Carl Petersen was an important figure in the search for the Franklin Expedition, but he fell on hard times in his older age. And when his friends from the Fox expedition found out, they were determined to do something to help him.
It would have been a scene of the utmost glamour: a royal visit, to a royal palace. Queen Victoria’s eldest son and heir, the Prince of Wales, was on an official visit to Copenhagen in October 1879. Christian IX, King of Denmark, was holding court with his family. The guests included crown princes and princesses from Sweden and Russia, and other European aristocracy.
And there was another VIP in attendance, although his appearance might not have matched his status – he was an old man, visibly ill, and almost completely blind. But he had three medals pinned to his chest, and he was presented to the Prince of Wales with all due ceremony.
The old man’s name was Johan Carl Christian Petersen, and he had been a pivotal figure in the search for the Franklin Expedition.
The British dignitary who arranged for Carl Petersen to be introduced to the Prince that day was a very old friend.
His name was Sir Allen William Young. He and Carl had served together under Francis Leopold McClintock on the 1857-59 Fox expedition, which had discovered written evidence of the death of Sir John Franklin, and bones and relics speaking of the terrible fate of his crew.
But 20 years had passed since then, and those years had not been kind to Carl Petersen.
Allen Young was evidently horrified to see his friend in such a perilous state, because within weeks of the British royal party returning home, the Fox team had launched a campaign to help their old messmate.
They were determined that not only did the British State have a duty of care towards Petersen, but that it must move very quickly to help him in his time of need.
After all, Petersen had dropped everything to help British sailors look for the Franklin Expedition, not once but twice.
He’d left his wife and their two children for years at a time. He’d worked hard and risked his life over and over again, gaining respect from Navy personnel from both sides of the Atlantic, and tough whaling captains who were not easy to impress.
Carl Petersen’s early years
Carl Petersen was born in Copenhagen on 28th June 1813. Twenty years later he moved to Greenland where he settled in Qeqertarsuaq (formerly known as Godhavn) on the island of Disko, worked as a cooper, and married an Inuk woman named Ida-Berthe (Jensen, 2014).
Isaac Israel Hayes, in his 1860 account of the boat journey he undertook with Petersen during the 2nd Grinnell Expedition led by Elisha Kent Kane, wrote that young Carl’s life as a cooper had met an explosive end during those early years at Disko.
Petersen was reloading a cannon during celebrations for King Christian’s Day when the weapon fired accidentally, causing permanent damage to one hand, and ending his career.
He accepted a new job as Assistant Governor of the colony at Upernavik, and relocated there with Ida-Berthe and their children.
This brought him into the orbit of William Penny, a Scottish whaling captain.
Penny had first tried to hire Petersen for a whale fishery project in 1845, the year Sir John Franklin had sailed on his doomed voyage, but the Dane had turned him down (Ross, 2019). Petersen and Penny had reconnected several times in the years since ².
And when Penny was given command of two brigs as part of an Admiralty-backed Franklin search expedition in 1850, he knew exactly who he wanted on his team.
Petersen was an experienced Arctic traveller, an expert hunter and dog handler, and he had often provided translation services between his community and visiting sailors. Penny asked him to join the search.
And so Petersen joined the crew of Penny’s Lady Franklin brig, and was soon hard at work training his dog team in preparation for the exploration ahead.
This was a crowded search season. There was HMS Resolute, HMS Assistance, HMS Intrepid and HMS Pioneer of the Royal Navy; the Lady Franklin and Sophia, under William Penny’s command; two US brigs, the Advance and Rescue; the little Felix, captained by legendary sailor and curmudgeon Sir John Ross and – briefly – Lady Franklin’s private search vessel Prince Albert ³.
On 23rd August 1850, a team from HMS Assistance found the first traces of the Franklin Expedition on Cape Riley. Just a few days later, the men of Lady Franklin and Sophia would make the biggest discovery of the season, on nearby Beechey Island.
And it was the sharp eyes of Carl Petersen that spotted it first.
Writing in the Australasian newspaper 30 years later, Lady Franklin surgeon Robert Anstruther Goodsir remembered their first steps on Beechey Island that day, 27th August 1850:
“Before we had put foot upon the shingle the quick eye of Petersen had seen something, and his shrill cry in broken English of ‘Caneesterres! Caneesterres!’ made our hearts beat faster with the knowledge that the scent was again breast high.
I can hear Petersen’s cry, and his next more stirring exclamation ringing in my ear at this moment … Our excitement was at fever beat, for scarce a second elapsed between Petersen’s first exclamation and his next more startling cry of ‘Mans! Mans!’, his Scandinavian features all aglow, and his blue eyes almost starting from their sockets.”
