Understanding by Degrees: The Open Polar Sea (Part 3 of 3)

Posted by on Dec 15, 2013 in Arctic Visions | No Comments

OPS Smith SoundDuring the 19th century, some scientists and explorers believed (or wanted to confirm) that an Open Polar Sea existed north of Ellesmere Island and Greenland, presumably as an ice-free area of navigable water in the region of the Lincoln Sea. Much like the search for the Northwest Passage, this legendary open sea was thought to provide a more Greenland-oriented Arctic seaway. Isaac Israel Hayes, a medical doctor-explorer, believed in this Open Polar Sea and dedicated most of his life (and health) to its discovery and substantiating its existence. This third and final post discusses Hayes’ “most northern land” that he claimed to have reached.  

In 1853 as a newly-graduated physician, Hayes had served as ship’s surgeon on the Second Grinnell Expedition. This expedition was led by Dr. Elisha Kent Kane on the schooner Advance. New York City businessman Henry Grinnell, sponsored this expedition (as he had a previous one in 1850) to search for the lost Franklin Expedition, which had been sent by Britain in 1845 to discover the Northwest Passage.  

Early in 1860, Hayes published his first book, An Arctic Boat Journey, in which he described his arduous if not life-threatening trek from the ice-beset Advance in an attempt to reach Upernavik, a Greenland settlement with adequate resources to send a rescue party to Kane and his scurvy-debilitated crew. Because of extreme cold, a lack of food, and impassable conditions, Hayes and his party were force to return to the Advance, where the entire crew, including invalids, made a heroic 83-day forced march to Upernavik, one of the most extraordinary events in 19th century Arctic exploration. 

Borne out of this extraordinary Arctic experience, Hayes secured funding to lead his own expedition in search of the legendary Open Polar Sea. Leaving Boston Harbor in July, 1860 in the schooner United States, Hayes had with him Kane’s astronomer, August Sonntag. With Sonntag as his second in command, Hayes followed much of Kane’s earlier course along the convoluted shores of Greenland and Ellesmere Island.  

Tragedy struck Hayes’ expedition when his close friend, Sonntag, died of hypothermia secondary to falling into icy water. Sonntag’s death was devastating to Hayes and to his crew, to the extent that they felt the expedition had lost direction. Nevertheless even without an astronomer, Hayes persisted with his quest north to find the Open Polar Sea. This two-year expedition culminated in a harrowing, forty-day push north along the Kennedy Channel coastline of Ellesmere Island. In Hayes’ second book, The Open Polar Sea, published in 1867, he wrote: 

This point, the most northern land that has ever been reached, was visited by the undersigned, May 18th, 19th 1861, accompanied by George F. Knorr, traveling with a dog-sledge. We arrived here after a toilsome march of forty-six days from my winter harbor, near Cape Alexander, at the mouth of Smith Sound.  My observations place us in latitude 81º 35’, longitude 70º 30’ W. Our further progress was stopped by rotten ice and cracks. Kennedy Channel appears to expand into the Polar Basin; and, satisfied that it is navigable at least during the months of July, August, and September, I go hence to my winter harbor, to make another trial to get through Smith Sound with my vessel, after the ice breaks up this summer. May 19th, 1861, I. I. Hayes.  

The location of Hayes’ “most northern land…reached” has been a matter of scholarly debate if not controversy. Research of historical dairies, drawings, and photographs suggests that Hayes was significantly further south than he stated, possibly in the area of picturesque Church’s Peak (N81º 15’ 30” by W65º 37’ 30”) or Cape Joseph Good (N80º 15’ 7” by W69º 54’ 41”). To further complicate this investigation, In the “enlarged and illustrated” 1883 edition of Arctic Boat Journey, Hayes indicated in Note 8. – Page 22:

“In my journey to Grinnell Land in 1861, I further traced the coast line to latitude 82º 45’, and from its shores I looked upon the Open Polar Sea. This is the most northern known land, and the most northern point of it I name Cape Union.” 

This retrospective notation adds one full degree of north latitude (~70 miles) to Hayes’ statement found in The Open Polar Sea. Interestingly, Hayes’ coordinates for Cape Union are north of Alert (N82º 30’ 05”). The concern is whether Hayes could reliably claim to have seen Cape Union, much less “traced” that northern point on foot since his “further progress was stopped by rotten ice and cracks.” Ultimately, Hayes’ Open Polar Sea may have been a  transient summer polynya, or open area in the ice, in the far reaches of Kennedy Channel or Hall Basin. 

