Elisha Kent Kane

Doctor and Scholar Became Admired as an Arctic Explorer

Lithograph of Arctic explorer Elisha Kent Kane
Elisha Kent Kane. Library of Congress

Elisha Kent Kane became nationally famous in the 1850s after writing a book about a voyage by Americans in search of Sir John Franklin, the British Arctic explorer who had disappeared while searching for the Northwest Passage.

Though he was along as a medical officer, and not the commander of the Grinnell Expedition, Kane’s observant eye and skill as both a writer and artist made harrowing conditions and spectacular scenery come alive for readers.

Following the success of his first book, Kane was able to raise money to mount another expedition to the Arctic.

On his second voyage Kane traveled farther north than any white man had previously. And he had to overcome not only the usual privations of the Arctic, but a severe crisis of leadership. He somehow saved his crew, and managed to sail back to New York City, hailed again as a hero.

Kane had traveled widely before ever going to the Arctic, and as a young man had experienced adventures and endured illnesses in India, China, and Egypt. During the Mexican War he was wounded in an unusual altercation that made him seem heroic.

His wild adventures may have been prompted by knowledge that he suffered from a severe heart ailment and was not expected to live a long life. And he did die at the age of 36.

His popularity and early death inspired a great national outpouring of grief. And the funeral for Elisha Kent Kane was, in some ways, comparable to the traveling funerals held for Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln.

As his body was carried thousands of miles by riverboat and railroad, people gathered to pay their respects.

Despite his fame during his lifetime, Kane is barely remembered today. He is truly a forgotten American hero.

Early Life and Education

Elisha Kent Kane was born on February 3, 1820, the son of a Philadelphia attorney with close political ties to Andrew Jackson.

After suffering bouts of rheumatic fever in his teens, Kane learned he had a weak heart and would would most likely not live a long life.

At one point his father saw him keeping to his bed, and gave him stern advice: “If you must die Elisha, die in the harness.”

From that point young Kane began living as if he might die at any moment. He attended the University of Virginia, and then continued on to medical school. His father, perhaps to encourage him to live a full life as soon as possible, arranged from him to serve as a medical officer in the U.S. Navy.

Naval Career

After his father interceded with Daniel Webster, who was serving as secretary of state to President John Tyler, Kane was appointed to serve aboard the frigate USS Brandywine, which sailed from Norfolk, Virginia, in the spring of 1843. The ship’s mission was to deliver an American envoy to China, and its route took Kane toward a number of adventures.

In late 1843 Kane arrived in India, where he explored ancient caves. Sailing on to Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka) he participated in an elephant hunt. He also visited Hong Kong, Macao, and the Philippines.

Life in the Navy was hard on Kane, who was always in fragile health. In 1847 he appealed to the administration of James K. Polk for more meaningful duty.

He was dispatched to carry messages to commanders in the Mexican War.

Arriving in Mexico, Kane traveled with some pro-American Mexican fighters. On his way to find the headquarters of General Winfield Scott, his escort encountered a detachment of Mexican soldiers. In a brief and chaotic battle Kane was wounded.

The Mexicans escorting Kane won the small engagement, and were going to execute their Mexican prisoners until Kane, despite his own wounds, interceded. He saved the life of a Mexican general.

When he returned to the United States, Kane was hailed as a hero.

The First Grinnell Expedition

In 1849 Kane applied to participate in a mission being organized to search for the Franklin Expedition. The two ships commanded by Sir John Franklin had not been seen for four years, and it was believed that more than 100 British sailors could still be alive, stranded in the Arctic ice.

Kane was accepted to be the medical officer of the Grinnell Expedition, which consisted of two whaling ships converted for Arctic service, the Advance and the Rescue. The ships left New York City in May 1850, and sailed to the Arctic region to look for Franklin.

Kane was present on Beechey Island when three graves of sailors from the Franklin Expedition were located. The Grinnell Expedition spent a winter locked in the ice, and managed to return to New York in September 1851.

For the following two years Kane wrote about the expedition and also delivered a number of lectures. He attracted large and enthusiastic crowds, and his first book about the arctic sold very well.

The Second Grinnell Expedition

In May 1853 Kane again ventured to the Arctic, this time commanding the brig Advance. The expedition, again, was backed by Henry Grinnell.

On this trip Kane went farther north than white men had ever gone. He had become convinced that the top of the world consisted of an open Arctic Sea. At one point an associate of Kane’s ascended a high point of ice, and claimed he saw the Arctic Sea in the distance. In fact, he was seeing a mirage, a common occurrence.

Kane and his crew had a harrowing journey. They became stuck in the ice, and did not return to New York for more than two years. During that time Kane and his men had to abandon their ship and make a brutal trek across the ice to a whaling settlement in Greenland. They were finally rescued by a ship that would take them home.

Great Fame

Returning to New York in October 1855, Kane was again hailed as a great hero. He had already started an extensive book about his second trip to the Arctic, and when it was published it became a national best seller.

Kane married Margaret Fox, one of the famous Fox Sisters, who claimed to communicate with spirits. He and his wife traveled to Havana, Cuba, where he hoped to regain his health. He died in Cuba, and his body was returned to the United States by way of New Orleans.

An elaborate traveling funeral was held for Kane as his body was brought back to Philadelphia.

His travels and his eloquent writings had been him a national hero.