. When spring finally came, they were determined to escape the Arctic or die trying.

Despite their weakened state, they rowed frantically to Lancaster Sound where they prayed they would be rescued by a whaler. On August 26, 1833, a ship did spot the whaleboats and sent out an officer in a boat to meet them.

As Ross wrote, “I requested to know the name of his vessel, and expressed our wish to be taken on board. I was answered it was ‘the Isabella of Hull, once commanded by Captain Ross’; on which I stated I was the identical man in question, and my people as the crew of the Victory. …  [The mate] assured me that I had been dead for two years. I easily convinced him, however, that what ought to have been true, according to his estimate, was a somewhat premature conclusion.” 

They were back in England by October.

The whaler Isabella saves its former captain, John Ross, and the stranded crew of the Victory in 1833.
The whaler Isabella saves its former captain, John Ross, and the stranded crew of the Victory in 1833. / Edward Francis Finden, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Meanwhile, the wreck of the Victory continued to provide supplies for generations of Netsiligmiut. About 35 miles north of where Abiluktuq first saw the ship, elder Gideon Qauqjuak said in the 1990s, “there are some old pieces of iron around, but a lot of this has vanished ... the Inuit never found exactly where they buried their stuff.” Hunters also tried to salvage the Victory’s wooden mast to cut up for sledges and harpoons. Many families in the area repurposed the thick copper sheathing from the Victory’s hull to make traditional seal-oil lamps. 

Here’s Krista Ulujuk Zawdaski.

Zawadski: One of the misconceptions that there might be is this idea that the explorers came and it was like, "Damn, the world changed for Inuit." Well, not necessarily. There's some misconception right there that it was first contact, but it was a brief. And there was not a whole lot of engagement. And then that was it, they came, they said, "Hi," and they left. There wasn't this big bang that people might think happened with explorers.

But early explorers did leave their mark in another, noticeable way.

Zawadski: Some of the legacies that explorers have left, or some of the impacts that explorers have made is the names on our maps, like Hudson. Henry Hudson was an explorer. Now we have Hudson Strait and Hudson Bay, and it's like, that's not what we call Hudson Bay, we call it [Inuktitut name]. Elders aren't going around saying, "Oh yeah, on Hudson Bay, there's this and this." No way. In our language, we call it something else. And I find that a fascinating topic, and it continues today, this encounter of names, the official Canadian government names is riddled with kabloonat names.

Inuit oral histories have offered critical clues toward solving the biggest mystery in polar exploration.

In episode 2, we mentioned Sir John Franklin, and how his lavishly outfitted expedition to find the Northwest Passage in 1845 seemed to disappear into the Arctic labyrinth. For years afterward, more than a dozen British and American expeditions scoured the region looking for Franklin, including one led by 72-year-old John Ross. They found remnants of Franklin’s camps, but no clues about the expedition’s demise.

In 1854, Hudson’s Bay Company official John Rae was surveying an area of the Boothia Peninsula. He met an Inuit man who related a very interesting story: Other Inuit said a group of 34 or 40 qallunaat had starved to death a few years before, some ways north of there. The man was wearing a gold cap band, which he said came from the place where the qallunaat were found. Later in the year, Inuit brought Rae a collection of objects that definitely came from Franklin’s expedition. The Inuit said that some of their relatives had sold meat to the starving qallunaat a few years earlier, and told Rae that they had come upon the remains of the sailors in the area of the Great Fish River. There was one more horrifying detail—the men had died of starvation after resorting to cannibalism. 

Rae was satisfied that this was the answer to a big part of the Franklin expedition mystery. He told the Admiralty everything—but because the clues had come from so-called savages, many in Britain refused to accept it. Charles Dickens captured the public feeling in a scathing, racist commentary in his popular magazine, Household Words, saying it was far more likely that the Inuit had murdered Franklin’s men.

But in 1859, the Inuit’s word was proven correct. British teams set out by sledge to investigate King William Island, where Inuit had said they’d seen the starving men. Along the western coast, they found indisputable evidence of their presence, including a cairn containing a note—which finally revealed what happened to Franklin. He had died on June 11, 1847, of an unknown cause. The expedition’s ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, had been stuck in ice for over a year and abandoned. Several men had died. The survivors were walking toward the mainland, to the Great Fish River—just as the Inuit had said. And further evidence uncovered over the next century and a half has confirmed the Inuit testimony. 

