Modern history


Corrected Muster Roll of the Polaris Expedition Corrected muster roll of the Polaris expedition as made out by Captain Hall on July 2, 1871, and forwarded by him to the secretary of the navy. (Nationalities added by the author.)

C. F. Hall


Sidney O. Buddington

Sailing and Ice Master

George Tyson

Assistant Navigator

H. C. Chester

First Mate

William Morton

Second Mate

Emil Schuman

Chief Engineer (German)

Alvin A. Odell

Assistant Engineer

Walter F. Campbell


John W. Booth


John Herron

Steward (former British citizen)

William Jackson


Nathan J. Coffin



Herman Sieman (German)

Joseph B. Mauch (German)

Frederick Anthing (Russian/German)

G. W. Lindquist (Swedish)

J.W.C. Kruger (German)

Peter Johnson (Danish)

Henry Hobby

Frederick Jamka (German)

William Lindermann (German)

Noah Hayes

Scientific Corps

Emil Bessel

Surgeon and Chief of Scientific Corps (German)

R.W.D. Bryan

Astronomer and Chaplain

Frederick Meyer

Meteorologist (German)


I believe that no man can retain the use of his faculties during one long night to such a degree as to be morally responsible. …


November 10, 1871. The black sky leaned heavily upon the land. So dark was the air that the earth glowed brightly by contrasta pale, ethereal light radiated from the ground itself. Faint blue and violet shapes of snow-covered earth blended with wildly strewn blocks of ice littered the landscape. Without distinction solid land and frozen water, sky and earth floated together into one shimmering, surreal dream.

But this was no dream. This was the Arctic winter, and a nightmare for the weary procession that wended its way over the ice. Led by a single figure holding a lantern, which cast a feeble light and flickering glow that the cold air quickly swallowed, the party moved slowly across the snow in a broken column. Behind them rose the dark hulk of their ice-locked ship, the Polaris, their only sanctuary in this hostile world. Slowly, reluctantly, the procession trudged on, separating themselves from their lifeline. Even as they shuffled in a single line, the party was sharply divided. While all ventured forth to bury their fallen commander, half feared his death might have been a result of deliberate acts.

Trapped in the grip of ice, the Polaris no longer resembled the sleek ship she was. A fish out of water, a vessel “nipped” in the Arctic ice provided neither speed nor security for its crew. Without open water to which to run for safety, their vessel was potentially a pile of scrap wood.

The black needles of the steam schooner's masts jabbed futilely at the sky to protest their captivity. Canvas tenting cloaked the decks while slabs of ice and snow were banked about the ship's sides to insulate it and to keep it from rolling as the implacable ice squeezed the hull out of its frozen cradle like a pip from a rotten apple.

Ahead, barely visible in the gloom, two tiny figures waited near a shack. Beside them an American flag drooped from a spindly flagpole. The fur-covered men pulled a rope that dragged a sled. Draped across the sled, a second American flag trailed its corners in the grooves left by the runners. Under the flag rested a hastily built coffin. Beneath the pine lid lay their captain, Charles Francis Hall, dressed in a simple blue uniform and wrapped in another American flag. The crew of the Polaris was burying their leader with as much ceremony as they could muster. No funeral dirge sounded. Only the scrape of the sled's runners and the crunch of their boots on the fresh snow broke the silence. Here in the Arctic, men replaced horses; a simple sledge replaced a funeral carriage.

This far above the Arctic Circle, no sun would rise in November, even though it was one hour before noon. Since October the sun had no longer battled with the growing Arctic night, no longer struggled to rise above the horizon, and simply fled south, abandoning the land to the perpetual blackness of the Arctic winter.

The party trudged along in silence, dwarfed by the immense presence of the sky, the unending whiteness, and the threatening rise of a shale bluff that towered before them like a crouching beast. Observatory Bluff, the sweeping rise of wind-scoured rock was called. Today it rose over them like a granite wave, waiting to roll down and crush them. Panting from exertion, the party drew to a halt beside the waiting individuals.

