Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Preliminary Guide to the Charles Francis Hall Collection

Collection ID:
Field, Cyrus
Hall, Charles Francis, 1821-1871
Franklin, John, 1786-1847
Royal Geographic Society.
Everett, Edward, 1794-1865
Collection text is in
. Some materials in
Physical Description:
3.5 Cubic feet
12 boxes
The collection documents Hall's Arctic exploration.

Scope and Contents
Scope and Contents
Diaries, journals, notebooks, scrapbooks, business cards, correspondence, ships' logs, navigation charts and documents on Hall's Arctic exploration. The correspondence includes letters to and from Henry Grimmell, William Grimmell, J. Carson Brevoont, John Barrow, Cyrus Field, Edward Everett, Clement Markham, Joseph Henry, and the Royal Geographic Society.

The collection is arranged into one series.

Biographical / Historical
Biographical / Historical
The Arctic explorer Charles Francis Hall was born about 1821, either Vermont or New Hampshire; there are very few details about his early life. He is most notable for spending over ten years in the Arctic among the Inuit, initially focused on locating evidence of the lost British Expedition under Sir John Franklin, and then, in two later expeditions, searching for the Northwest Passage and the North Pole.
Before becoming a polar explorer, Hall began as a blacksmith's apprentice at a young age in Rochester, NH. Sometime in the 1840's he married and moved westward eventually coming to Cincinnati, where Charles opened a business making engraving plates and seals, in 1849. Later he published a small newspaper in Cincinnati, The Cincinnati Occasional.
While publishing news stories of arctic expeditions related to the Franklin expedition, Hall became enamored with the idea of polar exploration. In 1857 he began collecting any material he could gather on the landscape and survival in the Arctic, previous expeditions, and John Franklin's expedition itself, while at the same time seeking financial support for his expedition.
After detailed preparation and a small amount of financial backing, Hall boarded a ship for Greenland, and then on to the "Terra Incognita" of the Arctic. Despite being an amateur explorer with very little support for his first expedition, Hall believed that by living amongst the indigenous Inuit people, a non-native could survive long periods living in the arctic. In May 1860, Hall arrived in Frobisher Bay, Canada and with not much more than a small boat and basic supplies, Hall met befriended local Inuit who took him in for the next two years.
Over those two years, Hall found little evidence of the Franklin expedition, but what he did find proved to be more valuable. While an avid and writer, Hall lived, learned and daily documented in his journals more about the Inuit people that any visitor before him. His journals describe Inuit society, traditions, oral histories, language and culture, as well as the skills necessary to survive in such an unforgiving climate. He also travelled and mapped much of the unknown Frobisher Bay area, correcting many previously incorrect maps that depicted area as an open strait, rather than a closed bay.
Once Hall returned to the United States, he began working on publishing his writings and preparing for a second expedition to Frobisher Bay. In 1864, he left for his second trip spending almost five years living amongst the Inuit, searching for the Franklin expedition and mapping unknown portions of the Arctic.
As soon as he arrived home in 1869, Hall began again planning his next and bigger expedition, but times had changed in the U.S. The Civil War was over and the United States government was now interested in polar exploration and the race to the North Pole. Gaining the attention of President Grant, Hall was appointed as joint commander of the Polaris Expedition.
Departing in 1871, the expedition began with critical problems. The "joint-command" of the expedition put Hall in direct conflict with the other two expedition commanders, each one believing they should have been appointed as sole commander. This eventually led to incredible disasters throughout the expedition, resulting in the total failure of the mission, loss of the ship, as well as the death of Charles Francis Hall. Hall died on the expedition in November 1871, possibly from poisoning by one of his co-commanders. His body was exhumed in 1969 and tested, revealing the presence of arsenic. While Hall claimed on his deathbed he had been poisoned by a crew member, many 19th century medicines contained arsenic.

Archives Center staff
Custodial History
Collection transferred to the Archives Center from the Division of Armed Forces History (now Division of Political and Military History) on October 8, 1999.
Processing Information
Collection processed by Archives Center staff, undated.

Using the Collection
Preferred Citation
Charles Francis Hall Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.
Conditions Governing Access
Collection is open for research.
Conditions Governing Use
Collection items available for reproduction, but the Archives Center makes no guarantees concerning copyright restrictions. Other intellectual property rights may apply. Archives Center cost-recovery and use fees may apply when requesting reproductions.

More Information
Nickerson, Sheila. Midnight to the North: The Untold Story of the Woman Who Saved the Polaris Expedition."New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam [2002]. Pages 98-99, describes her visit to the Archives Center to use this collection.

Keywords table of terms and types.
Keyword Terms Keyword Types
Arctic regions -- Discovery and exploration Geographic Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Business cards Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Explorers Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Letters (correspondence) -- 1850-1900 Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Navigation charts Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Notebooks Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Nunavut Geographic Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Scrapbooks -- 19th century Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Ships' logs Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Indigenous peoples Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Eskimo/Inuit Cultural Context Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Inuktut Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Henry, Joseph, 1797-1878 Personal Name Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid

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