Fourteen years later in 1875, the British explorer George Nares in the HMS Alert reached the most northern limits of Ellesmere Island. Nares’ observations potentially placed Hayes’ northern-attained landmarks into question. This may have prompted Hayes to bolster his authoritative position by publishing the “notated” 1883 edition of Arctic Boat Journey before he died December, 1881. 

As found in The Open Polar Sea, “Chart of Smith Sound” shows Hayes’ track north and the longitude and latitude of his claimed most north point attained. While elegantly engraved for publication, this chart contains errors in geographic locations and in latitude and longitude. As discussed in Parts 1 and 2 of this blog, Hayes likely made some fundamental errors in distance calculations. He may have miscalculated his distance north traveled along the difficult Ellesmere Island coastline, his progress significantly impeded by perilous ice hummocks, deep snow, and tiring sledge dogs. 

Douglas W. Wamsley, in his revelatory biography, Polar Hayes, has complied comprehensive research on Hayes’ final push north. According to Wamsley, Hayes’ most northern attained point was closer to Cape Joseph Good or about 100 miles south of Cape Lieber, the point Hayes indicated he reached. Whether or not Hayes climbed to some elevation and peered north into Hall Basin, some debate exists, at least in Hayes’ own writings, that he actually saw ice-free water that could have been interpreted as an Open Polar Sea or even a navigable passageway into Hall Basin. 

With regard to Hayes’ sextant sightings, Wamlsey indicated that Hayes and Knorr suffered from snow blindness, and that Hayes made sextant sighting(s) with an instrument that he had not previously used. Whether Hayes’ sightings (one or more) were made at local solar noon is not known or whether he had a clear view of water or ice horizon. Nevertheless, no doubt exists that Hayes’ longitude reading (W70º 30’) is within the mountains of Ellesmere Island and not along the Kennedy Channel coastline. 

The debate of Hayes’ most north point attained could be solved if modern-day explorers could find the cairn built by Hayes and Knorr. As Hayes wrote in The Open Polar Sea: 

It now only remained for us to plant our flag in token of our discovery, and to deposit a record in proof of our presence. The flags were tied to the whiplash, and suspended between two tall rocks, and while we [Hayes and Knorr] were building a cairn, they were allowed to flutter in the breeze…” 

Subsequent explorers into the Greenland-Ellesmere region found historical rock cairns and gravesites, including that of August Sonntag. The possibility exists that Hayes’ cairn could be discovered, though its contents may be lost. Nevertheless, this archaeological evidence could potentially solve a puzzling 150-year mystery posed by this 19th century Arctic luminary. 

Retrospective Thoughts

From the perspective of someone who admires Hayes and studies his published writings, I struggled through months of angst, attempting to reconcile the discrepancies discussed. My approach was to read Wamsley’s Polar Hayes and eventually to place less emphasis on vexing numbers (degrees and miles). I returned to the books I love and focused on what Hayes does best: exemplary narrative accounts, poetic-like passages, and majestic descriptions. Derived from this personal odyssey of agonizing over maps, nautical charts, and measurements, I arrived at a greater understanding of Dr. Hayes, his historical writings, and published maps that represent personal ambitions, achievements, and a life-long quest for greater discovery and knowledge of Arctic regions. I wish to thank Russell Potter, PhD for his guidance in making this three-part blog possible. 

Frances Hennessey writes informally on Dr. Isaac Israel Hayes and other 19th Arctic-related topics. She has a small collection of Hayes first-edition books, two signed by the author. Fran tweets @openpolarsea and has a poetry blog www.oceanic-visions.com

Understanding by Degrees: Determining Longitude (Part 2 of 3)

Posted by on Nov 25, 2013 in Arctic Visions | No Comments

1842 Chronometer in box — NBWM 1967.8

In the previous post, I outlined the basic concepts for obtaining latitude by sextant sightings at local solar noon, and illustrated how masters and astronomers on 19th century Arctic-exploring ships determined their northern position whether on the open ocean or trekking across glaciers on foot or by dog sledge. When navigating the open ocean, 19th century masters on Arctic-exploring ships also needed to know their longitude, which requires use of both a sextant and an accurate chronometer. This second of three posts discusses basic procedures used to determine longitude.

One fundamental of navigation is understanding time, distance, and speed. They are mathematically interrelated, since the faster one travels, usually more distance is covered or less time is needed to reach a specific destination.  On the featureless, often fathomless ocean, none of these components by themselves provides precise location. However when correlated from a specific point, time can be used to help determine location. For this reason, an accurate and practical-sized chronometer became an essential nautical instrument on many 19th century seafaring ships.

