The Coldest Crucible: Arctic Exploration and American Culture

The Coldest Crucible: Arctic Exploration and American Culture

by Michael F. Robinson


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In the late 1800s, “Arctic Fever” swept across the nation as dozens of American expeditions sailed north to the Arctic to find a sea route to Asia and, ultimately, to stand at the North Pole. Few of these missions were successful, and many men lost their lives en route. Yet failure did little to dampen the enthusiasm of new explorers or the crowds at home that cheered them on. Arctic exploration, Michael F. Robinson argues, was an activity that unfolded in America as much as it did in the wintry hinterland. Paying particular attention to the perils facing explorers at home, The Coldest Crucible examines their struggles to build support for the expeditions before departure, defend their claims upon their return, and cast themselves as men worthy of the nation’s full attention. In so doing, this book paints a new portrait of polar voyagers, one that removes them from the icy backdrop of the Arctic and sets them within the tempests of American cultural life. 

With chronological chapters featuring emblematic Arctic explorers—including Elisha Kent Kane, Charles Hall, and Robert Peary—The Coldest Crucible reveals why the North Pole, a region so geographically removed from Americans, became an iconic destination for discovery.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226214153
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/24/2014
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 200
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Michael F. Robinson is associate professor of history at the University of Hartford.

Read an Excerpt

The Coldest Crucible

Arctic Exploration and American Culture

By MICHAEL F. ROBINSON The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2006 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-72184-2

Chapter One

Building an Arctic Tradition


Citizens of the new United States did not pay much attention to geographical discovery. War with Great Britain had given them other things to think about. Yet war proved to be an important catalyst of exploration because it forced Americans to take stock of the vast territories surrounding them, to consider geographical knowledge as a bulwark that might protect their new republic. Appreciation of geographical knowledge did not begin with the Revolution-colonists had been surveying the American wilderness for decades-but the upheaval greatly enhanced geography's importance. This became clear when the colonies, having successfully cleaved themselves from Great Britain, set about reassembling themselves as a single nation. Both acts-cleaving and reassembling-generated difficult boundary disputes. Great Britain and Spain contested the northern and southern borders of the United States, while states quarreled among themselves about control of the territories ceded by Great Britain east of the Mississippi. The new government resolved the disputes in piecemeal fashion by means of international treatiesand the Great Land Ordinances of the 1780s. But it gained something important in the process: practical experience dealing with the murky status of new territory.

In the peace that followed the war, the government found new uses for geographical knowledge. The end of hostilities with Great Britain left the Continental Congress in charge of new lands and huge debts. It followed that dispensing with the former might pay down the latter. Selling the nation's new acreage first demanded surveys. The government appointed Thomas Hutchins in 1785 as Geographer of the United States to initiate a public survey of the western lands. On the banks of the Ohio River, Hutchins established the "Point of Beginning," a mark that anchored a new grid of land title to the American continent. Although Hutchins looked at the new territories with the discerning eye of a naturalist, Congress had no interest in funding a scientific survey. The nation's geographer was to measure nature, not marvel at it. Any gazing at the landscape should have some practical objective, such as the discovery of "mines, salt springs, salt licks, and mill seats." Geographical exploration, then, found early government support, albeit in a form that restricted geography to a very narrow range of inquiry. Expeditions to the frontier (which at this point still lay east of the Mississippi) served to clarify borders, establish lines of property, and identify objects of practical value.

These objectives did not apply to regions farther west. Americans knew almost nothing about the inhabitants, resources, and river systems of lands west of the Mississippi River. The Mississippi that snaked its way down the political map of North America served as a border, neatly dividing the United States and New Spain. Yet the real river joined these regions together, connecting tribes and resources along its vast waterway and tributaries. The edge of the American frontier, in other words, was not a lonely backwater but a great highway that linked the United States to peoples and places unknown. Such a highway posed obvious opportunities and perils. It promised commerce with additional Indian tribes and a possible route to the Pacific Ocean, but it also served as a route of invasion or blockade. Indeed, Spain's cession of the Louisiana Territory to the expansionist regime of Napoleon Bonaparte deeply worried President Thomas Jefferson, who viewed it as an event "very ominous to us." Assessing the many threats and opportunities presented by the Far West thus required expeditions of greater flexibility than the public surveys of the 1780s. Explorers of the western frontier had to do more than look for salt licks and mill seats. They would need to consider geography more broadly, bringing to its assessment a new series of questions.

In 1803 Jefferson wrote a secret letter to Congress explaining the necessity of such an expedition. The goals of the enterprise-contacting Indian tribes, establishing trade links, and finding a water passage to the Pacific Ocean-could all be justified as commercial objectives that would easily fall within the constitutional powers afforded to Congress. Geography and natural history would also have roles to play, not as principal objectives but as possible windfalls of discovery. That the expedition "should incidentally advance the geographical knowledge of our own continent," Jefferson explained, "cannot be but an additional gratification." No one mistook this brief reference to "geographical knowledge," coming at the end of the letter, as a declaration of a new kind of scientific exploration. But it was enough for Jefferson to tuck research into the corners of the mission, outfitting his "Corps of Discovery" with proper scientific equipment and submitting its leader, Meriwether Lewis, to a crash course in scientific study.

In this sense, the Corps of Discovery expedition did represent something new, a U.S. expedition that bundled the study of nature together with commercial and military objectives. In this form it more closely resembled the European discovery expeditions of James Cook and Jean-François de la Pérouse than it did the earlier U.S. surveys. On the surface, it made sense to include scientific objectives in discovery expeditions if only because geographical data could be used for many ends. Measurements of magnetic variation, for example, interested not only navigators and map makers but also scholars who studied terrestrial magnetism. Yet the inclusion of scientific objectives did not simply make good sense in the field. It smoothed out bumps in expedition planning back home. In Europe, for example, discovery expeditions gained the approval of scholarly societies who lent their social prestige to the new voyages. And when the journeys went wrong, as did La Pérouse's expedition to the Pacific, narratives and natural history collections helped ease the national pain of failure.

Not all of these benefits yet applied to exploration in the United States. In 1800 the nation did not possess Europe's powerful scientific societies. Nor did its expeditions yet need scholarly cover for imperial designs. But the Corps of Discovery's directive to advance geographical knowledge, however modest, gave the expedition its first success long before it crossed the Mississippi River. That is, it allowed the United States to present its mission to European powers-who would otherwise disapprove of a U.S. expedition on their soil-as a scholarly adventure that fell outside the realm of politics. "The nation claiming the territory," wrote Jefferson to Congress, "regarding this as a literary pursuit ... would not be disposed to view it with jealousy." He showed extraordinary deftness, then, in his campaign to launch the Corps of Discovery expedition, not simply because he understood the value of science as a tool of exploration but because he recognized that science had multivalent properties, that it served different functions in the naturalist's garden, in the halls of Congress, and on the banks of the Missouri.

Ironically, the success of the Lewis and Clark expedition in meeting its objectives has misled us as to its historical significance. The party established good relations with Indian tribes, gathered an extensive natural history collection, and found a route to the Pacific Ocean. These accomplishments have given great luster to the expedition today because they are so unrepresentative of later western journeys. The Corps of Discovery shines brightly to us because it beckons from the far edge of a century so clouded by tragedy: the conquest of the Far West, the exploitation of its natural resources, and the subjugation of its peoples. Yet none of this was obvious to Americans living in the early nineteenth century. They did not know how history would turn out. Nor, for that matter, would they have understood our concern for the welfare of Indians or the American wilderness, forces that from their perspective seemed both vast and threatening. More to the point, they could not make these judgments about the expedition because they knew so little about it. The expedition was not widely reported in the popular press, nor was it discussed much among the small scientific societies that concerned themselves with such issues. Few Americans could marvel at the natural history of the Far West because most of the expedition's botanical collection was destroyed in transit to the East Coast. They could not read the journals of Lewis and Clark because they did not appear in print until 1814, and then in curtailed form. Despite its success in the field, then, the Lewis and Clark expedition left few tracks on the wider culture of Jeffersonian America.

Yet it did leave its mark among a smaller, eclectic group of American military officers, naturalists, and artists who found that western exploration held opportunities for professional advancement. When the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803, it doubled the size of the country and gave political urgency to the task of exploration. Although none of the western expeditions to follow Lewis and Clark-those by Zebulon Pike (1805-1806), Thomas Freeman (1805), and Stephen Long (1820)-proved as successful in the field as the Corps of Discovery, they maintained the diversity of exploration as a practice, bringing together a wide array of individuals who used exploration for different ends. For the military officers that led them, expeditions offered rare peacetime commands that positioned them well for future advancement. Young naturalists joined these expeditions not only to gather specimens but also to gain experience and social prestige. Artists such as Titian Peale and George Catlin tagged along, too, depicting the bounties of nature for display and profit back home. Despite the opportunities that exploration presented, however, no single agency of government or the military gained control over American expeditions. During the first half of the century, exploration remained a largely ad hoc activity.

By the late 1840s, however, important aspects of exploration had become institutionalized. Powerful agencies had sprung up in Washington, DC, to assist or manage expeditions, as well as to tend to the collections that they brought back. The Mexican-American War (1846-1848) brought new territories under U.S. dominion and fueled demand for more surveys. For years maritime states had complained of the lack of accurate coast and harbor charts, and their demands had given rise to the Coast Survey in 1816. Although it had foundered for decades, the charisma of its new superintendent, Alexander Dallas Bache, and the need for charts of the country's vastly expanded coastline now brought new luster to the Survey. Exploration also occupied the new Naval Observatory, which was founded in Washington in 1842. Its director, Matthew Fontaine Maury, demonstrated the value of exploration to American commerce by using data from expeditions to produce valuable wind and current charts. Across town the Smithsonian Institution was becoming the national warehouse of exploration by the late 1850s, piling up natural history collections brought back from expeditions to the West and to South America. The Smithsonian's first secretary, Joseph Henry, went to work cataloging these at the same time that he organized field projects of his own. While national expeditions still lived or perished at the whim of Congress, these agencies found important niches for themselves: surveying, collecting, and cataloging the fruits of the American empire.