Many questions remained, however. An American newspaper publisher in the grip of Arctic fever named Charles Francis Hall believed that there was more to learn from the Inuit. He convinced himself that there could still be survivors from Franklin’s expedition. In May 1860, Hall hopped on a whaler out of New London, Connecticut. He was heading north to live among the Inuit—though they were totally unaware of this plan—and to gather further clues.

Here’s Russell Potter, polar historian at Rhode Island College and author of, most recently, Finding Franklin: The Untold Story of a 165-Year Search.

Russell Potter: Hall did not go up with a lot of equipment, and his idea was just to hire somebody, and as it happened the ship he went up on didn't get anywhere near where he wanted to go. It ended up at Cumberland Sound, which was nowhere near where Franklin went missing. So he decided to make use of his time there.

Hall met an Inuit couple, Taqulittuq and Ipirvik, whom the whalers had nicknamed Hannah and Joe.

Potter: They had already been to England with a whaler. They'd met and had tea with Queen Victoria. When he went to visit their igloo, Hannah said, "Hello, sir, would you care for a cup of tea?" And he said, "Oh my God, I've hooked up with the right Inuit here." And he not only worked with them and had them work for him, but he lived with them. In his journals, he writes with exclamation points, 'first night in an igloo, second night in an igloo.' He loved switching over and going native, the very thing the British hated, and he formed a very strong bond with these two guides. I mean, Joe was pretty much the hunter and guide, and Hannah was more of the translator, and he worked with them for years on his two Franklin search expeditions.

Hall visited their village, lived in their igloos, and enjoyed long sledging trips with Hannah and Joe.

Potter: He really formed a strong bond there. By the end of their time together, he was driving dogs as well as Joe so that's pretty singular, and way in advance of any other person who later on took up Inuit ways of travel.

On one of the journeys, with Joe’s help, Hall rediscovered the ruins of Martin Frobisher’s gold-mining camp—where elders had said white men had arrived in a big ship many years before. Hall even recorded the Inuit explanation of the disappearance of Frobisher’s men. According to his retelling, they were left behind and lived among the Inuit until they could build a large boat. Then, they set sail, and disappeared.

But by 1866, having found no Franklin survivors, Hall turned toward a new goal: the North Pole, with Hannah and Joe’s help.

This 19th-century engraving shows American explorer Charles Francis Hall (center) with Taqulittuq (Tookoolito, left) and Ipirvik (Ebierbing, right).
This 19th-century engraving shows American explorer Charles Francis Hall (center) with Taqulittuq (Tookoolito, left) and Ipirvik (Ebierbing, right). / Library and Archives Canada // Public Domain

The three returned to the United States, where Hall finagled a grant from Congress to buy a ship, which he fitted for Arctic service and renamed the Polaris. With a crew that included New London whaling master Sidney Budington as sailing master, another whaler, George Tyson, as navigator, and Hall as expedition commander, the Polaris left the Brooklyn Navy Yard on June 29, 1871. Joe and Hannah were aboard, plus a German surgeon named Emil Bessels. When they arrived in Greenland, they brought on Hans Hendrik, a well-known Inuit guide and hunter, and his family.

Hall followed a route laid out by the American explorer Elisha Kent Kane in the 1850s. Kane’s expedition had found the large waterway between Greenland and Canada’s Ellesmere Island now called Kane Basin, and mistook it for the Open Polar Sea. Now Hall planned to sail through Kane Basin and hopefully reach the North Pole.

However, the crew didn’t get along, and Hall failed to restore a sense of calm. Then Hall came down with a mysterious illness. He drifted in and out of delirium, and after a period of improvement and then relapse, he died on November 8, 1871. Today, some historians believe that he was poisoned with arsenic—possibly by Emil Bessels, who had access to the ship’s medicine chest.

With their commander dead, there was nothing to do but wait out the winter and then head home. In summer 1872, as they sailed south, ice broke up around the ship, and an immense iceberg bore down on the Polaris. They thought the ship had sprung a leak. Budington panicked and ordered all of the provisions and supplies thrown onto a nearby ice floe. 

Hans Hendrik later wrote, “we brought our wives and children down upon the ice, and hurried to fetch all our little luggage, and remove the whole to a short distance from the ship. Then the ice broke up close to the vessel, and her cables broke; but in the awful darkness we could only just hear the voices on board, and when the craft was going adrift we believed she was on the point of sinking. Here we were left … 19 in all … in the most miserable state of sadness and tears.”

The Polaris and its remaining crew abandoned them. The 19 castaways were helpless and alone. Joe and Hans hunted seals throughout the winter, in the dark, and kept them all alive. The Inuit built snow huts that served as their shelter. But they had inadequate clothing, and other food, and starvation was always a threat.