Vertical lines of longitude go north and south from the geographic North Pole to the South Pole. By convention, they originate at the Prime Meridian in Greenwich, England as zero degrees longitude. Thus, grid squares, consisting of degrees, minutes, and seconds, were projected onto a three-dimensional sphere (the earth) and in practical format, were converted to flat two-dimensional maps or nautical charts. However, as these longitudinal lines converge on the geographic poles, their distance apart progressively narrows. This near-pole narrowing of longitude was a significant sighting and computational factor 19th century Arctic explorers. Thus understanding was by degrees, minutes, and seconds.

For a 19th century nautical chronometer to operate properly, time was set to correspond exactly with that of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, or what is known today as Greenwich Mean Time or GMT. Ideally, the chronometer should lose no more than a minute throughout the entire ocean voyage. The sun at noon in Greenwich is 1200 hours GMT, the standard reference for nautical chronometers.

Since the sun advances westward during the day 15 degrees per hour, the ship’s astronomer made sextant sightings at or very close to solar or 12 noon local time.  By using daily computation and correction tables, the astronomer placed the ship’s position on a “celestial line of position” or LOP that extended north to south along the route of travel, for example, from Cape Race, Newfoundland to Cape Farewell, Greenland. Typically several sightings were used to calculate and reconfirm longitude (and latitude) at sea.

In addition to inherent errors in early chronometers and sextants, other factors potentially contributed to errors in ascertaining longitude. Human errors included sextant sighting inexperience or haste and mistakes in math calculations. Extrinsic factors included cloudy days and nights, rough seas, and sun-blocking mountainous terrain. Nevertheless, 19th century explorers ventured far north into Arctic ice-cluttered waters and with reasonable accuracy (typically one degree), could determine their position in uncharted waters and across barren terrain.

Frances Hennessey writes informally on 19th century Arctic exploration, concentrating on Isaac I. Hayes, MD. Fran has a small collection of Hayes first editions, two of which are signed by the author. She also tweets @openpolarsea and has a poetry blog: www.oceanic-visions.com

Understanding By Degrees: Determining Latitude (Part 1 of 3)

Posted by on Oct 28, 2013 in Arctic Visions, Navigation | 2 Comments

Sextant, made by Jesse Ramsden, last quarter of 18th century, courtesy of the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. Diagram courtesy the English Wikipedia

Arctic explorers in the 19th century routinely used a sextant for celestial navigation to determine their location at sea and when trekking across glaciers and other terrain on foot or by dog sledge. This first of three posts discusses basic principles of obtaining solar-noon latitude by sextant and the inherent errors often present when attempting to sight the low-angled Arctic sun. Latitude findings enabled explorers to determine and document how far north they had traveled, and at times, to document historical most northern points explored in the High Arctic.

The Greeks developed the concept of latitude and longitude grids that systematically divided the earth into a system of horizontal lines of latitude (going east to west) that originated at the equator. One degree of latitude equals ~70 miles and is constant from the equator to the geographic North and South Poles. The equator represents zero degrees latitude.

The primary instrument used in celestial navigation, the sextant, refers to the Latin word for one-sixth of a circle or 60 degrees. It is designed to measure the relative angle between two items, typically the horizon and the sun, moon, and stars. In addition ascertaining the angle of the sun, an accurate celestial sighting required eye-height above the ocean and exact time.

Hovering over the southern horizon, the Arctic summer sun was the explorer’s constant companion. After the June solstice, from the Arctic Circle (N66º 34’ 44”) to the geographic North Pole, the sun provides 24 hours of light (ergo the “midnight sun”). For this reason, explorers relied upon sun sightings to ascertain latitude. At high latitudes, the sun can often appear as a hazy, opalescent disc rather than a distinct point of light. While this procedure appears straightforward, the High Arctic sun appears to circle (in a horizontal ellipse) over the southern horizon, making exact noon sightings taken under hazy skies often problematic.

The ship’s astronomer (or other trained crew) typically made daily noon-sun sightings and computations to confirm location, especially for off-ship explorations. Out of maritime tradition and practice, documenting explored locations was a routine requirement. Noteworthy events and locations visited were typically verified by accompanying team members (assistants) and officially recorded in ship logbooks and/or in personal diaries, providing a written record of daily crew activities, particularly meteorological and other scientific observations. During 19th century Arctic explorations, nothing of consequence aboard or off-ship was performed in isolation, aside from routine assigned duties, such as melting snow for water or stoking fires.

