According to a biography from The Dudley Observatory, August Sonntag immigrated to America during the late 1852 or early 1853. During May, 1853, Sonntag served as astronomer with the Arctic expedition organized by Dr. Kane to search for the crew of Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated Arctic exploration. It was during this expedition on the Advance, that Sonntag met Isaac I. Hayes, MD, who served as ship surgeon and historian, and subsequently wrote his first book, An Arctic Boat Voyage in the Autumn of 1854. August Sonntag photo courtesy of The Dudley Observatory.
The Arctic-experienced Sonntag served as second in command and as astronomer on Hayes’ subsequent expedition in 1860. During Hayes’ exploration for the legendary “Open Polar Sea,” August Sonntag, age 28, died December, 1860 from hypothermia.
As discussed in Chapter 15 of The Open Polar Sea, Dr. Hayes sent Sonntag with Hans Hendrik to Sorfalik in an effort to obtain replacement sledge dogs for those that died of virulent disease. The journey by sledge, with nine surviving dogs, began on December 21st, and as Hayes wrote, “…Hans seemed to look upon it as an easy and trifling task. They carried no tent, intending to rely upon the snow hut…” Aside from food for 12 days for a three-day journey, their provisions were light, including a bear-skin for Sonntag. Weather conditions at the time were calm with a temperature of minus 21ºF.
The situation persisted for the remainder of January, 1861. With certain fear that the two men were lost, Hayes planned to make his first search on January 29th but instead, he encountered two Inuit who traveled to the schooner and appeared “out of the darkness very suddenly and unobserved.” With the aid of Peter Jensen as an interpreter, Hayes learned “the terrible truth, — Sonntag was dead!”
Sonntag’s Death Described
Hans Hendrik arrived two days later, and for the next five pages or the remainder of Chapter 16, Hayes described Hans’ somewhat incredulous account of Sonntag’s death. In brief, Sonntag, having been chilled from riding on the dog sledge, decided to run alongside it, and while doing so fell through ice into freezing water. In a wet, chilled state, they returned to the hut. Without changing his wet clothes, Sonntag initially ran alongside the sledge (again) and then rode on the sledge to the hut. Once there, Hans indicates that Sonntag “was stiff and speechless.”
Finally, Hayes writes of Hans’ report: “…but all his efforts were unavailing, and, after remaining for nearly a day unconscious, Sonntag died. He did not speak after reaching the hut, and left no message of any kind.” Sonntag remained entombed in the snow hut until Hayes’ recovered his body for burial during March, 1861. Sonntag’s body was placed in a wooden coffin and with a marked rock-cairn grave.
Hayes’ “Strange Dream” in Retrospect
Readers can decide whether they believe Hayes’ dream was a premonition of August Sonntag’s death. The timing and content of the dream are suggestive of impending events. Hayes indicated that he was not a superstitious person; however, it is interesting to note that on Sonntag’s grave marker, Hayes indicated the death as December, 1860, suggesting that he believed Sonntag died within the 10-day time period after leaving the schooner for replacement sledge dogs.
The question remains if Hayes had acted quickly on his dream would he have been able to intercept Sonntag and prevent his untimely death? In the absence of sledge dogs, Hayes may not have been able to reach them in time. Unfortunately, that question cannot be definitively answered, and not knowing probably haunted Hayes throughout his expedition to locate the legendary “Open Polar Sea.”
Frances Hennessey has been fascinated with Arctic exploration for some time, and has concentrated on the writings of Isaac I. Hayes, MD. Frances writes informally on Arctic-related topics, and writes poetry, some of which are vignettes of her reading and personal experiences. She also tweets @openpolarsea