A wisp of wind riffled the flag and sent snow devils spinning across the ice. The men looked about uneasily. A burst of wind could easily fill the air with snow, blinding them and causing their ship to vanish. Men had frozen to death mere feet from safety in such whiteouts.

The wind ceased. The snow settled, and the sky cleared into an inky blanket pierced by innumerable diamond-hard chips of starlight. The men's fears abated, and they turned back to the business at hand.

Before them lay a shallow depression scarcely two feet in depth. The hole looked like a sullied refuse pit where the snow and ice had been scraped from the hard earth and the frozen gravel attacked with pickaxes and shovels. From there the diggers had encountered permafrost, the eternal slab of ironlike ice that dwells beneath the Arctic ground. Since the last Ice Age, this permafrost possessed what ground the water renounced, and a mere mortal's grave was no cause to relinquish its hold.

Two days of backbreaking work with pick and crowbar had yielded only this rudimentary grave. Like every attempt by man on its sovereignty and secrets, the Arctic resisted. The coffin would lie in the meager depression, half-exposed. The only thing left to do was to cover the exposed box with shale and gravel from the diggings and hope a bear would not rip the lid off. The thought of their captain's corpse dragged over the hills by a playful polar bear, then left for the foxes and lemmings to shred, bore heavily on the crew's minds.

But this was the best they could do. Captain Hall's grave would be like his quest to reach the North Polea work unfinished.

The coffin was lowered into the ground, and Mr. R.W.D. Bryan, the ship's astronomer and chaplain, stepped forward to read the service. On board the Polaris were copies of four prayers written especially for the expedition by the famous Reverend John Philip Newman, the leading evangelist of the time. Cleric to kings, presidents, and magnates, Newman was the one who would baptize the dying President Ulysses S. Grant in 1885, then claim his prayers had done the trick when Grant miraculously recovered from a massive hemorrhage.

But Newman's prayers dealt with success, not death. One was to be read on reaching the North Pole. So Bryan read the simple seaman's burial service from the captain's Bible. Even this was difficult. In the gloom, George Tyson, the ship's navigator, thrust forward his lantern so that Bryan could read the words.

As he spoke, a serpentine coil of light burst forth overhead and snaked, hissing, across the sky. Undulating in bands of violet, blue, and red, the aurora severed the blackness from horizon to horizon and cast an unworldly glow upon the party. Suddenly the men could see their faces and hands shimmering in the light like apparitions from another world. Amazed and startled by this show of fireworks, they shoveled the scarce spadefuls of dirt over the coffin and hurried back to the security of their ship.

Emil Schuman, the ship's engineer, readied a wooden headboard with a hastily penciled inscription: “C. E Hall, Late Commander of the North Polar Expedition, died Nov. 8, 1871. Aged 50 years.” Noah Hayes, an Indiana farm boy far from home, struggled to drive it into the frozen ground. The board splintered and fell facedown across the mound. Cold, frightened, and depressed, Hayes drove his crowbar into the earth in frustration. In his journal he wrote of the iron bar. “A fit type of his will. An iron monument marks his tomb.”

There it stood jutting crookedly from the mound like a melted cross, marking the grave.

Hayes and Schuman hurried after the rest of the crew, heads bent, unmindful of the sinuous lights dancing over their heads. To them it was a coincidence, a scientific demonstration of the magnetism and electricity they had come north to study.

Behind Schuman and Hayes came the Eskimo guides of the Po-laris.Shuffling away from the grave of their longtime friend, the Inuit purposefully kept their backs to the northern lights. Unseen by the white men, each Inuit held a drawn knife behind his back, between him and the lights, for protection. For to the Inuit the hissing lights overhead were the spirits of the restless dead, those who had died violent deaths or had been murdered.

Not one of them doubted that their friend Captain Hall's spirit was overhead. Hall's spirit was calling out. Was he calling for vengeance? Bad things lay ahead for all of them. Their trial on the ice was just beginning.

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