In general practice, instructions using a sextant have varied little over the past 150 years and are described in basic terms. To properly sight the sun, the sextant should be held vertically. A basic sighting tube is preferred since the sun is a relatively larger disc than the point of light of a star or planet.  With the index arm set at zero degrees, the horizon is sighted using the half-horizon mirror. Next, the index arm is carefully moved forward so that sun is visualized. Once the lower limb (or “edge”) of the sun touches the horizon, the degrees of latitude can be read at the graduated arc. At this point, the index arm should be clamped in place and the sun’s position minutely adjusted as needed with the micrometer or vernier dial. The window in the index arm provides the height of the sun above the horizon measured in degrees.

The eye-height of the observer (and thus the sextant) should be measured above sea level, to include the height of the ship’s deck. Typically, when standing on a flat ocean beach, light-of-sight is about 4.7 km (~3 miles) to water horizon. As observer height increases, so does the light-of-sight across a bay, sound, or the ocean. On modern sextants, several filters or shades reduce intense solar light to a visible disc. These filters were not present on pre-19th century sextants; thus, crew members who frequently made noon-day sun sightings potentially received repeated eye-blinding injuries. After obtaining the height of the sun (in degrees) at local solar noon, with the exact time (as possible), 19th century Arctic explorers used sight reduction tables found in American and/or British Almanacs for latitude (and longitude) calculations.

Prudent mariners and explorers of the era routinely verified calculated positions, especially those that appeared too far north or south of previously confirmed locations. Daily travels on foot or by boat were verified and tentatively confirmed by making calculations of distance, speed, and time. For example, computed distances of 70 miles (one degree of latitude) by foot or by dog sledge over broken sea ice and/or punishing ice hummocks would have been questioned by knowledgeable crew members and distances recalculated for accuracy.

Sextants of the 19th century were prone to inherent errors because of temperature extremes, mirror misalignment, and when other components, such as the spotting scope, may be potentially out of adjustment or collimation (optical-mechanical alignment). All of these potential errors can be further complicated by the extreme rigors of Arctic exploration, including the effects of cold and fatigue, while on dog sledges and/or trekking amongst tumultuous ice hummocks or unstable (“rotten”) ice. The environmental hazards experienced then are still arduous and potentially life-threatening to present-day Arctic explorers and mariners.

Frances Hennessey writes informally on 19th century Arctic exploration, concentrating on Hayes. Fran has a small collection of Hayes first editions, two of which are signed by the author. She also tweets @openpolarsea and has a poetry blog: www.oceanic-visions.com

Silenced in Arctic Eternity

Posted by on Oct 23, 2013 in Arctic Visions, Poetry | No Comments

Sonntag’s Grave, Donald B. MacMillan, 1913-1917. Courtesy of the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum, Bowdoin College.

Scattered rocks amongst a weather-worn
Headstone marked August Sonntag’s humble
Gravesite. On a desolate moraine, Donald
MacMillan bore witness to the isolated tomb,
In stark solemnity, a single photograph taken
In broad Arctic sunlight.

Fifty years after Sonntag’s death, MacMillan
Recollected tragic events that demoralizing
Hayes to grieving silence. Icy water paralyzed
Sonntag’s gallant heart, extinguishing his
Celestial light, his love of stars and moon,
Practitioner of navigational science.

Dr. Hayes needed heartfelt days to speak
Openly of his friend’s untimely death.
Recorded in his diary, Hayes recounted his
Strange dream: crash of ice in darkness, Sonntag
Sailing away upon dark waters, flash of eternal
Light, divine despair in meaning and in depth.

From this unsettling vision, Dr. Hayes was
Fraught with anguish, continuous concern. As
Below-zero nights trudged past, forsaken hopes
Eclipsed to quiet lament. Beneath luminous robes
Of auroral fire, the crew, in silent watch, prayed
For a miracle, their astronomer’s safe return.

In early morn, two Inuit hunters at the ice-
Locked schooner appeared. Peter Jensen, the
Ship’s interpreter, was the first to learn Sonntag’s
Mortal fate. When his face lost expression, it
Confirmed what all inwardly had feared. Jensen
Uttered but three words, “Sonntag was dead!”

Hayes and his men made procession by torch-
Light across the rocky desert that sufficed for
Sonntag’s resting-place. Under a cathedral of
Gathered constellations, they relinquished their
Comrade’s body to Greenland’s frozen wilds,
His immortal soul to God’s enduring grace.

