A Celebration of Women Writers

"The Rescue Party." by Charlotte M. Yonge (1823-1901)
From: A Book of Golden Deeds. (1864) by Charlotte M. Yonge. London: Blackie & Son, Ltd., n.d.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom



The Arctic seas have been the scene of some of the most noted instances of daring and patience shown by mariners. Ever since the reign of Edward VI, when the brave Sir Hugh Willoughby and his crew all perished frozen at their posts among the rocks of Spitzbergen, the relentless ice, and soft though fatal snows of those dreary realms, have formed the grave of many a gallant sailor. Many a life has been lost in the attempt to discover the North-west passage, between Davis's and Behring's Straits, and to trace the outline of the northern coast of America. Whether those lives were wasted, or whether their brave example was not worth more to the world than a few years more of continuance, is not the question here to be asked. The later Arctic voyagers had a nobler purpose than that of completing the survey of the barren coast, namely, the search for Sir John Franklin, who, in 1845, had gone forth with two tried vessels, the Erebus and Terror, on his second polar expedition, and had been seen and heard of no more.

Voyage after voyage was undertaken, in the hope at first of relieving and rescuing the lost ships' companies, and then of ascertaining their fate, until the Admiralty decided that to send forth more exploring parties was a vain risking of valuable lives, and it was only the earnest perseverance of Sir John Franklin's wife and the chivalrous adventure of individuals that carried on the search, until, at the end of fourteen years, Captain, now Sir Leopold M'Clintock, in the Fox yacht, discovered the last records, which placed it beyond all doubt that the gentle and courageous Franklin had died peacefully, before evil days had come on his party, and that the rest had more gradually perished under cold and hunger, in the fearful prison of icebergs.

Gallant and resolute as were all these northern travellers, there are two names that perhaps deserve, above the others, to be recorded, because their free offer of themselves was not prompted by the common tie of country. One was the French Lieutenant Bellot, who sailed in the Albert in 1851, and after most manful exertions, which gained the respect and love of all who sailed with him, was drowned by the breaking of the ice in Wellington Sound. The other was Dr. Elisha Kane, an American naval surgeon, who in 1853 volunteered to command an American expedition in search of the lost vessels, which were supposed to be shut up by the ice in a basin of clearer, warmer water, such as it was thought might exist round the North Pole, and the way to which might be opened or closed, according to the shifting of the icebergs.

His vessel was the brig Advance, and his course was directed through Davis's Straits, and on the way past the Danish settlements in Greenland, they provided themselves with a partially educated young Esquimaux as a hunter, and with a team of dogs, which were to be used in drawing sledges over the ice in explorations.

The whole expedition was one Golden Deed, but there is not space to describe it in all its details: we must confine ourselves to the most striking episode in their adventures, hoping that it may send our readers to the book itself. The ship was brought to a standstill in Renfaelner Bay, on the west side of Smith's Strait, between the 79th and 80th degrees of latitude. It was only the 10th of September when the ice closed in so as to render further progress of the ship impossible. On the 7th of November the sun was seen for the last time, and darkness set in for 141 days–such darkness at times as was misery even to the dogs, who used to contend with one another for the power of lying within sight of the crack of light under the cabin door.

Before the light failed, however, Dr. Kane had sent out parties to make caches, or stores of provisions, at various intervals. These were to be used by the exploring companies whom he proposed to send out in sledges, while the ice was still unbroken, in hopes of thus discovering the way to the Polynia, or polar basin, in which he thought Franklin might be shut up. The same work was resumed with the first gleams of returning light in early spring, and on the 18th of March a sledge was dispatched with eight men to arrange one of these depots for future use. Towards midnight on the 29th, Dr. Kane and those who had remained in the ship, were sewing moccasins in their warm cabin by lamplight, when steps were heard above, and down came three of the absent ones, staggering, swollen, haggard, and scarcely able to speak. Four of their companions were lying under their tent frozen and disabled, "somewhere among the hummocks, to the north and east, it was drifting heavily". A brave Irishman, Thomas Hickey, had remained at the peril of his life to feed them, and these three had set out to try to obtain aid, but they were so utterly exhausted and bewildered, that they could hardly be restored sufficiently to explain themselves.

