POSTED BY RUSSELL POTTER
Looming large behind all of the polar spectacles of Bradford and Dunmore and Critcherson, as well as the career of Dr. Isaac I. Hayes, there stands the figure of Dr. Elisha Kent Kane, by far the most famous Arctic explorer of his day. He was the ship’s surgeon on the First Grinnell Expedition, and the commander of the Second Grinnell, and it was his exquisitely written and illustrated books about these voyages which stirred in so many readers a mad passion for everything polar. When heading west on the Oregon trail, it was said that pioneers often took but two books with them — “the Bible and Dr. Kane” — and when he died in 1857, his funeral train was the longest of the century excepting Lincoln’s; at every town and whistle-stop the local citizenry turned out, wearing black armbands and holding black-draped portraits in memory of the great explorer. An enormous procession followed in Philadelphia, with the Governor and many other dignitaries among Kane’s pall-bearers.
Kane’s exploits, too, were among the first to be widely shown in pictorial form, although photography was yet too much in its infancy to supply the demand. Instead, Kane’s sketches were turned into watercolors by the gifted artist James Hamilton, then turned out as mezzotints by John Sartain, the pre-eminent engraver of his time. These scenes, in turn, were the basis for numerous moving panoramas, enormous canvasses hundreds and even thousands of feet long, that scrolled by with scenes in sequence, narrated — in Kane’s case — by actual members of his expedition, including William Morton. The same scenes were turned into magic lantern slides, although not photographically, but as hand-colored ones. The fascination of these images was a key reason that William Bradford himself was drawn to the Arctic; his hand-annotated copy of Kane’s narrative is part of the Arctic Visions exhibition. Bradford’s admiration for Kane also explains why Bradford so eagerly sought out the services of Dr. Hayes, who had served as Kane’s medical officer on the Second Grinnell before leading his own polar voyage in 1860. In recent years, Kane’s career has attracted renewed interest, with three new biographies, including Mark Sawin’s aptly-titled Raising Kane, research for which was supported by the Elisha Kent Kane Historical Society.
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.