Adolphus Greely
True Tales of Arctic Heroism in the New World

True Tales of Arctic Heroism in the New World
Adolphus Greely

A. W. Greely

True Tales of Arctic Heroism in the New World


From the dawn of history great deeds and heroic actions have ever fed the flame of noble thought. Horace tells us that

By Homer taught the modern poet sings
In epic strains of heroes, wars and kings.

The peace-aspiring twentieth century tends toward phases of heroism apart from either wars or kings, and so the heroic strains of the "True Tales" appear in the unwarlike environment of uncommercial explorations.

One object of this volume is to recall in part the geographic evolution of North America and of its adjacent isles. The heroic-loving American youth is not always familiar with the deeds of daring, the devotion to duty, and the self-abnegation which have so often illumined the stirring annals of exploration in arctic America.

Notable exemplars of heroic conduct have already been inscribed on the polar scroll of immortals, among whom are Franklin and McClintock, of England; Kane, of America; Rae, of Scotland; and Mylius-Erichsen, of Denmark. Less known to the world are the names Brönlund, Egerton and Rawson, Holm, Hegemann, Jarvis and Bertholf, Kalutunah, Parr, Petitot, Pim, Richardson, Ross, Schwatka and Gilder, Sonntag, Staffe, Tyson and Woon, whose deeds appear herein. As to the representative women, Lady Jane Franklin is faintly associated in men's minds with arctic heroism, while Merkut, the Inuit, has been only mentioned incidentally. Yet all these minor actors have displayed similar qualities of courage and of self-sacrifice which are scarcely less striking than those shown in the lives of others who are recognized as arctic heroes.

The "True Tales" are neither figments of the fancy nor embellished exaggerations of ordinary occurrences. They are exact accounts of unusual episodes of arctic service, drawn from official relations and other absolutely accurate sources. Some of these heroic actions involve dramatic situations, which offer strong temptations for thrilling and picturesque enlargements. The writer has sedulously avoided such methods, preferring to follow the course quaintly and delightfully set forth by the unsurpassed French essayist of the sixteenth century.

Montaigne says: "For I make others to relate (not after mine own fantasy, but as it best falleth out) what I cannot so well express, either through unskill of language or want of judgment. I number not my borrowings, but I weigh them. And if I would have made their number to prevail I would have had twice as many. They are all, or almost all, of so famous and ancient names that methinks they sufficiently name themselves without me."

The "Tale" of Merkut, the daughter of Shung-hu, is the only entirely original sketch. The main incident therein has been drawn from an unpublished arctic journal that has been in the writer's possession for a quarter of a century. This character – a primitive woman, an unspoiled child of the stone age – is not alone of human interest but of special historic value. For her lovely heroic life indicates that the men and women of ages many thousands of years remote were very like in character and in nature to those of the present period.

    A. W. Greely.

Washington, D. C., August, 1912.


"You, Philip Staffe, the only one who chose
Freely to share with us the shallop's fate,
Rather than travel in the hell-bound ship —
Too good an English sailor to desert
Your crippled comrades."

    – Van Dyke.
On the walls of the great Tate Gallery in London are many famous pictures, but few draw more attention from the masses or excite a livelier human interest among the travelled than does "The Last Voyage of Henry Hudson." While the artist dwells most on the courage of Henry Hudson, he recalls the loyalty of Philip Staffe and thus unites high human qualities ever admired.

Consider that in barely four years Hudson made search for both the northeast and northwest passages, laid the foundations for the settlement of New York, opened up Hudson Bay, and in a north-polar voyage reached the then farthest north – a world record that was unsurpassed for nearly two centuries. Few explorers in career, in success, and in world influence have equalled Hudson, and among those few are Columbus, Magellan, Vasco da Gama, and Livingston.

Thus Hudson's life was not merely an adventurous tale to be told, whether in the golden words of a great chronicle or in magic colors through the brush of a great artist. It appeals to the imagination and so impresses succeeding generations throughout the passing centuries.

For such reasons the materialistic twentieth century acclaimed loudly the fame of this unknown man – mysterious in his humanity though great as a navigator. So in 1909 the deeds and life of Henry Hudson were commemorated by the most wonderful celebration of the western hemisphere, whether judged by its two millions of spectators, its unsurpassed electric displays with six hundred thousand lights, or its parade of great war-ships from eight admiring nations.