Instantly to set out to the rescue, was of course Dr. Kane's first thought, and as soon as the facts had been ascertained, a sledge, a small tent, and some pemmican, or pounded and spiced meat, were packed up; Mr. Ohlsen, who was the least disabled of the sufferers, was put into a fur bag, with his legs rolled up in dogskins and eiderdown, and strapped upon the sledge, in the hope that he would serve as a guide, and nine men, with Dr. Kane, set forth across the ice in cold seventy-eight degrees below the freezing-point.

Mr. Ohlsen, who had not slept for fifty hours, dropped asleep as soon as the sledge began to move, and thus he continued for sixteen hours, during which the ten proceeded with some knowledge of their course, since huge icebergs of noted forms, stretching in "long beaded lines" across the bay, served as a sort of guide-posts. But just when they had come beyond their knowledge, except that their missing comrades must be somewhere within forty miles round, he awoke, evidently delirious and perfectly useless. Presently, they came to a long level floe, or field of ice, and Dr. Kane thinking it might have been attractive to weary men unable to stagger over the wild hummocks and rugged surface of the other parts, he decided to search it thoroughly. He left the sledge, raised the tent, buried the pemmican, and took poor Ohlsen out of his bag, as he was just able to keep his legs, and the thermometer had sunk three degrees lower, so that to halt would have been certain death. The thirst was dreadful, for there was no waiting to melt the snow, and in such a temperature, if it be not thawed before touching the mouth, it burns like caustic, and leaves the lips and tongue bleeding. The men were ordered to spread themselves, so as to search completely; but though they readily obeyed, they could not help continually closing up together, either, Dr. Kane thought, from getting bewildered by the forms of the ice, or from the invincible awe and dread of solitude, acting on their shattered nerves in that vast field of intense lonely whiteness, and in the atmosphere of deadly cold. The two strongest were seized with shortness of breath and trembling fits, and Dr. Kane himself fainted twice on the snow. Thus they had spent two hours, having been nearly eighteen without food or water, when Hans, their Esquimaux hunter, thought he saw a sledge track in the snow, and though there was still a doubt whether it were not a mere rift made by the wind, they followed it for another hour, till at length they beheld the stars and stripes of the American flag fluttering on a hummock of snow, and close behind it was the tent of the lost.

Dr. Kane was among the last to come up; his men were all standing in file beside the tent, waiting in a sort of awe for him to be the first to enter it and see whether their messmates still lived. He crawled into the darkness, and heard a burst of welcome from four poor helpless figures lying stretched on their backs. "We expected you! We were sure you would come!" and then burst out a hearty cheer outside, and for the first time Dr. Kane was wellnigh overcome by strong feelings.

Here were fifteen souls in all to be brought back to the ship. The newcomers had travelled without rest for twenty-one hours, and the tent would barely hold eight men, while outside, motion was the only means of sustaining life. By turns, then, the rescue party took two hours of sleep each, while those who remained awake paced the snow outside, and food having been taken, the homeward journey began, but not until all the sick had been undressed, rubbed, and newly packed in double buffalo skins, in which–having had each limb swathed in reindeer skins–they were laid on their own sledge, and sewn up in one huge bale, with an opening over each mouth for breathing. This took four hours, and gave almost all the rescuers frostbitten fingers, and then, all hands standing round, a prayer was said, and the ten set out to drag the four in their sledge over ice and snow, now in ridges, now hummocks, up and down, hard and wild beyond conception. Ohlsen was sufficiently restored to walk, and all went cheerfully for about six hours, when everyone became sensible of a sudden failure of their powers.

"Bonsall and Morton, two of our stoutest men, came to me, begging permission to sleep; they were not cold, the wind did not enter them now, a little sleep was all that they wanted." Presently Hans was found nearly stiff under a drift, and Thomas, bolt upright, had his eyes closed, and could hardly articulate. At last John Blake threw himself on the snow and refused to rise. They did not complain of feeling cold; but it was in vain that I wrestled, boxed, ran, argued, jeered, or reprimanded, an immediate halt could not be avoided." So the tent was pitched again with much difficulty, for their hands were too powerless to strike a light, and even the whisky, which had been put under all the coverings of the sledge at the men's feet, was frozen. Into the tent all the sick and failing were put, and James M'Gary was left in charge of them, with orders to come on after a halt of four hours, while Dr. Kane and William Godfrey pushed on ahead, meaning to reach the tent that had been left halfway, and thaw some food by the time the rest came up.

