Charles Francis Hall

Charles 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