Robert raced off along the shore, with Petersen close behind him. However the shapes they were running towards were not men, nor were they huts. They were three graves – the last resting places of two men from HMS Erebus and one from HMS Terror.
No further traces were found, but Petersen distinguished himself throughout the expedition.
When Sir John Ross’ interpreter Adam Beck claimed that the crews of Erebus and Terror had been murdered by Inuit, it was Petersen’s patient communication with the communities at Cape York that slowly untangled the story and ultimately disproved it.
The Lady Franklin‘s John Stuart, who had an explosive falling out with William Penny towards the end of the search, and who denounced the expedition in an 1852 pamphlet, had only good things to say about Petersen – “a man respected and esteemed by the officers of all the expeditions alike for his unostentatious exertions and his unbending integrity”.
And on 29th September 1851, the Second Secretary of the Admiralty, William Alexander Baillie Hamilton, stressed in a letter to William Penny that he must “assure Mr. Petersen that the value of his services is fully acknowledged by their Lordships.”
Petersen was in demand after his first Franklin search. Captain Edward Augustus Inglefield tried to hire him just weeks later, when he brought Lady Franklin’s search sloop Isabel to Disko en route to Smith Sound. But Carl was unwilling to leave Ida-Berthe and the children again so soon, and turned Inglefield down.
But he didn’t say no to Dr Elisha Kent Kane, a former colleague on the 1850-51 search who was now in charge of the 2nd Grinnell Expedition in 1853 ⁴.
However, Kane’s expedition was marked by personality clashes, insubordination, desertion, death, and near-disaster.
His ship, the Advance, was beset in the first winter of the expedition and was never released from the ice. Scurvy began to affect the crew.
Carl Petersen, Isaac Israel Hayes and seven others left the ship against Kane’s wishes in August 1854 in an attempt to reach Upernavik and get help. This effort failed, and the party returned to the Advance with the help of Inuit.
The entire party later abandoned the Advance and set out together in two whaleboats in a desperate attempt to reach Greenland. The party’s terrible luck continued and a lack of game placed them close to death, floating in small unseaworthy boats that required constant bailing to keep them afloat.
In his narrative, Kane wrote: “It was at this crisis of our fortunes that we saw a large seal floating – as is the custom of these animals – on a small patch of ice and seemingly asleep.”
Rifle at the ready
But the creature was not asleep. As the boat inched forward with Petersen in the bow, rifle at the ready, the seal looked up.
“To this day,” Kane wrote, “I can remember the hard, careworn, almost despairing expression on the men’s thin faces as they saw [the seal] move: their lives depended on his capture.
“Looking at Petersen, I saw that the poor fellow was paralysed by his anxiety, trying vainly to obtain a rest for his gun against the cutwater of the boat. The seal rose on his fore flippers, gazed at us for a moment with frightened curiosity, and coiled himself for a plunge. At that instant, simultaneously with the crack of our rifle, he relaxed his long length on the ice, and, at the very brink of the water, his head fell helpless to one side.”
Petersen had saved the lives of the Kane expedition with a single shot.
And when Captain Francis Leopold McClintock anchored Lady Jane Franklin’s private search ship Fox in Lievely harbour in July 1857, he reported that the Greenlanders were still talking of little else.
McClintock had first met Carl Petersen when the former was First Lieutenant under Captain Erasmus Ommanney on HMS Assistance during the 1850-51 search.
And in 1857, having played a role in every Admiralty-backed search effort to date, McClintock was in charge of his own ship, and his own search for Sir John Franklin.
Writing to Lady Franklin in July 1857, McClintock told her that the Greenlandic communities regarded Petersen “as a sort of ‘flying dutchman’! & listen with open mouths to his wonderful stories. There is but one opinion in Greenland & that is he saved Kane’s expeditions. I like him very much.” (SPRI MS 248/439/27, quoted in Kaalund 2021).
Carl Petersen had brought a very different approach to the Franklin search expeditions, both personally and professionally.
He was uncomfortable with what he saw as a culture of heavy drinking among the men during the 1850-51 search and had clashed with McClintock in 1857 over the best way to manage the sled dogs. McClintock, a dog lover, was unhappy with Petersen’s rough treatment of his pack, whereas Petersen unsentimentally viewed the creatures as tools rather than pets (Jensen, 2014).
It wasn’t the only time the Dane disagreed with his captain.
“Carl Petersen,” AGE Jones noted in Fram in 1985, had “pointed out that the rations were insufficient for men doing the hauling, that McClintock had trouble with his dogs, that Petersen’s team was over loaded, and that he and McClintock came close to quarrelling over it.”