Happily, they were on a level tract of ice, for they could hardly have contended with difficulties in the nine miles they had still to go to this tent. They were neither of them in their right sense, but had resolution enough to keep moving, and imposing on one another a continued utterance of words; but they lost all count of time, and could only remember having seen a bear walking leisurely along, and tearing up a fur garment that had been dropped the day before. The beast rolled it into a ball, but took no notice of them, and they proceeded steadily, so "drunken with cold", that they hardly had power to care for the sight of their halfway tent undergoing the same fate. However, their approach frightened away the bear, after it had done no worse than overthrowing the tent. The exhausted pair raised it with much difficulty, crawled in, and slept for three hours. When they awoke, Dr. Kane's beard was frozen so fast to the buffalo-skin over him, that Godfrey had to cut him out with his jack-knife; but they had recovered their faculties, and had time to make a fire, thaw some ice, and make some soup with the pemmican, before the rest of the party arrived.

After having given them this refreshment, the last stage of the journey began, and the most severe; for the ice was wild and rough, and exhaustion was leading to the most grievous of losses–that of self-control. In their thirst, some could no longer abstain from eating snow–their mouths swelled, and they became speechless; and all were overpowered by the deadly sleep of cold, dropping torpid upon the snow. But Dr. Kane found that, when roused by force at the end of three minutes, these snatches of sleep did them good, and each in turn was allowed to sit on the runners of the sledge, watched, and awakened. The day was without wind and sunshiny, otherwise they must have perished; for the whole became so nearly delirious; that they retained no recollection of their proceedings, they only traced their course afterwards by their footmarks. But when perception and memory were lost, obedience and self-devotion lived on–still these hungry, frostbitten, senseless men tugged at the sledge that bore their comrades–still held together, and obeyed their leader, who afterwards continued the soundest of the party. One was sent staggering forward, and was proved by the marks in the snow to have repeatedly fallen; but he reached the brig safely, and was capable of repeating with perfect accuracy the messages Dr. Kane had charged him with for the surgeon.

A dog team, with a sledge and some restoratives, was at once sent out to meet the others, with the surgeon, Dr. Hayes, who was shocked at the condition in which he encountered them–four lying, sewn up in furs, on the sledge, which the other ten were drawing. These ten, three days since, hardy, vigorous men, were covered with frost, feeble, and bent. They gave not a glance of recognition, but only a mere vacant, wild stare, and still staggered on, every one of them delirious. It was one o'clock in the afternoon of the third day that they arrived, after sixty-six hours' exposure, during which they had been almost constantly on foot. Most of those who still kept their footing stumbled straight on, as if they saw and heard nothing, till they came to the ship's side, where, on Dr. Kane giving the word to halt, they dropped the lines, mounted the ship's side, and each made straight for his own bed, where he rolled in, just as he was, in all his icy furs, and fell into a heavy sleep.

There were only the seven who had been left with the ship (five of them being invalids), to carry up the four helpless ones, and attend to all the rest. Dr. Kane, indeed, retained his faculties, assisted in carrying them in, and saw them attended to; after which he lay down in his cot, but after an hour or two, he shouted, "Halloo, on deck there!" and when Dr. Hayes came to him, he gave orders "to call all hands to lay aft, and take two reefs in the stove-pipe!" In like manner, each of the party, as he awoke, began to rave; and for two days the ship was an absolute madhouse, the greater part of its inmates frantic in their several cots. Dr. Kane was the first to recover–Ohlsen the last, his mind constantly running upon the search for his comrades in the tent, which he thought himself the only person able to discover. Of those whom the party had gone to assist, good "Irish Tom" soon recovered; but two died in the course of a few days, and the rest suffered very severely.

The rest of Dr. Kane's adventures cannot here be told; suffice it to say, that his ship remained immovable, and, after a second winter of terrible suffering from the diseases induced by a want of fresh meat and vegetables–the place of which was ill-supplied by rats, puppies, and scurvy-grass–it was decided to take to the boats; and between these and sledges, the ship's company of the Advance, at last, found their way to Greenland, after so long a seclusion from all European news, that when they first heard of the Crimean war, they thought an alliance between England and France a mere hallucination of their ignorant informant. Dr. Kane–always an unhealthy man–did not live long after his return, but he survived long enough to put on record one of the most striking and beautiful histories of patience and unselfishness that form part of the best treasury this world has to show.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
Mary Mark Ockerbloom.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom