Kane’s Mysterious Waters: Transient Polynyas

Open_Polar_Sea (1)

From “Arctic Exploration Grinnell Expedition 1853-1854-1855”, artist James Hamilton after sketches by Elisha Kent Kane, engraved by R. Hinshelwood.

Led by Elisha Kent Kane, M.D., the Second Grinnell Expedition (1853-1855) continued on-going searches for the missing Franklin Expedition. According to Kane’s writings in Arctic Explorations, his approach was to take a course that should “lead most directly to the open sea of which he had inferred the existence” and to “examine the [Greenland] coast-lines for vestiges of the lost party.” Within the first dozen or so pages of his book, Kane had established the theoretical existence of an open polar sea.

Kane further supports the existence of open seawater by referring to noted historical explorers:

An open sea near the Pole, or even an open Polar basin, has been a topic of theory for a long time, and has been shadowed forth to some extent by actual or supposed discoveries. As far back as the days of Barentz, in 1596, without referring to the earlier and more uncertain chronicles, was seen to the eastward of the northernmost cape of Novaia Zemlia; and, until its limited extent was defined by direct observation, it was assumed to be the sea itself.

The Dutch fisherman above and around Spitzbergen pushed their adventurous cruises through the ice into open spaces varying in size and form with the season and the winds; and Dr. Scoresby, a venerated authority, alludes to such vacancies in the floe as pointing in argument to a freedom of movement from the north, inducing open water in the neighborhood of the Pole. [1]

Kane also theorizes a milder climate towards the [North] Pole; however, he does not provide an explanation as to how such an open sea may exist:

It is impossible, in reviewing the facts which connect themselves with this discovery, — the melted snow upon the rocks, the crowds of marine birds, the limited, but still advancing vegetable life, the rise of the thermometer in the water, — not to be struck with their bearing on the question of a milder climate near the Pole. [2]

While discussing the northern extent of the search for Franklin, Kane provides the number of miles searched and approximate longitude and latitude coordinates of ice-free water:

During this period [August and September, 1854] the labours of the expedition have delineated 960 miles of [Greenland] coast-line, without developing any traces of the missing ships or the slightest information bearing upon their fate. The amount of travel to effect this exploration exceeded 2000 miles, all of which was upon foot or by the aid of dogs.

Greenland has been traced to its northern face, whence it is connected with the further north of the opposite coast by a great glacier. This coast has been charted as high as lat. 82° 27’. Smith’s Sound expands into a capacious bay: it has been surveyed throughout its entire extent. From its northern and eastern corner, in lat. 80° 10, long. 66°, a channel has been discovered and followed until further progress was checked by water free of ice. This channel trended nearly due north, and expanded into an apparently open sea, which abounded with birds and bears and marine life. [3]

Kane recorded these observations of open Arctic water north of Cape Andrew Jackson, and his findings were reportedly corroborated by Isaac I. Hayes, M.D., Hans Hendrik, and by notations in William’s Morton’s journal:

The journeys which I had made myself, and those of my different parties, had shown that an unbroken surface of the ice covered the entire sea to the east, west, and south. From the southernmost ice, seen by Dr. Hayes only a few weeks before, to the region of the mysterious water, was, as the crow flies, 106 miles. But for the unusual sight of birds and the unmistakable giving way of the ice beneath them, they would not have believed in the evidence of eyesight. Neither Hans nor Morton was prepared for it.

Landing on the cape, and continuing their exploration, new phenomena broke upon them. They were on the shores of a channel, so open that a frigate, or a fleet of frigates, might have sailed up it. The ice, already broken and decayed, formed a sort of horseshoe-shaped beach, against which the waves broke in surf. As they travelled north, this channel expanded into an iceless area; “for four or five small pieces” – lumps – were all that could be seen over the entire surface of its white-capped waters. Viewed from the cliffs, and taking 36 miles as the mean radius open to reliable survey, this sea had a justly-estimated extent of more than 4000 square miles. [4]

Note: Line-of-sight to a 36-mile water horizon requires the viewer to be ~650 feet above mean sea level.

