Icy Imprisonment: The 1849 Voyage of the HMS North Star

During my recent visit to Thule, Greenland I became intrigued by the areas colorful history. I stumbled upon a generic Thule Guide which makes a brief note of an “inscription plaque” left behind by the crew of the HMS North Star in 1849. I couldn’t find much about the ships history and even the old timers around Thule hadn’t heard of the “plaque” which is actually a tombstone. Anyway, I hope you find the history of the North Star as interesting as I did. 

The grave is located near the Pavilion (Bldg. #1201). Park there, then cross the pipelines and walk along the ridge towards the pier. Its a two minute walk.

HMS North Star being towed to the Greenland coast, 1849
HMS North Star being towed to the Greenland coast, 1849

Her Majesty’s ship, the North Star, sailed tentatively through the frigid, iceberg infested waters off the west coast of Greenland. She was an old but sturdy 500 ton, 28 gun frigate with an extensive resume to boot.  She had combated the Atlantic slave trade in Africa, served in the Opium War in China, and fired cannons during the first Maori War in New Zealand. 

North Star destroying Pomare's Pā, 1845
North Star destroying Pomare’s Pā, 1845

However, this was to be her first voyage into the arctic. The 63 experienced men on board must have questioned the age of the ship and the integrity of the hull but they remained optimistic. One only had to point out her name, North Star, which seemed providential; it was as if she was always destined to see the land of pack ice and polar bears.

Master and Commander James Saunders led the expedition, whose mission was to locate and resupply Captain Sir James Clark Ross. Ross had sailed from England in 1848 in search of the ill-fated Franklin Expedition. Sir John Franklin with his two mighty ships, the Erebus and Terror, had been missing in an unexplored area of the arctic for three and a half years and the Admiralty was gravely concerned of their whereabouts. In essence, the North Star was sent to search for the searchers.

If Saunders was not able to locate Ross or Franklin, he was ordered to deposit his stores along several named areas of the arctic coast and return to England before the onset of winter. Under no circumstances was the North Star to risk being beset by the ice and forced to winter-over.

Unfortunately, the sea-ice in Melville Bay was thick and unruly that year. While sailing around the thicker ice-fields they spotted several small boats approaching. They were the lifeboats from the whaling vessel Lady Jane. The crew had abandoned their ice-ravaged ship, now sunk. They brought word that two other whaling ships, the Superior and the M’Lellam, were involved in the incident and had shared the same watery grave. The crews were on their way to Greenland’s Danish settlements where they hoped to find assistance. The captains traded letters and the men went their separate ways.

 Just one month later, they met the lifeboats of yet another whaler, the Prince of Wales, also sunk by the ice. The news that, not one, but four ships and been wrecked, must have been a sobering reminder of what the sea-ice was capable.

On July 29th, during the height of the summer season, the vigilant officers of the North Star observed the surrounding sea-ice closing in upon them. The crew acted quickly and positioned the ship in a natural cul-de-sac of a large ice floe. The floe acted as a shield, protecting the ship from the immense pressure of the encroaching ice. Although temporarily free of the immediate threat, they were now imprisoned in the pack, and at complete mercy of the wind and current.

While adrift they spotted a massive iceberg ahead. They estimated its size to about a mile in length.

IMG_3888 (2)

As they neared, they could see that the berg was unmoving, evidently grounded, and yet the sea-ice was hurtling them ever towards it. There was nothing for the men to do but await their fate. As luck would have it, they passed along the easternmost edge of the berg with just 300 yards to spare.

The helpless ship drifted northwards in this precarious position for the better part of two months, when finally, in late September a small open stretch of water was observed in Wolstenholme Sound.

Wolstenholme Sound
Wolstenholme Sound

Despite a heavy gale, all men were called on deck and the sails hoisted. The wind caught and the ship lurched forward, bashing her way through the ice, and finally, bursting through into open water. Master Saunders reported after the event,

I cannot sufficiently express the heartfelt joy that every man and officer felt at this unexpected and miraculous dispensation of Providence in releasing us from the ice in this extraordinary matter in which we were; for if we had not got in here, I fear very few if any of the crew would have survived the winter, as it is more than probable the ship would have gone to pieces…”

The North Star then made anchor just south of the fjord, in a protected cove known today as North Star Bay. The pack-ice acted as a barrier, trapping them inside the harbor. The men were about to face the realities of an arctic winter, cut off from the rest of the world, farther north than any British ship had ever attempted.

Despite their remote location, it must have come as a surprise when the men discovered they had neighbors. A small family of Inuit lived in a sod igloo near the base of the table-topped mountain (which the sailors called Dundas Hill and the natives called Umanaq) and another family lived about 12 miles up the fjord.


