Unknown Historical Figures – Elisha Kane

Elisha Kent Kane was born February 20th, 1820 to a US district judge father and a Victorian-era mother. He became an American explorer and medical officer in the US Navy after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania Medical School in 1842. He served in the US Marine Corps in the Mexican-American War and fought several battles. In 1848, after capturing the Mexican General Antonio Gaona and his wounded son, he befriended them and saved their lives at Napoluca.

Most of his naval life was spent searching for the missing Sir John Franklin in the Arctic. Sir John Franklin and the majority of his crew all went missing after becoming trapped in ice when on their way home to England. They were sent to explore the Northwest Passage in 1845 and ended up trapped in the ice near King William Island. It was many years until scientists found out that Franklin died in 1847 on that island.

But Kane was a member of two Arctic expeditions that searched for the famed and lost expedition. The first expedition was the Grinnell Arctic Expedition that went to find Sir John Franklin in 1850-1851 after Lady Franklin’s numerous pleas to find her husband. She charged the Admiral of the time to give a 20,000 pound reward to whomever found, and brought, her husband back to her. Many expeditions went out and the cost of these many searches were more sunken ships and lost men. But the Grinnell Arctic Expedition found Sir John Franklin’s first winter camp in late-1850 but did not succeed in finding any of the crew or Franklin. Determined to succeed, Kane took a Second Grinnell Expedition which sailed from New York on May 31, 1853. Suffering from scurvy and near death for some of the trip, he pushed onward and charted the coasts of Smith Sound and Kane Basin. He penetrated farther north than any other explorer of the time and searched through Cape Constitution. While there, he discovered the ice-free Kennedy Channel that numerous other famous explorers would use to get to the North Pole in later years. Kane later abandoned the icebound brig Advance for an 83-day march to Upernavik to evade the frozen north and its wrath. The wayward crew and Kane lost only one man on the exploration after a sailing ship picked them up.

Upon his return to New York in late 1855, he wrote a two-volume description of his journey that he called “Arctic Explorations”. He published them a year after his arrival home and then sailed for England to fulfill a promise to Lady Franklin. He promised that he would relay his report on his expedition directly to her and after he did so, he left for Havana, Cuba in late 1856. Kane went to Cuba in a vain attempt to recover from his harrowing journey but he instead died on February 16th, 1857, just days before he turned 37. His body was taken on a funeral train from New Orleans to Philadelphia. It is astounding that Kane is so unknown because the procession was met at nearly every platform by a memorial delegation and is said to be the second largest funeral in US history – second only to Abraham Lincoln.


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