“As we advanced far south, we had a heavy swell, and, in the pitch dark night, the floe, our refuge, split in two,” Hans wrote. “At length the whole of it was broken up all around our snow huts. When we rose in the morning and went outside, the sea had gone down, and the ice upon which we stood our house had dwindled down to a little round piece.”

They drifted like this for six months—over a distance of 2000 miles. They were finally rescued in April 1873 off the coast of Labrador. “The Master of the ship and the crew altogether were exceedingly kind to us, and pitied us who had spent the whole winter, with our little children, on a piece of ice,” Hans wrote. Hans Hendrik’s memoir of his experience on the Polaris and three other Arctic expeditions was the first such published account by an Inuit person.

Roughly two decades later, Robert E. Peary built on and expanded Hall’s modus operandi. Hall was different from almost every polar explorer who had come before. He was just a man obsessed with solving Arctic mysteries, from Franklin’s fate to Frobisher’s geography to the journey toward the North Pole. And the primary reason he survived was his friendship with Hannah and Joe. His choice to live as the Inuit did was one that no explorer had then made.

Now, with Matthew Henson’s help, Peary formed mutually beneficial, yet unequal, relationships with the Inughuit of Etah, the descendants of those Ross and Parry met in 1818. Over eight expeditions to Greenland and Canada’s Ellesmere Island, Peary hired Inughuit hunters and their families to obtain food, sew fur clothing, cook, drive dog sleds, build igloos, and other tasks that were essential for Peary’s success.

Thanks to Peary’s regular visits, they came to rely on his expeditions for certain Western trade goods, such as guns and ammunition for hunting. In exchange for the items, the community’s best hunters signed on to help his expeditions.

Here’s Kenn Harper, a historian and author of many books including Minik, the New York Eskimo: An Arctic Explorer, a Museum, and the Betrayal of the Inuit People. I’ll let him introduce himself.

Kenn Harper: I write northern history, and I also write about northern native languages, especially Inuktitut. I lived in the Canadian Arctic, plus two years in Greenland, for a total of 50 years, that's five, zero, not one, five. I started out as a school teacher, and ended up in business. I also worked for the government for one year and six days. Every one of which I counted because it was a mistake. And all the time that I was there, I've been listening to Inuit people, listening and learning. The Inughuit or Polar Eskimos, as they were formerly called, they were a very small group, a couple of hundred people living very tenuously on the ice free parts of land between the inland glacier and the sea. They had developed not a heavy dependence on whalers, because there weren't enough whalers in their waters to depend heavily on. So they lived a very precarious subsistence existence. Then along came Peary with his mission to get to the North Pole. And Peary knew that he was not going to do this without the assistance of the local people. I think Peary always intended to be there for the long haul, I don't mean permanently there for the long haul, but back and forth and involved with that geographic region for the long term.

Like Hall, Peary realized that success in the Arctic meant adopting the traditional ways of the people who lived there, like wearing furs instead of Western-made clothing, using skin boots instead of leather, and traveling by dogsled instead of man-hauling heavy sledges. Peary’s teams also hunted and ate wild game and built igloos, instead of bringing tons of packaged supplies north with them and carrying tents on their overland journeys. This method of living off the land with the assistance of Native people became associated with American explorers because it was so different from the earlier, British way of doing things.

Robert Peary took these photos of Inughuit drivers Egingwah (top) and Ootah before (left) and after their journey to the North Pole.
Robert Peary took these photos of Inughuit drivers Egingwah (top) and Ootah before (left) and after their journey to the North Pole. / Robert E. Peary, The North Pole: Its Discovery in 1909 Under the Auspices of the Peary Arctic Club, Biospanersity Heritage Library // Public Domain

And yet, despite his admiration for Inughuit skills and survival tactics, Peary still viewed the people who developed them as childlike and inferior to Westerners. This was the golden age of scientific racism, when proponents of eugenics sought to scientifically “improve” the human race by allowing only people with desirable intellectual and physical characteristics to have children. Predictably, the white European and American eugenicists believed white people to be superior to all others. The movement gained steam in the early 20th century thanks to its emphasis on pseudoscientific evidence, which was misinterpreted from ethnographic studies of world cultures. Obviously, eugenics was fundamentally racist. And Peary was absolutely a product of his time.

Here's Kenn Harper.