Polynyas are semi-permanent open water greater than five square kilometers and are surrounded by sea ice. Generally, they are formed by two mechanisms: 1) upwelling warmer sea water melting surface ice, and 2) wind and wave-action breaking ice, particularly thinner first-year ice, that is then widely dispersed by wind and by water currents. These hydrodynamic forces in combination can potentially open vast areas of Arctic seas in summer and/or winter with year-to-year variations, forming polynyas that range in size 10 to 100 kilometers. [5,6]

The Canadian Arctic Archipelago has at least 23 documented polynyas and several shorelead polynyas, the latter of which can extend hundreds of kilometers. Of note, the North Water (NOW) polynya is one of the largest and most widely studied, occupying much of Smith Sound and extending north towards the southern entrance of Kane Basin. Smaller polynyas are present at Flagler Bay (Ellesmere Island), and at the confluence of Robeson Channel and the Lincoln Sea. Numerous smaller, transient polynyas can be found year round throughout the Arctic, and at times, along the Ellesmere-Greenland waterway. [7]

Kane alluded to the importance of polynyas to nearly all Arctic animals, especially marine mammals, when he observed that the open sea “abounded with birds and bears and marine life.” According to Martin, the NOW polynya “contains large concentrations of white whales, narwhals, walruses, and seals, with polar bears foraging along the coast… All of this suggests that polynyas are vital for the overwinter survival of arctic species. [8]

Because 19th century Arctic explorers lacked adequate instrumentation to study and measure Arctic polynyas, Kane and others theorizing them as an open sea is understandable, since their presence had been observed for hundreds of years by Arctic region fishermen and explorers. Kane, nonetheless, had identified one key element of polynya formation, comparatively warmer water (though without the upwelling component). Because these open areas of water were predictable along the Ellesmere-Greenland coastlines, Kane aptly utilized them as part of his overall strategy when searching for the lost Franklin Expedition. Research continues on the formation and oceanographic characteristics of Arctic and Antarctic transient polynyas.


  1. Arctic Explorations in Search of Sir John Franklin, Elisha Kent Kane, M.D., U.S.N., T. Nelson and Sons, Paternoster Row, Edinburgh and New York, 1877, p. 182.
  2. Ibid, p. 183.
  3. Ibid, p. 206.
  4. Ibid, pp. 179-180.
  5. “Polynyas,” Seelye Martin, University of Washington, Department of Oceanography, 2001, p. 1-7.
  6. On Sea Ice, W. F. Weeks, University of Alaska Press, Fairbanks, Alaska, 2010, p. 281-329.
  7. “Polynyas and Tidal Currents in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago,” Charles G. Hannah, et al, Arctic, 62, 1, March, 2009, p. 83-95.
  8. Martin, p.4.

Frances Hennessey writes informally on Dr. Isaac Israel Hayes and other 19th century Arctic-related topics. Fran tweets @openpolarsea and has a poetry blog www.oceanic-visions.com

After Icebergs with a Painter: An Inspiration for Bradford’s 1869 Voyage

In Arctic Regions, William Bradford chronicled his 1869 voyage to the Arctic along Greenland’s coast, & cites two books that initially inspired his exploration for art’s sake: Lord Dufferin’s Letters from High Places and Elisha Kent Kane’s Arctic Explorations in the years of 1853, ’54, ’55.

At least one other book would have caught Bradford’s attention and imagination: Rev. L. L. Noble’s After Icebergs with a Painter, published in 1861. Noble described his 1859 voyage searching for icebergs–for art’s sake–which he made with the great American landscape artist, Frederic E. Church.[1] As Richard Kugler stated[2]: “Although Bradford makes no mention of it, it is likely that he was…familiar with Louis Legrand Noble’s After Icebergs with a Painter…, an account of an 1859 trip made with Church, who provided illustrations for the volume. A copy of the book was also on board the schooner Benjamin S Wright during Bradford’s 1864 voyage to Labrador…”[3]

Interestingly throughout After Icebergs…, Noble refers to Church only as “C_____”; but, as Kugler said: “many of its readers would have instantly recognized him as Frederic E. Church, whose enormous painting The Icebergs caused a sensation when put on view in New York in 1861.”[4] It would seem likely, then, “that Bradford was inspired by…The Icebergs, which…was hailed by the New York Tribune as the ‘most splendid work of art that has yet been produced in this country.’ Bradford would surely have seen The Icebergs in late 1861 in New York, or at least in 1862, when it was exhibited in Boston.[5]

We also know that Church was a friend of Dr. Isaac Israel Hayes, who accompanied Bradford on the 1869 voyage. Church had, in fact, given artistic counsel to Dr. Hayes, as Hayes desired to make sketches of scientific interest. In return, Hayes gave Church one of his sketches: “a scene that would become the basis for Church’s second Arctic painting, The Aurora Borealis (Smithsonian Museum of American Art).”[6]

In Bradford’s scrapbook of news clippings, several articles refer to Church, often comparing his artistic work with Bradford’s.

