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.