Dead Reckoning thriving in Alaska

 By David James /
Anchorage Daily News

In “Dead
Reckoning,” his masterful history of Europe’s search for the Northwest Passage,
Canadian historian Ken McGoogan argues persuasively that those explorers who
paid close attention to Native peoples of the Arctic, and who worked closely
with them, generally thrived. In an often deadly climate, learning from those
who dwelt in it was paramount.

By the time
American expeditions began pushing northward late in the 19th century, this
appears to have been well understood, and employing local men to assist with
hunting, overland travel, dog handling, translation and other necessities was

One such
individual was Hans Hendrik. Born and raised in the small trading post of
Fiskernæs (now Qeqertarsuatsiaat) in southwestern Greenland, Hendrik was an
Inuit who was hired by Elisha Kent Kane, commander of the Second Grinnell
expedition, bound for the island’s northern end.

It was Hendrik’s
first voyage north, and the experience would define his life. He remained near
Upernavik to settle while Kane and his men began their long march south when
the sea ice refused to release their ship. Hendrik would go on to serve in
three more expeditions — two American, one British — and emerge as the hero of
the Polaris Expedition nearly two decades later, when deaths would have been
numerous but for the efforts of himself and another Inuit man.

After his
journeys, Hendrik did something else. He wrote a book. 
“Memoirs of Hans
Hendrik” is a brief but fascinating account of Hendrik’s experiences as a hand
on these expeditions. Originally composed in 1877, it has been oft reprinted.
There is a new, reasonably priced edition 
available through
Amazon, one of several print versions. And as it has long passed into the
public domain, it can also be obtained electronically at no charge from Project
Gutenberg and other sites.

However one
wishes to obtain it, the book is a classic of Arctic literature and worth
seeking out. Hendrik’s is one of the few firsthand Native accounts we have of
European expeditions, rendering it especially valuable, as is the fact that he
was writing from the perspective of a hired hand, not a captain seeking glory.

Hendrik was hired
by Kane in 1853. His world had been limited to Fiskernæs when he took the job
and shipped out to help provide for his parents. At the time, the Native
peoples of far-northern Greenland were isolated from their southern
compatriots. Superstitions abounded in the south that the northerners were a
dangerous people. Hendrik found them quite honest and kind, although as someone
raised a Christian he worried for their souls. Still, when Kane prepared to
turn south, Hendrik chose to remain.

He soon found a
wife and they began a family. In 1860, a ship commanded by Isaac Israel Hayes,
a veteran of Kane’s team, arrived and took Hendrik into employment, again as
hunter and resident expert. 
During that
winter, Hendrik went on an overland trip with the ship’s astronomer, who
succumbed to the cold. The death, while in no manner Hendrik’s fault, cast a
shadow on his reputation, although Hayes himself had high praise for Hendrik.

Despite lingering
concerns, Hendrik was next engaged by Charles Francis Hall as part of the
Polaris Expedition in 1871, which hoped to reach the North Pole. 
This is one of
the legendary tales of Arctic survival. Hall took ill and died late in the
year, but under new leadership the expedition persisted. It was the following
fall when things went bad. Part of the expedition — including Hendrik, his wife
and children — were atop an ice floe with materiel from the Polaris (the ship)
that had been jettisoned as part of an emergency escape attempt, when the ship
and the ice floe suddenly broke lose from each other. It was mid-October. The
castaways would drift atop the floe, later relocating to a different one, for six
Arctic winter months before being rescued.

It’s a horrible
fate to imagine, even in our modern time. But despite many of the men being in
poor condition, all aboard survived owing to the skills of Hendrik and a fellow
Inuit. They kept killing seals and keeping the cook kettles filled with a meat
that is both nutritious and, as luck would have it, a source of vitamin C, and
hence a defense against scurvy.

After their
rescue, Hendrik and the other Inuit were taken first to Washington, D.C., where
they were feted as heroes. For Hendrik, the northeastern United States was as
exotic as his own home was to American visitors. The longest chapter in this
book concerns the Polaris Expedition and aftermath, and Hendrik provides vivid
descriptions of survival on the floe and his impressions of America.

One can
understand why Hendrik would have been hesitant to sign on for any further such
adventures, but he reluctantly joined the British Arctic Expedition of 1885
under George Nares. Poorly equipped, the results were mixed, and deaths
occurred. For Hendrik, who lived until 1889, it would be his final adventure
with Arctic explorers.

Despite its
brevity, “Memoirs of Hans Hendrik” is an instructive and important historical
work. Hendrik only briefly mentions the cultural gaps with the Americans he
worked alongside. He speaks well of each of his commanders, and they returned
the praise. But some of the men never trusted him, and their suspicions were
painful for him to endure. We also learn firsthand about hunting seals and
polar bears from the ice, and musk oxen onshore — surprisingly, and contrary to
logic, meat was sometimes left behind. We gain insight into famed commanders
from a man who served under them. And Hendrik’s encounter with America reminds
us that anthropological fascination can be directed at our nation as well.

But mostly we
learn why McGoogan’s conclusion about the explorers who ventured into the
Arctic is so on point. While Hendrik never brags or exalts himself, on four
separate expeditions, including one that went horribly awry, he kept people
fed. Without him, many would have died. We’re fortunate to have his story.

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based critic and freelance writer.
He can be reached at

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