Great were his deeds; but what was the manner of this man who won that greatest love from Philip Staffe, who in stress lay down life for his master? There was religious duty done, for Purchas tells that "Anno, 1607, April the nineteenth, at Saint Ethelburge, in Bishops-gate Street, did communicate these persons, seamen, purposing to go to sea in four days after, to discover a passage by the north pole to Japan and China. First, Henry Hudson, master… Twelfthly, John Hudson, a boy." Hence we have faith that Hudson was sound and true.

The "Last Voyage" was in the Discovery, fifty-five tons only, during which Hudson, in search of the northwest passage, explored and wintered in Hudson Bay. The journal of Abacuck Prickett, the fullest known, gives a human touch to the voyage. He tells of a bear, "which from one ice-floe to another came toward us, till she was ready to come aboard the ship. But when she saw us look at her, she cast her head between her hind legs, and then dived under the ice, and so from piece to piece, till she was out of our reach."

Some strange-appearing Indian caches were found, of which he relates: "We saw some round hills of stone, like to grass cocks, which at first I took to be the work of some Christian. We went unto them, turned off the uppermost stone, and found them hollow within, and full of fowls hanged by their necks." Later he adds: "We were desirous to know how the savages killed their fowl, which was thus: They take a long pole with a snare or (noose) at the end, which they put about the fowl's neck, and so pluck them down."

Hudson unwisely decided to remain in the bay through the winter and put the Discovery into quarters in James Bay, an unfortunate though possibly inevitable anchorage. Knowing as we do the terrible cold of the winters in the Hudson Bay region, it is certain that the illy provided crew must have suffered excessively during the winter. Besides, the ship was provisioned only for six months and must be absent nearly a year. Sensible of the situation, Hudson encouraged systematic hunting and promised a reward for every one who "killed either beast, or fish, or fowl." The surrounding forests and barren hills were scoured for reindeer-moss or any other vegetable matter that could be eaten, while the activity of the hunters was such that in three winter months they obtained more than twelve hundred ptarmigan. Nevertheless, they were in straits for food despite efforts at sea and on land.

They had sailed a few days only on their homeward voyage when the discontent and insubordination, engendered the preceding winter, had swollen into mutiny. Alleging that there had been unfairness in the distribution of food, Henry Greene, a dissipated youth who owed his position to Hudson's kindness, incited his fellows to depose Hudson and cast him adrift. That this was a mere suspicion is clear from the cruel and inhuman treatment of their sick and helpless shipmates, who also suffered Hudson's fate.

Prickett relates that Hudson was brought bound from his cabin, and "Then was the shallop hauled up to the ship's side, and the poor, sick, and lame men were called on to get them out of their cabins into the shallop." Two of the seamen, Lodlo and Bute, railed at the mutineers and were at once ordered into the boat.

Philip Staffe, the former carpenter, now mate, took a decided stand against the mutineers, but they decided that he should remain on the ship owing to his value as a skilled workman. He heroically refused to share their lot, but would go with the master, saying, "As for himself, he would not stay in the ship unless they would force him."

The private log of Prickett, though favoring always the mutineers with whom he returned to England, clearly shows that Philip Staffe was a man of parts although unable to either read or write. His high character and unfailing loyalty appear from his decision. He was steadfast in encouraging those inclined to despair, and also discouraged grumbling discontent which was so prevalent in the ship. He was one of the men sent to select the location of winter quarters on the desolate shores of James Bay. Faithful to his sense of duty, he knew how and when to stand for his dignity and rights. He displayed spirit and resolution when Hudson, in untimely season and in an abusive manner, ordered him in a fit of anger to build a house under unsuitable conditions ashore. Staffe asserted his rights as a ship's carpenter, and declined to compromise himself ashore.

His quick eye and prompt acts indicated his fitness for a ship's officer. He first saw and gave warning, unheeded, of a ledge of rocks on which the Discovery grounded. Again in a crisis, by watchful care and quick action, he saved the ship's cable by cutting it when the main anchor was lost. But in critical matters he stood fast by the choleric Hudson, who recognized his merit and fidelity by making him mate when obliged to make a change. This caused feeling, as Prickett records. "For that the master (Hudson) loved him and made him mate, whereat they (the crew) did grudge, because he could neither read nor write."

Even in the last extremity Staffe kept his head, exerted his personal influence with the mutineers for the good of the eight men who were to be cast adrift with the master. Declining the proferred chance of personal safety, he asked the mutineers to give means of prolonging life in the wild. He thus secured his tools, pikes, a pot, some meal, a musket with powder and shot. Then he quietly went down into the boat. Wilson, a mutineer, testified that "Philip Staffe might have staid still in the ship, but he would voluntarily go into the shallop for love of the master (Hudson)."

