Times & Places

Arctic Expeditions and the Open Polar Sea

During the first half of the 19th century, frozen environments captured Western imagination as explorers sought the fabled Northwest Passage. The pioneers were predominantly English, and some of them, notably Sir John Ross (1777-1856), James Clark Ross (1800-1862), Sir William Edward Parry (1790-1855), and Sir John Franklin (1786-1847), became household names. Publications describing their voyages, illustrated either by expedition leaders or by art-talented crew members, recreated the trackless world. [1] Strange animals on land and sea, and stereotypes about the indigenous peoples, added exotic overtones to the setting, as did extraordinary optical effects, the pulsating colorful brilliance of the Aurora Borealis, and the fearful sounds of cracking ice.

Matthew Maury’s The Physical Geography of the Sea (sixth edition, 1860) justified the existence of an ice-free ocean covering the North Pole based on studies of right whales, migration patterns of birds, observations of ocean and air currents, and trajectories of ice drifts. David C. Huntington summarizes this “eighth sea” as, “that hypothetical never-freezing ocean, a body of water estimated to extend over an area of three million square miles, is fed by the emergence of tropically originated waters whose currents constantly force the Arctic water southward.” [2]

For the most part, however, the Arctic was understood as a desolate, inhospitable wasteland where transportation was laborious, human accomplishment attended with great physical effort and discomfort, and the very existence of man and his machines constantly imperiled. The explorers who succeeded in charting new regions, unlocking geological secrets, and imposing occasional domesticity in wintered ships amidst nature's coldest seasons were therefore lionized as super-heroes and, to some extent, as martyrs; often they had had to pay for their achievements with the lives of some of their human companions.

Altogether, the Far North was a beckoning frontier, a challenge to man’s mastery of the globe, filled with expectations of national economic good and international prestige for the country that secured the Passage. It was not an Eden. But the forbidding treachery of its setting proved more compelling to explorers, armchair adventurers, and poets than the tropics.

[1] Literature on polar exploration is vast. See especially Chauncey C. Loomis, “The Arctic Sublime,” in Nature and the Victorian Imagination, ed. U. C. Knoepflmacher and G. B. Tennyson (Los Angeles, 1977), pp. 95-112. A good general introduction to the subject may also be found in the same author’s Weird and Tragic Shores: The Story of Charles Francis Hall, Explorer (New York, 1971).

[2] This is the topic of Isaac Hayes’The Open Polar Sea, 1860-61. See David C. Huntington, “Introduction,” in Frederic Edwin Church: The Icebergs, by Gerald Carr (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 1980), 14.

Adapted from

Gerald Carr, Frederic Edwin Church: The Icebergs (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art), 37.

Related Multimedia

Nautical Archaeology event; First in Boshell Family Lecture series season; Speakers include: Dr. George F. Bass, founder of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University; Dr. James P. Delgado, co-host of the television series The Sea Hunters and Director of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology; Dr. Deborah Carlson, classical archaeologist and Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Texas; Dr. Frederick Hocker, Senior Researcher and Research Coordinator for the National Museum of Denmark's Center for Maritime Archaeology; Dr. Roger Smith, Archaeology Supervisor of the Underwater Archaeology Program, State of Florida; Dr. Corey Malcom, Director of Archaeology at the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society and Museum; Dr. John Broadwater, Program Manager at NOAA's Maritime Heritage Program
Nautical Archaeology event; First in Boshell Family Lecture series season; Speakers include: Dr. George F. Bass, founder of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University; Dr. James P. Delgado, co-host of the television series The Sea Hunters and Director of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology; Dr. Deborah Carlson, classical archaeologist and Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Texas; Dr. Frederick Hocker, Senior Researcher and Research Coordinator for the National Museum of Denmark's Center for Maritime Archaeology; Dr. Roger Smith, Archaeology Supervisor of the Underwater Archaeology Program, State of Florida; Dr. Corey Malcom, Director of Archaeology at the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society and Museum; Dr. John Broadwater, Program Manager at NOAA's Maritime Heritage Program
Nautical Archaeology event; First in Boshell Family Lecture series season; Speakers include: Dr. George F. Bass, founder of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University; Dr. James P. Delgado, co-host of the television series The Sea Hunters and Director of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology; Dr. Deborah Carlson, classical archaeologist and Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Texas; Dr. Frederick Hocker, Senior Researcher and Research Coordinator for the National Museum of Denmark's Center for Maritime Archaeology; Dr. Roger Smith, Archaeology Supervisor of the Underwater Archaeology Program, State of Florida; Dr. Corey Malcom, Director of Archaeology at the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society and Museum; Dr. John Broadwater, Program Manager at NOAA's Maritime Heritage Program
Nautical Archaeology event; First in Boshell Family Lecture series season; Speakers include: Dr. George F. Bass, founder of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University; Dr. James P. Delgado, co-host of the television series The Sea Hunters and Director of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology; Dr. Deborah Carlson, classical archaeologist and Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Texas; Dr. Frederick Hocker, Senior Researcher and Research Coordinator for the National Museum of Denmark's Center for Maritime Archaeology; Dr. Roger Smith, Archaeology Supervisor of the Underwater Archaeology Program, State of Florida; Dr. Corey Malcom, Director of Archaeology at the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society and Museum; Dr. John Broadwater, Program Manager at NOAA's Maritime Heritage Program

Web Resources

Cold Case Closed
Check out curator Sue Canterbury's 2014 blog post on DMA's Uncrated, summarizing how recent maritime discoveries connect to Church's The Icebergs.