Sod Igloo at the base of Mt. Dundas (Umanaq)
Sod Igloo at the base of Mt. Dundas (Umanaq)

The natives visited the ship on several occasions, but as was customary of British sailors of the day- they looked down upon the Inuit as mere destitute savages, nothing to be learned from or gained. Saunders describes them,

“Here we found a settlement of Esquimaux…They appear very harmless people, but possessing less ingenuity than any race of beings I have ever yet seen… They do not know the use of boats, and their only weapon appears to be a small spear, which they carry in their hand.”

As the temperatures plummeted, the ship was made ready for winter. When the bay froze, they shoveled snow around the vessel to add as insulation. They dug a ditch, or a moat, around the ship to dissuade any polar bears that might be lurking about.

Hunting forays into the hillside produced little. They were told that muskox and reindeer roamed in great herds but never a one was seen.

The arctic hare is quite large, weighing about 6-10 lbs.
The arctic hare is quite large, weighing about 6-10 lbs.

They were able to shoot and kill about 50 rabbits, the fresh meat must have come as a welcome reprieve from their usual diet of hard tack- a biscuit made of flour and water that was difficult to eat without first soaking in water.

On October 31st the first man died. His name was William Sharp and he was just 26 years old. His body was carried 1.5 miles from the ship and buried on shore. A crude tombstone was erected to mark the spot. It still stands today, although it’s been moved and now rests on top of the cairn nearby. The following day William Sharp’s clothes were sold at auction. The men weren’t about to bury perfectly good clothing, especially in those temperatures.

 Exactly HOW Mr. Sharp died seems a matter of speculation. Apparently in the 19th century when a man died on ship, he was simply dead, and that was the end of the matter.

As the winter progressed the men were kept busy. They fed the stoves coal (which they brought from England) to keep the ship warm. They built a road out to a nearby iceberg where they mined ice for water.


They cleaned the dirty snow and human waste out from around the ship and they mended their clothes.

For entertainment they climbed the surrounding hills (as men and women still do today) and built snowhouses for personal use.

1850 painting by one of the men from the North Star. You can see the ship at the base of Mt. Dundas. *Courtesy of the Royal National Archives
1850 painting by one of the men from the North Star. You can see the ship at the base of Mt. Dundas. This is the very first picture of Thule.
*Courtesy of the Royal National Archives

Almost every evening, if the weather was decent, they cleared the snow off the sea-ice and played ‘rounders’- which was an early form of baseball.

On special occasions the men opened the ‘Theater Royal’ and amused themselves by performing ‘White Horse or Love in a Mist: a comedy in three acts’ and ‘The Citizen: a farce in two acts’. The men dressed up as women and played the female characters as well. They also had impromptu masquerades- which had them singing and dancing long into the night. It should be mentioned that the ship was handsomely equipped with brandy, rum, and red and white wine.

As the winter continued the temperatures dropped ever farther. The crew of the North Star saw temperatures as cold as 63 below Fahrenheit, which at the time, was believed to be the coldest temperature ever recorded.

On January 28th, a group of Inuit approached the ship. One of them was frostbitten badly, unable to walk and drawn on their sledge. The Captain took him aboard, had him bathed, and placed him under the care of the doctor.

‘Log book of the HMS North Star’ (1849-50), Courtesy of the Royal Naval Museum
‘Log book of the HMS North Star’ (1849-50), Courtesy of the Royal Naval Museum

His health improved dramatically for several weeks and his legs nearly healed, but he succumbed to a pulmonary sickness and died shortly thereafter. Could it have been the same sickness that had claimed William Sharp’s life? Before the North Star would set sail again, three more of her men would die. None of those deaths were attributed to the cold. Some have speculated scurvy.

Graves of the North Star
Graves of the North Star as seen in an 1850’s newspaper article. William Sharps tombstone is the only one that can be seen today. If there were tombstones made for the three other sailors they are either lost or missing.

On August 1st, the bay had melted enough for the ship to break free of her 10 month icy imprisonment. Captain Saunders was determined to fulfill the ships duties by delivering the provisions to the lost men of the Franklin expedition. However, he wouldn’t find them. After much searching, they placed the supplies at Navy Board Inlet on the north side of Baffin Island and set sail for England.  

The tons of provisions left by the North Star were never used. Years later it was discovered that the cache had been found and looted by natives.

The 1850 voyage of the North Star achieved absolutely nothing in the annuals of polar history. However, only four men died during the perilous journey. Sir John Franklin’s men were not so lucky, as all 129 men were never seen alive again.



I.G. Aylen’s ‘HMS North Star and the Birth of Thule’ (April 1987).