Harper: Peary was not I would say interested in improving their living conditions so Peary certainly wasn't a missionary. He wasn't there to teach people things, build schools, promote religion. He was there for his single minded goal of reaching the North Pole. And so the Inuit were a means to an end.  He said, "Their feeling for me is one of gratitude and confidence. I have saved whole villages from starvation. And the children are taught by their parents that if they grow up and become good hunters or good seamstresses, Piulirriaq, that's their name for him, will reward them sometime in the not too distant future." So it's a very arrogant assessment of his own position vis-a-vis the Inughuit but I think he was right.  But of course, then when he did claim the North Pole in 1909, and he's already admitted that the Inuit have become dependent on him, he has no further reason to stay there, he leaves. Kat Long: Do you think that the Inughuit there understood Peary's attitude towards them? That's what I just can't quite understand or get my head around.

Harper: I think that they did. There's another quote, I hate to burden you with quotes, but the Inughuit can say it better than I. They were there. In my book I mentioned that in 1967, an elderly man in the little village of Siorapaluk reminisced about Peary, whom he called the Great Tormentor. For some reason in the book, I didn't name the elderly man. But his name was Imina, and he was a man that I knew quite well.  And in referring to Peary as the great tormentor, he said, "People were afraid of him, really afraid. His big ship, it made a big impression on us. He was a great leader. You always had the feeling that if you didn't do what he wanted, he would condemn you to death. I was very young, but I will never forget how he treated the Inuit. His big ship arrives in the bay. He's hardly visible from the shore, but he shouts, Kissa, Tikeri-Unga!, "I'm arriving, for a fact." The Inuit go aboard, Peary has a barrel of biscuits brought up on deck. The two or three hunters who have gone out to the ship in their kayaks hand over the barrel and begin to eat with both hands. Later the barrel is taken ashore and the contents thrown on the beach. Men women and children hurl themselves on the biscuits like dogs, which amuses Peary a lot. My heart still turns cold to think of it. That scene tells very well how he considered this people, my people who were for all of that devoted to him." So that's how Imina remembered Peary.

The Inughuit had very different memories of Matthew Henson.

Harper: They referred to Matthew Henson as Mahri-Pahluk. That was his Inuktut name. And by all accounts, Henson was a very different personality than Peary. He was kinder. He was on the land, traveling. He was a tough guy. He was a good hunter. He was a good sled driver. He did something that Peary didn't do. And in fact none of Peary's men other than Henson did. He learned how to speak the Inuktut language, the language of the Inughuit. And he learned it very well. And I remember when I was a much younger man, in the 1970s in Qaanaaq … I got to know a lot of the old hunters and the really old people remembered him from their youth and their childhood. The middle-age people knew the stories about Henson and about Peary and everybody else who came up there.

And they also knew that both Peary and Henson had relationships with Inughuit women, and both had children with them.

Harper: Matthew Henson left a child behind up there, Anauakaq and I knew Anauakaq. And he used to say to me, because he was very curious about his biological father, Matthew Henson. And he has to say, "What do you know about my father's life in the USA? Do I have relatives down there? Did he have children in America? Do I have brothers and sisters down there?" So they were very curious about these people. Peary left a couple of kids behind in Northern Greenland and I knew one of them quite well, Kali Paluq, Kali Peary. And the these old men were just very curious about their biological fathers. So the memories were I wouldn't say fresh, but well, among the old men, the memories were still fresh.

We’re going to explore the amazing story of Peary’s and Henson’s sons later in our show.

Once Peary and Henson believed they had reached the North Pole in 1909, they never returned to Greenland, and never saw their loyal Inughuit partners again. Just as suddenly as Peary had arrived on his very first expedition, he left—along with the supply of tools and other trade goods that the Inughuit depended on. Fortunately, in 1910, Danish explorers Peter Freuchen and Knud Rasmussen opened the Thule Trading Station at Cape York near Etah, which served as a store and base camp for their ethnological research in northern Greenland.

Harper: By a lot of reports the Inuit were astounded when Peary claimed to reach the North Pole and said, Okay, we're here this is it. And the Inuit looked around and said, but there's nothing here. This is nothing different than what we've been traveling through for days. And a little bit of disappointment, I suspect that the fact that this long thought goal was really nothing that they could see.

The Quest for the North Pole is hosted by me, Kat Long.

This episode was researched and written by me, with fact-checking by Austin Thompson. Thanks to our experts Krista Ulujuk Zawadski, Russel Potter, and Kenn Harper. The Executive Producers are Erin McCarthy and Tyler Klang. The Supervising Producer is Dylan Fagan. The show is edited by Dylan Fagan.

For transcripts, a glossary, and to learn more about this episode, visit

The Quest for the North Pole is a production of iHeartRadio and Mental Floss. For more podcasts from iHeartRadio, check out the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.