Memoirs of Hans Hendrik

In “Dead Reckoning,” his masterful history of Europe’s search for the Northwest Passage, Canadian historian Ken McGoogan argues persuasively that those explorers who payed 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 common.

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 first-hand 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 DC 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 first hand 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 James is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks. He can be emailed at nobugsinak@gmail.com.

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"Memoirs of Hans Hendrik, The Arctic Traveller, Serving under Kane, Hayes, Hall and Nares, 1853-1876: Written by himself."

By Hans Hendrik

Written in 1877

Multiple editions available