Increasingly, U.S. expeditions set sail on missions symbolic as well as practical. By the 1830s, Congress was looking to exploration as a means of enhancing the nation's reputation, not simply a way to advance military or commercial objectives. Starting with the departure of the U.S. Exploring Expedition to the Pacific in 1838, the nation pursued a series of international expeditions of discovery. Whereas the government had frowned on all but the most practical goals in exploring the West, it proved more indulgent of scholarly objectives in exploring the world. It was not that the government placed greater significance on the geography outside its borders. Rather, it was that the wider world offered a more prestigious stage for explorers than did the American West, a place where their actions would be more keenly noticed. Under such scrutiny, the expeditions put on their best face, sailing with corps of "scientifics" to advance geographical knowledge, and in the process, to persuade other nations that the United States was more than a republic of untutored farmers. In short, pursuit of knowledge gave U.S. expeditions symbolic heft. It ushered the nation into an Enlightenment tradition of imperial voyaging and, its organizers hoped, into the ranks of civilized nations.

That exploration had such symbolic power came as no surprise to the reading public. Since the late 1700s, Americans had supported a small market for exploration narratives among American publishers. The growth of an educated middle class in the early nineteenth century brought about a sharp rise in book and newspaper publishing houses and fueled greater demand for exploration and travel literature. "Travels sell about the best of anything we can get hold of," remarked the head of Harper and Brothers. It helped that European explorers were already publishing narratives with an eye toward middle-class readers on both sides of the Atlantic. American magazines joined the fray, writing synopses and reviews of the latest narratives received from Europe. Novelists such as Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, and James Fenimore Cooper made expeditions the subject of true-life and fictional works. By the 1830s travel writing had become a genre broad enough to appeal to many interests. It encompassed the erudite writings of explorer-naturalist Alexander von Humboldt and the lurid reports of the Mariner's Chronicle, a British collection of "shipwrecks, fires, famines, and other calamities" that spawned fifteen different American editions between 1806 and 1857. Was there anything exceptional about American interest in exploration? At first glance Americans' fascination seems derivative, a taste acquired from Europeans who had already found an appetite for the literature of discovery. On the other hand, many Americans, in particular, Anglo-Americans, felt a certain kinship with explorers who had left the heart of the Old World for places new and dangerous. Stories of exploration resonated with readers around the world, but they struck a special chord with U.S. readers inclined to see them as parables of national history and identity.

The evidence for this comes from many quarters. American writers and artists increasingly used exploration as a vehicle for examining character, both personal and national. Whereas early Puritan writers linked American identity to new institutions of church and state, many nineteenth-century writers such as Irving and Cooper looked for the heart of America outdoors, in the individual's encounter with nature. A similar shift was under way among artists. Early painters sought to illustrate national identity by depicting the events and participants of the American Revolution. By the 1830s, however, a new school of artists had started to root American identity in the land itself. In the 1820s the painter Thomas Cole found his inspirations locally in the sometimes bucolic, sometimes fierce landscapes of the Catskills. His pupil, Frederic Edwin Church, set off for more distant and difficult locales in the Rockies and the Andes, producing scenes that thrilled East Coast audiences and established him as the preeminent landscape painter in America.

More than fortune drove Church and fellow artists into the wild. They wanted to produce landscapes that moved beyond the conventions of European painting, embodying a distinctly American vision of nature. Old World painters had developed their craft to portray towns, pastures, and ancient ruins. Europe's "once tangled wood," Thomas Cole observed in 1836, "is now a grassy lawn." For American artists schooled in Europe, this lawn seemed too well groomed to teach them much about painting the wilds of America. They looked to the journey west, then, with new purpose. First, it would bring them to the breathtaking places they wanted to paint. But the journey would also prepare them for the task of painting, providing an apprenticeship with nature whereby they learned how to see and appreciate its strangeness. Painters traveled in hopes that the wilderness would get under their skin, alter their perceptions, and infuse their works with something unique. To educated Americans in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, this was not a silly or eccentric project. Church and the roaming artists of the Hudson River School recapitulated a national story. As they sought the frontier, they were being shaped by it. In the early republic, Jefferson had looked to western exploration for knowledge and commerce. But now, in the Age of Jackson, journeys westward signified more than the sum of objects practical and political. They had also become rites of passage from which flowed the wellspring of the American spirit.


Excerpted from The Coldest Crucible by MICHAEL F. ROBINSON Copyright © 2006 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix
Acknowledgements xi

Introduction 1

Chapter One 15
  Building and Arcitc Traditon

Chapter Two 31
  A Man of Science and Humanity
  Elisha Kent Kane

Chapter Three 55
  An Arctic Divided
  Isaac Hayes and Charles Hall

Chapter Four 83
  Dying Like Men
  Adolphus Greely

Chapter Five 107
  The New Machines
  Walter Wellman and Robert Peary

Chapter Six 133
  Savage Campaigns
  Robert Peary and Frederick Cook

Conclusion 159

Notes 165
Bibliography 181
 Index 199

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