To this day, no flowers adorn the lonesome
Gravesite of August Sonntag penned in Hayes’
The Open Polar Sea. Sonntag’s memories are
Possessively held in fragile pages of this narrative
Of discovery. In warmer climes, readers still ponder
Sonntag’s death, a friend silenced in Arctic eternity.

Written on the occasion of Douglas Wamlsey speaking at the Old Dartmouth Lyceum Lecture
Series on October 24th, 2013.

Inspired by a photograph taken by Donald MacMillian, an early 20th century Arctic explorer,
this poem describes the death and gravesite of August Sonntag. The black-and-white photograph
was an illustration in Douglas Wamsley’s “Polar Hayes,” a biography of Isaac Israel Hayes, MD.
Sonntag was Hayes’ second-in-command and astronomer during his 1860-1861 Arctic expedition,
searching for the Open Polar Sea.

Frances Hennessey

Old Dartmouth Lyceum Lecture Series at the New Bedford Whaling Museum

Posted by on Sep 10, 2013 in Arctic Visions, Old Dartmouth Lyceum | No Comments

Thursdays, September 19th, October 3rd & 24th, November 14th
This year the Old Dartmouth Lyceum lecture series will focus around the exhibit Arctic Visions: “Away then Floats the Ice-Island”.

Tickets are now on sale. See below for more information about the lectures and registration information.


A detail from “View of the Sermitsialik Glacier” by William Bradford

September 19th
Russell Potter
Frozen Zones: Bradford, Arctic Photography and nineteenth-century Visual Culture
Mr. Potter teaches English and Media Studies at Rhode Island College in Providence, Rhode Island. His work encompasses hip hop culture, popular music, and the history of exploration of the Arctic in the nineteenth century. When the artist William Bradford chartered a voyage to the Arctic purely for the purposes of art – including photographers – he was revolutionizing both the scope and the immediacy of photography, bringing back a rich array of images, the first ever taken of Arctic by professional photographers. These photos he put to many uses –projected as lantern slide lectures, printed and used as view-books for painting commissions, and – most magnificently – as illustrations for the groundbreaking book The Arctic Regions.

October 3rd
Kevin Avery
Sea of Ice:  The Art of Arctic Exploration
Mr. Avery is a senior research scholar and a former associate curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and an adjunct professor in the art department of Hunter College, City University of New York. He will review the history of Arctic exploration in painting and illustration, with special reference to nineteenth-century artists and illustrators leading up to Frederic Church and New Bedford’s William Bradford.  Dr. Avery will reveal known or probable sources in the history of western imagery applied to the visualization of the alien landscape that was and, to most, still is the Arctic regions.

October 24th
Douglas Wamsley​
William Bradford’s 1869 Expedition, in Context with Arctic Travels of the 19th Century
Mr. Wamsley,  an independent scholar and attorney who has written extensively on the history of 19th century Arctic exploration. His most recent work is a biography, Polar Hayes, on the life and accomplishments of Dr. Isaac Israel Hayes, a participant in Bradford’s 1869 Greenland voyage. In 1869, a sailing excursion along the northwest coast of Greenland was not a venture to be taken lightly.  However, William Bradford’s voyage ably succeeded in navigating those ice-laden waters that year, while at the same time capturing vivid images of the “Frozen Zone”. This lecture recounts the history of that memorable expedition and its proper place in the broader context of 19th century arctic travels.

November 14th
Kenn Harper
Inuit and Whaling in the Bradford Era
Mr. Harper is a historian, linguist and writer, who has lived in the Arctic (both Greenland and Canada) for the past 47 years. He writes a weekly history column under the name Taissumani for Nunatsiaq News, the newspaper of record for Nunavut, Canada, and is the author of Give Me My Father’s Body: The Life of Minik, the New York Eskimo. He will speak on the whaling industry and the profound effect on the culture of Inuit in both Canada and Greenland. He will examine this impact, its effect on Inuit life, and Inuit adaptation to the stresses and demands of change and recount episodes from the lives of particular Inuit who used the whaling industry to their own advantage.

Buy Tickets Here or register by phone at  508-997-0046 ext. 100

$15.00 per lecture (non-members, $20)
$50.00 for series (non-members, $75)

Receptions in the Jacobs Family Gallery at 6:00 pm.
Lectures in the Cook Memorial Theater at 7:00 pm.

Old Dartmouth Lyceum is sponsored by Nye Lubricants and Bruce and Karen Wilburn.

Tweet hashtag: #ODLyceum2013