However, any tension appears to have been short-lived. Petersen returned to London with the Fox and took part in visits and events in the aftermath of the expedition’s return, including an audience with Lady Franklin, who presented him with a silver pocket watch. He also visited the Admiralty to receive his Polar Medal in person (Jensen, 2014).
Bad news from home
But bad news from home had been waiting for him. Ida-Berthe, whose eyesight had been failing for some time, had gone blind. Petersen’s 2014 biographer Nils Aage Jensen wrote that Carl blamed himself for this tragedy – Ida-Berthe, he thought, had cried her eyes out waiting for him to return.
Petersen made one more expedition – with Nils Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld and Otto Torell on the Vega to Spitsbergen 1861 – before taking a new job as keeper of the lighthouse at Hjelm, a small island in the Danish sea area called Kattegatt.
He lived there with Ida-Berthe for many years before his own health took a turn for the worse – now his eyesight was failing.
Fell into poverty
Soon, his sight was so poor that he was unable to keep his job at the lighthouse. The Danish government pension was not enough to cover his needs and those of his wife. He fell into poverty.
This, then, was how Allen Young found Carl Petersen when the British royal party landed in Copenhagen in October 1879, four years after Carl had lost his job.
As yet, I have not been able to find any papers from Allen Young explaining what happened next. And McClintock’s journal for this period (MCL 15, National Maritime Museum) contains no news of Young or Petersen in late 1879.
But the news reached McClintock somehow. And on 20th November 1879, at 29 Kensington Gate West, the 60-year-old Vice Admiral picked up his pen and wrote a letter to the Admiralty.
Sir, I beg you will be so good as to bring under the notice of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty the case of Mr Carl Petersen, which appears to me to be worthy of their special and favourable action.
Mr Petersen, a Danish subject, served as Esquimaux Interpreter in Mr Penny’s Government Arctic Searching Expedition in the years 1850 and 1851.
He subsequently served with me in a private searching Expedition, on board the Fox, during the years 1857-8-9, having in the interval served in Dr Kane’s Arctic Expedition in the years 1853-4-5.
He wears the English Arctic Medal and has also been worthily honored by his Sovereign with the Silver Cross of Dannebrog, in recognition of his eminent services in the search for Sir John Franklin.
Thus far, he has been most deservedly honored. But now, being very old, past all work, and almost blind, he is, I regret to find, in a state bordering on destitution.
The object of this letter is to draw attention to his urgent need, his services to this country, and his long connection in the public mind, both here and in Copenhagen. So strong is this feeling in Copenhagen, that upon the recent visit of the Prince of Wales to that City, Mr Petersen was presented to him upon a public occasion by the principal Naval Aide de Camp to the King.
Mr Petersen twice gave up appointments under the Royal Danish Greenland Company in order to accompany English Searching Expeditions, when he was informed that his services as interpreter were urgently needed.
I therefore beg to submit that the time has arrived when such a recognition of these services, as a small annuity of a few pounds, £10 or £15, would be most worthily bestowed on him, and would afford proof to his fellow countrymen and to all who are aware of his great merit, that his valuable services to this country have not been forgotten.
I am informed that his total means of subsistence scarcely amount to Thirty Pounds a year.
I have the honor To be Sir, Your obedient servant, FL McClintock Vice Admiral"
McClintock’s letter was forwarded by the Admiralty to the Lords Commissioners of the Treasury, who received it on 15th December 1879. The Admiralty’s cover letter had ended on a chilling note:
My Lords command me to add that having regard to Mr Petersen’s condition, an early decision would be desirable.”
The request was granted and Petersen was awarded £12 a year free of any deductions, for the rest of his life.
Sadly he would only live a few months to enjoy it: Johan Carl Christian Petersen died at home on 24th June 1880, and was buried in Copenhagen’s Garrison Cemetery.
Petersen’s death was marked with a warm obituary in The Geographical Journal, which I reproduce in full below:
Carl Petersen, the stout-hearted and faithful assistant to so many Arctic expeditions, in which he served chiefly as interpreter, died at Copenhagen, on the 24th of June, at the age of sixty-seven years.
“We learn from our Honorary Corresponding Member, Admiral Irminger, that he succumbed to an attack of inflammation of the lungs. The brave old Dane’s services were spread over many years. He was with Penny, driving his dog sledge, in 1850-51, when Penny wintered in Assistance Bay with the two brigs (Lady Franklin and Sophia) and explored part of Wellington Channel. Next he was with Kane in Smith Sound, then with McClintock in the Fox, and lastly in a voyage with Torell and Nordenskiold to Spitzbergen in 1861.