R. J. Cyriax’s ‘The Voyage of the North Star, 1849-50’ in ‘The Mariner’s Mirror, Vol. 50 No. 4’ (1964)

‘John O’Groat’s Journal’ SG & SGTL Page 43 (9 Feb 1850)

James Saunders’ ‘Proceedings of HMS North Star’ in ‘Accounts and Papers of the House of Commons’ (4 Feb-8 Aug. 1851)

Samuel M. Smucker’s ‘Arctic Explorations and Discoveries During the Nineteenth Century’ (1857)

Benjamin B. Norrington’s ‘Log book of the HMS North Star’ (1849-50), Courtesy of the Royal Naval Museum



Primitive Living

When I was 21, my friend Zach and I turned our backs on civilization and headed blindly into the wilds of arctic Alaska. Our objective was to pull a canoe a hundred miles up the Alatna River, build a cabin, and live there for an entire year. When we stumbled into the village of Kobuk just three months later, we were unrecognizable from the two young men that began the venture. We resembled refugees from some horrific prison-camp. Our eyes were set back into our skulls accentuating our cheek bones which protruded unnaturally. Hidden underneath our jackets, every rib in our chests was well defined and clearly visible. My beard was long, unkempt, and bleached blond by the sun. We had been eating rodents (beavers and porcupines) to sustain us and it hadn’t worked. What we’d envisioned as a year-long vacation ended up being a struggle for existence. The wilderness, although beautiful, had been whole-heartedly unforgiving and she had given us everything we deserved and more.

At the time, I thought I knew my sh*t. I’d lived in bush Alaska and learned how to hunt, fish, trap, tan hides, cook over an open fire- the very basics.  I know now that the two young men that ventured into the wilderness were profoundly unprepared and were lucky to escape with their lives.

I’ve always kept the story of that adventure close to my heart and I won’t go into it here, what I will say is the experience has left me with a lifelong fascination with primitive living and general subsistence.

When I heard a friend of mine had bought a plot of land in central Alaska and intended to use it as a place to practice primitive living skills- I jumped at the opportunity to visit. In fact, I invited myself.

I actually had the arrogance to think I might teach these guys a few things about living off the land. What I found is that I still have a few things to learn myself.

Case in point; primitive fire making. I have never been able to achieve fire by rubbing two sticks together but these guys have it down pat. In fact, they refuse to use matches or lighters and can produce flame in less than two minutes with a bow-drill. I was thoroughly impressed.

Above: Glenn uses a bow-drill to make fire.

Below: The resulting ember.

Most of their food is coming from the land- the staple in summer is chum salmon. They use manufactured gill nets to catch them but I won’t be surprised if next year they make their own out of sinew or moose rawhide. They preserve salmon for future consumption by drying it on fish racks.

Hunting for small game is done with bow and arrow and I’m not talking about modern compound bows- I’m talking about whittling yourself some arrows out of birch. When I was there one of the guys (to respect his privacy we will call him ‘Gutshot’) was able to kill two spruce grouse which made for a fine stew that night.

When living primitively one of the questions you will eventually ask is, “How far ‘primitive’ are we going to go here?”  A highly skilled primitivist will eventually find life a little too easy and thus feel the need to push their limits a little further.  One of the ultimate tests is trying to subsist in a ‘future-primitive’ or ‘post-apocalyptic’ scenario. Meaning you wouldn’t have fuel, guns, or mechanical trappings but you’d have access to metal objects that you’ve scavenged and fashioned yourself- such as knives, axes, and arrowheads.

This summer, Gutshot managed to build a large sod igloo from spruce trees, birch bark, and tundra.

Above: View from inside the sod igloo. Gutshot on the left. Smoke naturally filters out through the hole in the roof. There is a fresh air vent underneath the hearth.

Below: An old sod igloo we found near the confluence of the Kobuk and Pah Rivers. You don’t see these old ones around much anymore, nature quicky consumes them. Iditarod musher Ed Iten lived in a sod igloo near Pah River in the 70’s. This could be his.

His vision is to live there for an entire year subsisting completely off the land. No matches, no guns, no food (other than what he’s hunted and gathered), and no help. Pretty hardcore. And from what I’ve seen, I think he can do it too. His cloths will be made himself from materials gathered. One of his ideas is to tan fish-skins and make a rainproof anorak (jacket).

Winter in interior Alaska with temperatures that plummet to -60F will test his mettle- he will need to successfully hunt big game such as moose or caribou (with bow and arrow) in order to pull off such an endeavor.  Gutshot plans to begin his year-long undertaking in the spring of 2013 and I am rooting for him.

I do hope that he breaks one of his self-imposed rules though, and brings a camera!