Great Survival Stories: Tyson’s Wonderful Drift

The 1871-1873 Polaris expedition made it as far north as 82° 11’, farther than any  vessel before it. Nevertheless, the expedition was a disaster almost from the moment it set off.
 
If so much could be accomplished by a divided and disaffected party, what might have been done by a united and properly disciplined body equally well-equipped?
 

Charles Francis Hall had made a name for himself with two expeditions to the Arctic in search of John Franklin’s doomed 1845 Northwest Passage expedition. This was enough to secure U.S. government funding for Hall’s proposed North Pole expedition. 

Hall refitted an old navy tugboat for the job. At great expense, Hall prepared the newly christened Polaris for arctic travel to the best standards of the time. He reinforced the hull, added four whaleboats, and installed an engine so that it could run on both wind and steam.

The only known photo of Charles Hall. Photo: Unknown author

 

A leadership struggle

The seeds of disaster were sown during the crew selection. Hall had no sailing experience and so needed an experienced captain. He ended up with two. Sidney Buddington and George Tyson, both whaling captains, came aboard to complete a confusing hierarchy. Hall was in command but was not a sailor, Buddington was “Sailing Master”, and Tyson the assistant navigator.
 
To further complicate matters, the ship’s doctor, Emil Bessels, thought himself the leader of the “scientific corps” on board. Soon after they left New York, a disagreement arose with Bessels about Hall’s authority. Eventually, they agreed that the Bessels could “follow his own course.”
 
In Tyson’s account of the journey, the fascinating Arctic Experiences: Containing Capt. George E. Tyson’s Wonderful Drift on the Ice Floe, there was “insolence and disaffection” among the crew. Cliques formed, and there was a worrying divide along national lines. A good portion of the crew was German-speaking, including Bessels, and they soon set themselves apart.

By the time they arrived in Qeqertarsuaq (named Godhavn at the time) on Disko Island, off the west coast of Greenland, some of the men had already been pilfering alcohol from the stores.

The Inuit saviors

The crew also included an Inuit contingent. Ipirvik was a guide and hunter with whom Hall had traveled on his previous expeditions. Ipirvik brought his wife Taqulittuq, a seamstress and interpreter, and their young child.

The Inuit hunter Ipirvik. Photo: G. W. Pach

 

In Northwest Greenland, the Polaris picked up another hunter, the eventually famous Hans Hendrik. (Among other things, Hans Island, the disputed island between Denmark and Canada, is named after him.) Hendrik insisted on bringing his wife and three young children too. The “extra mouths” were not a popular addition among the crew.

A Greenland stamp commemorating Hans Hendrik.

 
Despite the tension on board, the Polaris continued north until she was beset by ice and forced to find a safe harbor between northern Ellesmere Island and Greenland. They dropped anchor and unloaded some supplies onto the ice. Hall and a small team then headed out by sled. They hoped to travel still further north, toward the Pole, but they made it less than 80km and returned after two weeks. Nevertheless, Hall was in good spirits on his return. He was planning another sled journey, only to be mysteriously struck down with a sudden sickness.

Hall dies mysteriously

After a cup of coffee, Hall became violently ill. He was vomiting, suffering delirious episodes, and was increasingly weak. He suspected that he’d been poisoned. Two weeks later, he was dead. At the time, Tyson isn’t sure what to make of Hall’s claims but he certainly doesn’t trust the German contingent.

Hall’s grave today, in Northwest Greenland.

 

Buddington, now the undisputed captain, was keen to return south, but it was already early winter. The crew had to hunker down until the ice thawed. The long winter failed to improve morale. “Nothing is occurring that is pleasant or profitable to record,” Tyson wrote. 

Despite Buddington’s indifference, the crew made two more attempts to travel to the North Pole. The trips were a disaster and they only succeeded in losing one of the small whaling boats. They didn’t get far.

In August they tried to move the Polaris south but found it very slow going in the pack ice. Then, in October of 1872, disaster struck. An existing leak in the hull was “nipped” by the pressing ice, and all hell broke loose on board.

An illustration from Arctic Experiences: Containing Capt. George E. Tyson’s Wonderful Drift on the Ice Floe. Photo: British Library

 

Adrift!

Fearing that they were sinking, Buddington ordered everything thrown onto the ice. Haphazardly, the men dumped supplies overboard, and 19 of the crew exited onto the ice floe. But the engineer had overstated the leak and the Polaris didn’t sink. Instead, it broke away from the ice and drifted off away from the stranded men.
 
