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Elisha Kane and the Arctic expeditions

It’s just one small paragraph, tucked way at the back of an old book of federal statutes in which The Legal Genealogist was poking around.

Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,” the paragraph began, as every Congressional resolution then and thereafter has done. And then it went on:

That the Secretary of the Navy be and he is hereby, authorized to provide and despatch a suitable naval or other steamer, and, if necessary, a tender, to the Arctic Seas, for the purpose of rescuing or affording relief to Passed Assistant Surgeon E. K. Kane, of the United States Navy, and the officers and men under his command: Provided, That such steamer and tender shall be officered and manned by volunteers from the navy and others who may declare their willingness to be so engaged.1

Now that is just too juicy a morsel to pass up.

So what’s the rest of this story, and who was E. K. Kane?

The answers should be part of the family history of anyone even remotely associated with this adventure.

It seems that in 1845, a British expedition led by Captain Sir John Franklin left to explore the Arctic, particularly the last section of the Northwest Passage. But his two ships became icebound in the Victoria Strait near King William Island and the entire expedition — 129 men in all — perished. But without any way to send word of their peril, without any way for those left behind to know what happened, search and rescue missions were launched throughout the 1840s and 1850s, and sporadic searches even to the end of the 1800s.2

Much of the effort to find the Franklin expedition was spurred by Lady Jane Franklin, wife of the captain, who personally wrote to President Millard Fillmore in 1852, asking for American help. That appeal did not pass in vain.

Enter Elisha Kent Kane.

Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on 3 February 1820, Kane was a child of privilege. His father was John Kintzing Kane, Attorney General of Pennsylvania (1845-1846), later Judge of U.S. District Court of Eastern Pennsylvania; his mother Jane Duval Leiper Kane. He was educated at the University of Virginia, (1837-1839), then received his medical education at the University of Pennsylvania, graduating in March 1842. 3

An official U.S. Navy biography continues:

Though weakened by rheumatic fever as a youth, he was educated as a physician at the University of Pennsylvania and, in July 1843, was appointed an Assistant Surgeon in the United States Navy. In 1844, prior to taking up his duties, Kane sailed to China as part of a U.S. diplomatic mission. His later Navy assignments involved cruises off Africa, in the Mediterranean Sea and off South America. In 1847 he undertook a daring courier mission to Mexico City, travelling through hostile territory, and surviving severe battle wounds.

In 1850-1851, Kane was surgeon and official historian for the DeHaven expedition, sent to the Canadian Arctic in the brigs Advance and Rescue to look for possible survivors of Sir John Franklin’s exploring party. A second expedition sailed in the Advance in late May 1853, with the same object and with Kane as leader.4

Kane was initially assigned “to special duty for the purpose of conducting an overland journey from the upper waters of Baffin’s bay to the shores of the Polar seas.”5 His task was expanded to include “objects of scientific inquiry, particularly … as relate to the existence of an open Polar Sea, terrestrial magnetism, general meteorology and subjects of importance connected with natural history.”6

The expedition sailed from New York at the end of May 1853 and reached Greenland in late July. That was the last that was heard from them, and in late 1854 it was the turn of Kane’s friends and family to ask for a rescue mission. Senator Richard Brodhead of Pennsylvania spoke to the U.S. Senate on 19 December 1854, and urged a resolution in favor of the mission:

Dr. Kane is a gallant officer, conducting a hazardous and meritorious enterprise with the consent and under the orders of the government, and hence it becomes the duty of a generous Government, representing a generous people, to take measures for his rescue or relief. We have officers and men unemployed; officers have already volunteered and there will be no difficulty in procuring men of the best sort…7

But it wasn’t until February that Congress acted, and not until March that money was appropriated. In May 1855, the barque Release and steamer Arctic were ordered to the rescue. The Release was commanded by Commander H. J. Hartsene, overall expedition commander, with Lts. William S. Lovell and Joseph P. Fyffe, Assistant Surgeon James Laws and Boatswain Van R. Hall aboard. The Arctic was commanded by Lt. Commander Charles C. Simms, with Lt. Watson Smith, First Assistant Engineer Harman Newell, and Kane’s own brother John K. Kane as medical officer.8

Kane himself, in the meantime, hadn’t been idly sitting by waiting for rescue. After finding themselves trapped in the ice between Greenland and Canada,

finding that it was impossible to clear the brig, the party came to the determination to forsake her; and did so, first taking out the necessary provisions, documents, instruments, &c. and placing them on sledges and in boats, which were dragged by the men over the ice, with incredible difficulty, for a distance of three hundred miles. Then, having reached the sea, the party took to the open boats and made the best of their way, for a distance of thirteen hundred miles to the Danish settlement of Upernavik, in Greenland, where they were hospitably received.9

It was there, in Greenland, where the rescue ships came across Kane and his men and brought them back to New York to a tumultuous welcome.10 But long life was not to be Kane’s fortune: “After his health failed during a trip to England in the Fall of 1856, he went to Cuba in search of recovery. However his condition became worse, and Elisha Kent Kane died in Havana on 16 February 1857.”11

After a funeral described as the largest in American history, he was buried at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.12

So many lives intertwined with Kane’s… his own family, the men he served with, the men who volunteered to go to his rescue, the members of Congress and Navy officials who made it possible… and this tale belongs to them all.

And to think… the story comes to light with one paragraph, tucked way at the back of an old book of federal statutes…


Image: U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph (“Engraved portrait after a painting by Alonzo Chappel, published in “National Portrait Gallery of Eminent Americans”. It depicts Kane during his 1850s missions to the Arctic to search for possible survivors of the Franklin expedition”).

  1. “A Resolution respecting the Arctic Expedition, commanded by Passed Surgeon E. K. Kane,” 3 Feb 1855, 10 Stat. 723 (1855).
  2. Wikipedia (, “Franklin’s lost expedition,” rev. 9 Nov 2012.
  3. Charles O. Cowing, “Dr. Elisha Kent Kane,” Elisha Kent Kane Historical Society ( : accessed 18 Nov 2012).
  4. Assistant Surgeon Elisha Kent Kane, (1820-1857),” Naval History & Heritage Command ( : accessed 18 Nov 2012).
  5. John P. Kennedy, Secretary of the Navy, to Passed-Assistant Surgeon, E. K. Kane, U.S. Navy, 27 Nov 1852, in Capt. H.W. Howgate, U.S.A., “Congress and the North Pole: An Abstract of Arctic Legislation in the Congress of the United States-The Second Grinnell Expedition,” Kansas City Review of Science and Industry (Kansas City, Mo. : Ramsey Millett & Hudson, 1879), 2: 487; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 17 Nov 2012).
  6. John P. Kennedy, Secretary of the Navy, to Passed-Assistant Surgeon, E. K. Kane, U.S. Navy, 9 Feb 1853, in ibid., 2: 487-488.
  7. Ibid., 2: 488.
  8. Ibid., 2: 491.
  9. Reported Death of Dr. E.K. Kane,” New York Daily Times, 24 Feb 1857; html transcription, Elisha Kent Kane Historical Society ( : accessed 18 Nov 2012).
  10. Ibid.
  11. Assistant Surgeon Elisha Kent Kane, (1820-1857),” Naval History & Heritage Command ( : accessed 18 Nov 2012).
  12. Cowing, “Dr. Elisha Kent Kane.”
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