Rather than cast in his life with mutineers, thus insuring present comfort with prolonged life, this plain, illiterate English sailor stood fast by his commander, and faced a lingering death while caring for his sick and helpless comrades in a desolate, far-off land. Death with unstained honor among his distressed shipmates was to Philip Staffe preferable to a life of shame and dishonor among the mutineers of the Discovery. Surely he belongs to those described by the Bishop of Exeter:

"Men who trample self beneath them,
Men who make their country wreathe them."

The heroic loyalty of Philip Staffe was fittingly embalmed in quaint historic prose by the incomparable English chronicler of the principal voyages of famous navigators. Purchas, in "His Pilgrimage," relates: "But see what sincerity can do in the most desperate trials. One Philip Staffe, an Ipswich man, who, according to his name, had been a principal staff and stay to the weaker and more enfeebled courages of his companions in the whole action, lightening and unlightening their drooping darkened spirits, with sparks from his own resolution; their best purveyor, with his piece on shore, and both a skilful carpenter and lusty mariner on board; when he could by no persuasions, seasoned with tears, divert them from their devilish designs, notwithstanding they entreated him to stay with them, yet chose rather to commit himself to God's mercy in the forlorn shallop than with such villains to accept of likelier hopes."

The mutineers, having deposed and marooned the great navigator Hudson, looked forward to a homeward voyage of plenty and of comfort. But under the rash and untrained directions of Henry Greene, William Wilson, and Robert Juet, the wretched, luckless seamen were in turn harried by hostile savages and distressed by deadly famine.

Prickett relates that a party landed near Cape Diggs, at the mouth of Hudson Strait, to barter with the natives for provisions, and adds: "I cast up my head, and saw a savage with a knife in his hands, who stroke at my breast over my head: I cast up my right arm to save my breast, he wounded my arm and stroke me in the body under the right pap. He stroke a second blow, which I met with my left hand, and then he stroke me in the right thigh, and had like to cut off my little finger of the left hand. I sought for somewhat wherewith to strike him (not remembering my dagger at my side), but looking down I saw it, and therewith stroke him into the body and the throat.

"Whiles I was thus assaulted in the boat, our men were set upon on the shore. John Thomas and William Wilson had their bowels cut, and Michael Perse and Henry Greene, being mortally wounded, came tumbling into the boat together…

"The savages betook them to their bows and arrows, which they sent amongst us, wherewith Henry Greene was slain outright, and Michael Perse received many wounds, and so did the rest. In turning the boat I received a cruel wound in my back with an arrow. But there died there that day William Wilson, swearing and cursing in most fearful manner. Michael Perse lived two days and then died."

Of their final sufferings Prickett records: "Towards Ireland we now stood, with prosperous winds for many days together. Then was all our meal spent, and our fowl [birds from Hudson Bay] restie [rusty?] and dry; but, being no remedy, we were content with salt broth for dinner and the half-fowl for supper. Now went our candles to wrack, and Bennet, our cook, made a mess of meat of the bones of the fowl, frying them with candle grease. Our vinegar was shared, and to every man a pound of candles delivered for a week, as a great dainty…

"Our men became so faint that they could not stand at the helm, but were fain to sit. Then Robert Juet died for mere want, and all our men were in despair, … and our last fowl were in the steep tub… Now in this extremity it pleased God to give us sight of land."

As to Hudson, with loyal Staffe and their sick comrades, the record runs: "They stood out of the ice, the shallop being fast to the stern, and so they cut her head fast… We saw not the shallop, or ever after." Thus perished Henry Hudson, the man who laid the foundations of the metropolis of the western hemisphere, who indirectly enriched the world by hundreds of millions of dollars by giving to it the fisheries of Spitzbergen and the fur trade of Hudson Bay. To the day of his death he followed the noble rule of life set forth in his own words: "To achieve what they have undertaken, or else to give reason wherefore it will not be." In geography and in navigation, in history and in romance, his name and his deeds stand forever recorded.

In the Homeric centuries Hudson might well have been deified, and even in this age he has become in a manner mythological among the sea-rovers as graphically depicted by Kipling:

"And North amid the hummocks,
A biscuit-toss below,
We met the fearful shallop
That frighted whalers know:
For down a cruel ice-lane,
That opened as he sped,
We saw dead Henry Hudson
Steer North by West his dead."