 “ARCTIC PICTURES,” written in London: kudos to Bradford, Church, Bierstadt…to personally observe natural phenomenons..”the sincerety and hardihood” of which “appeal to English feeling.”

Arctic Pictures (1)

Yet in another of Bradford’s scrapbooks–a very special piece of evidence of Bradford’s and Church’s connection with each other is Church’s signature: “Yours sincerely Frederic E Church.”[7] (#A-288)

Frederick_E_Church (1)

With the various connections between Bradford and Church, it seems fitting to share Church’s 1859 voyage with followers of Bradford and the Arctic Visions exhibit. As we are fortunate to have Bradford’s and Hayes’s accounts of their 1869 voyage, we are also fortunate to have Noble’s account of Church’s 1859 voyage in his After Icebergs with a Painter: again, for art’s sake.

So, to share with everyone the passion of Church’s voyage–which also inspired Bradford’s–William Bradford @WmBradford_NBWM will soon “tweet” to his followers passages of After Icebergs…! Please stay with us as the voyage continues….


[1] Frederic E. Church (May 4, 1826 – April 7, 1900) was a central figure in the Hudson River School of American landscape painters, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/chur/hd_chur.htm, by Kevin J. Avery. 

[2] Richard C. Kugler: William Bradford–Sailing Ships & Arctic Seas,New Bedford, Mass.: New Bedford Whaling Museum, 2003, p84 n2

[3] D. A. Wasson, ‘Ice and Esquimaux,’ in Atlantic Monthly 7 (January 1865), 46.

[4] Kugler, William Bradford, Sailing Ships & Arctic Seas, p. 17

[5] Ibid, p84n2

[6] Ibid, p. 26

[7] The last four words of Church’s note to Bradford can be seen: “…at the Studio Building,” which may have referenced a studio building in NYC where both Bradford and Church had presences.

Joanne Seymour is a New Bedford Whaling Museum volunteer in its Research Library. As such, she has contributed to the Arctic Visions exhibit: in part, her contributions have included transcription of entries in the three Bradford scrapbooks, and “tweeting” as William Bradford from Arctic Regions and as Dr. Isaac Israel Hayes from his Land of Desolation.

LeGrand Lockwood

William Bradford dedicated Arctic Regions to the memory of businessman and financier LeGrand Lockwood. Bradford stating that Lockwood was “widely known for his generous patronage of the arts and for his acts of unselfish benevolence.”

Arctic Region's Dedication

Lockwood was, as described by  Steve Lubar in a talk delivered at the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion Museum, an enthusiastic adopter of the new technologies. Bradford’s use of photography to aid in his creative process, and in the end his painting, may have been influenced through his connection to Lockwood. Unfortunately for Bradford Lockwood’s financial support didn’t materialize, Bradford was left to cover the expenses from the 1869 voyage on his own less the amount contributed by other passengers. [1]


[1] Kugler, Richard C. William Bradford: Sailing Ships and Arctic Seas. New Bedford, Mass.: New Bedford Whaling Museum, 2003

Faces in the Crowd

Posted by on Jan 13, 2014 in Persons Represented | No Comments

panoramaAmong the lesser-known signatures in the Bradford scrapbooks is that of Lucette E. Barker, an artist in her own right, whose connections with other London artists and writers were considerable. Her brother-in-law, Tom Taylor, was the editor of Punch, as well as (somewhat less fortunately) the playwright whose play, “Our American Cousin,” was being presented at Ford’s Theatre when Lincoln was assassinated. Lucette, though described in some sources as an “amateur” artist, achieved considerable success in her day; she provided the frontispiece for Mrs. Alfred Gatty’s popular The Fairy Godmothers (1851), and counted among her admirers Anthony Trollope, to whom she sent several of her drawings. She also regularly provided illustrations for George Bell’s annual Poetry of the Year series.

Another little-known signer was Rosa E. Beaufort, who was the sister of Emily A. Beaufort, at the time a well known “lady traveller” whose Egyptian Sepluchres and Syrian Shrines (London: 1874) was dedicated to Rosa, “who shared in every scene depicted in these pages, and with whose kind assistance they were written.” The book was handsomely printed, and included a full-color fold-out frontispiece, “Panorama of Tadmor” (shown above). The Beaufort sisters were the daughters of W. Morris Beaufort, an active member of the Royal Geographical Society, who also signed the scrapbook (but no relation, apparently, to Sir Francis Beaufort after whom the Beaufort Sea was named).