Soon after, those marooned on the ice floe spotted the Polaris, seemingly under steam and sail. But no rescue was forthcoming and they eventually lost sight of the boat. Drifting south on the ice floe, Tyson, meteorologist Frederick Meyer, a collection of the German-speaking crew, and the two Inuit families had to survive on their own.
They had some food supplies and two small boats, but it was the Inuit hunters who would prove most essential to their survival. The Inuit fashioned igloos for shelter and managed to catch three seals early on. Their success helped Tyson to persuade the men to ration their other food stocks.

Ethnic tensions

But the disorder and ethnic tensions from the Polaris carried over. The seamen and Meyer were all German, and they stuck together. Tyson found that they were, at best, extremely reluctant to take any orders from him. Soon, he found that food rations were disappearing from their store. Worse, he was unable to stop them from destroying one of their two small boats for firewood.

The weather deteriorated as winter took hold and the hunters struggled to find enough open water to catch seals. Everyone began to suffer from “a grinding, tearing hunger.”
 
Meyer believed that they are on the east side of Baffin Bay, close to Greenland. This in turn led the seamen to think that they were in no great danger. They believed that they would be saved as soon as they drifted far enough south to access the stores that the Polaris had left at Disko.

The Polaris expedition route and Tyson’s drift. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

 

But as navigator, Tyson realized that they were on the west, or Canadian, side of Baffin Bay. No magical food cache was going to hove into view. Meyer’s continued insistence that they were to the east did nothing to halt provision pilfering among the men.

Tyson grew increasingly concerned that they’d soon make off with the provisions and the remaining boat toward where they think that Greenland must lie. This would have inevitably led to the death of the entire party.

The Voyage of the Polaris by William Bradford (1875). Photo: William Bradford/Taubman Museum of Art

 

Divisions widened

The Inuit hunters managed to catch enough food to keep everyone alive, but divisions widened. Tyson suspected that the German-speaking seamen, all of whom were armed, might turn violent. In particular, he suspected that they meant to kill Hans and his family. This was a terrible idea, notwithstanding morality, as the Inuit were the only ones with the skills to keep the party alive.
 
The group just about managed to keep from each other’s throats. Slowly, spring arrived. But this created new dangers. Their ice floe began to break up, forcing all 19 (and for some reason, the late Captain Hall’s writing desk) into their one surviving boat. They moved to firmer ice, although the badly overloaded boat barely made it. They also left behind much of their ammunition.
All the while, they drifted south. They drifted for 2,900km in total. As the ice shrank and splintered, it looked like they would have to move permanently into the small boat. Nearing the end, they finally got lucky. On April 30, 1873, six months after they had lost the Polaris, they spotted a boat. Desperately, they fired their guns and shouted, but it was Hans Hendrik in his skin kayak who managed to get the attention of the sealing ship. They were saved!

Somehow, all survived

It is a miraculous story of unimaginable hardship, yet somehow all 19 members of the crew had survived, including the young children. The 14 crew that had remained on the Polaris were eventually saved too. Low on coal, they had run the ship aground in northern Greenland. (It is said that pieces of the Polaris can still be seen there.) They almost certainly would not have made it through the winter if not for the help of the Inuit. After seeing out the winter, they used wood salvaged from the ship to build a craft in which they continued south. A whaling ship picked them up in July 1873.

The story has one final twist. The fate of the Polaris led to a naval inquiry, which heard testimony from several members of the crew. They eventually ruled that Hall’s death was the result of a stroke. However, nearly 100 years later, a writer exhumed Hall’s body and tested tissue samples. The results suggest that Hall ingested a large amount of arsenic in his final two weeks, consistent with poisoning. This puts the ship’s doctor, Bessels, very much in the spotlight. Damningly, before the expedition, it also appears that the two men had been vying for the affections of the same woman in New York.

Martin Walsh is a freelance writer and wildlife photographer based in Da Lat, Vietnam. A history graduate from the University of Nottingham, Martin's career arc is something of a smörgåsbord. A largely unsuccessful basketball coach in Zimbabwe and the Indian Himalaya, a reluctant business lobbyist in London, and an interior design project manager in Saigon. He has been fortunate enough to see some of the world. Highlights include tracking tigers on foot in Nepal, white-water rafting the Nile, bumbling his way from London to Istanbul on a bicycle, feeding wild hyenas with his face in Ethiopia, and accidentally interviewing Hezbollah in Lebanon. His areas of expertise include adventure travel, hiking, wildlife, and half-forgotten early 2000s indie-rock bands.


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jams
jams
4 months ago

Amazing story, thanks for that gripping read.