One last group of signers of the Bradford scrapbook, though their individual names may not be familiar today, played a significant role in African-American musical history. These were the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a group just founded in 1871 and embarked upon a European tour.  Six of the group’s nine original members — Benjamin Holmes, Thomas Rutling, Minnie Tate, Jennie Jackson, and Ella Sheppard, along with their director George White, signed their names. Their singing, including a command performance before Queen Victoria, elicited universal praise. When the group departed on their return trip to America, one member — Rutling — decided to remain in England, where he continued to perform and teach music until his death in 1915. The Jubilee Singers have carried on through the generations, and in October of 2014 will mark their 144th year.

The cross-section of those who were drawn to Bradford’s studio is remarkable for its diversity; clearly men and women of every walk of life were fascinated by his Arctic canvasses, and as we continue to search for the stories behind the names, I have every expectation that there will be yet more surprises.

Charles Francis Hall

hall_bradfordCharles Francis Hall may well have been the most passionate — and most peculiar — of all nineteenth-century Arctic explorers. He was not born to the sea — in fact, for the first half of his life, he was an ordinary man, a businessman, a family man firmly secured to the land. Born in New Hampshire, he came to Cincinnati in the late 1840’s and established a shop that engraved stamps and seals for business use. He owned a printing press, and put out an irregular news-sheet known as the Cincinnati Occasional, in which he vented his spleen about various subjects, and advertised his own wares. Apparently affected by the death of Dr. Kane, he took up a sudden passion for the Arctic, and in 1860, after the final record of the Franklin expedition had been found, took off for New York and a meeting with Henry Grinnell, patron of Kane’s search expedition. One might think that Grinnell would have discouraged Hall’s notion that perhaps some of Franklin’s men still lived and could be found, but instead he encouraged it, and Hall, with his new friend’s help, found passage north on the whaler “George Henry,” Sidney O. Budington, captain.

While wintering in the Arctic, Hall made the acquaintance of two Inuit guides — Tookoolito (“Hannah”) and Ebierbing (“Joe”). They became his fast companions, and returned with him to the U.S. the next spring, as he announced he’d found traces of the sixteenth-century Frobisher expedition. What Hall really wanted, though, was a fresh chance to search for Franklin, and with the help of an east coast tour with Hannah and Joe, he raised funds to return, and this time made it to King William Island, where Franklin’s men had met their fate. He collected an enormous amount of Inuit testimony, but never did find any men alive, though his hopes were often raised and then dashed. After his return from this expedition, he chose a new goal, the North Pole, and managed to out-maneuver Arctic veteran Dr. Isaac I. Hayes in getting Congressional approval and funding for a fresh expedition — all he needed was a worthy vessel.

Remarkably, an 1870 letter survives from Hall to Bradford in which he seeks the latter’s advice for the best ship to obtain for his northward voyage. Hall hadn’t apparently met Bradford before — his letter begins “Dear Sir” — but on his friend Grinnell’s recommendation, he was most anxious to obtain his views. The letter reads in part:

“You kindly offered to give me any information I might desire relative to your voyage to Greenland in in the fall of 1869. Mr. G. furthermore thought it advisable that I should visit you at Fair Haven … but I cannot at present spare the time to come there … I believe it was the Panther that you chartered for that Voyage. What was her tonnage & what do you think of her qualities for the North Pole Voyage I am to start at the next Spring?”

In  the end, Hall chose a different vessel, the “Polaris,” and set off on his voyage in 1871, setting a new record for furthest north, only to be poisoned with arsenic, in all probability by his own ships’ surgeon. He was buried in northwest Greenland at the place he’d named “Thank God Harbor” on November 9th. 1871. Fittingly, in 1875, Bradford painted a view of the “Polaris” as one of his last “Great Paintings.”

Russell A. Potter has been fascinated with the Arctic regions for many years, and has written and lectured extensively on many different aspects of its history. His book Arctic Spectacles: The Frozen North in Visual Culture, 1818-1875, is required reading for anyone interested in our Arctic Visions exhibit. In addition to contributing to this blog he is providing critical guidance as Curatorial Consultant, and has authored the Introduction to our re-publication of Arctic Regions