“He was a fine old fellow – resolute and warm-hearted. Sir Allen Young introduced him to the Prince of Wales the last time he was at Copenhagen. Petersen had charge of a lighthouse until 1875, when he retired owing to failing sight – on a pension of 600 kronen. The English Government had recently granted him a pension of £12 a year, and last winter a number of Arctic friends in this subscribed together and presented him with a small sum.
“These acts of kindness were deeply felt by the grateful old man, but he lived but a short time to enjoy the increased comfort they afforded him. He lived with his sister, whose husband kept a restaurant at Copenhagen. In early life he was long stationed at Upernavik and married there. He leaves a son who is a surveyor, and a daughter who married well.”
I’ll give the last word to Isaac Israel Hayes, Petersen’s ally on the Kane expedition:
Douglas Wamsley J. Dahl Kenn Harper & Logan Zachary
¹ This carte de visite is held by Copenhagen’s Det Kgl. Bibliotek. There is a note on the back that the couple are Carl Petersen and his wife (private correspondence, 2023).
It’s true that the man in the photo does not immediately resemble the images of Carl as an old man, nor does he look like someone with “Scandinavian features all aglow”, as Robert Anstruther Goodsir memorably described Petersen.
But the man’s sealskin smock is a very similar design to that worn by William Penny in his Stephen Pearce portrait. And the woman in the CDV does bear a strong resemblance to a known image of Ida-Berthe as a much older woman, which was published in Nils Aage Jensen’s 2014 biography.
If anyone has any information to confirm or contradict this identification, I would love to hear from you.
² In 1849, William Penny was captain of the Dundee whaler Advice. Penny had been given permission by his employers to search for Franklin – but only after his whaling quota had been met. On board that season was a restless young surgeon named Robert Anstruther Goodsir, who was desperate to find his missing brother Harry, assistant surgeon on Sir John Franklin’s flagship HMS Erebus. Robert was reunited with Penny on the 1850-51 search, and was a messmate of Petersen on the Lady Franklin.
³ A crowded search season, yes – and these were only the ships on the eastern front, i.e. those entering Lancaster Sound from the east and travelling west. The Admiralty had sent two other ships in 1850 to search for the Franklin Expedition from west to east. These were HMS Enterprise (commanded by Captain Richard Collinson) and HMS Investigator (with Captain Robert McClure in command).
⁴ Kane’s private journal is not kind to Petersen, who is described as “too cautious”, “an old woman”, “selfish and unloyal”, “a cold-blooded sneak” and, charmingly, “a double faced mischief maker, able to walk 250 miles over an arctic waste but unable to travel 50 during two years of service.”
Petersen was equally scathing about Kane’s leadership and personal qualities (“Dr Kane was no Captain Penny!”), and criticised Kane’s strategy and orders in prose that dripped with sarcasm. He also alleged that Kane was motivated by an ego bruised during the 1850-51 search. “Dr Kane bore witness to his lack of practical skill compared to the English,” he wrote, “and yet his task was, as it appears, to surpass those. For this purpose he went so far north.” (Villarejo, p77)
Both Kane and Hayes wrote narratives on their return (Kane, in failing health, described the book as “my coffin”, and died soon after). Petersen’s account (in Danish) was included in his 1857 book Erindringer fra Polarlandene optegnede. Tolk ved Pennys og Kanes Nordexpeditioner 1850-1855, and Oscar M. Villarejo published an English translation of this narrative in his 1965 book Dr Kane’s Voyage to the Polar Lands.
Barr, William – The Use of Dog Sledges during the British Search for the Missing Franklin Expedition in the North American Arctic Islands, 1848–59. Arctic, Vol. 62, No. 3 p257-272 (2009)
Goodsir, Robert Anstruther – A Fragment from the Story of Franklin’s Fate, The Australasian, (1880)
Hayes, Isaac I. – An Arctic Boat Journey in the Autumn of 1854, Richard Bentley, London (1860)
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The National Archives – Item T/1/17104, ADMIRALTY: ESTABLISHMENT MATTERS: Eskimo interpreter with British polar expeditions: pension (1879)
National Maritime Museum – Francis Leopold McClintock collection, MCL 15.
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Osborn, Sherard and McDougall, George Frederick – The Illustrated Arctic News (1851)
Petersen, Carl – Erindringer fra Polarlandene optegnede. Tolk ved Pennys og Kanes Nordexpeditioner 1850-1855. PG Philipsens. (1857)
Petersen, Carl – Den sidste Franklin-Expedition med “Fox”, Capt. McClintock. Copenhagen: Fr. Woldikes Forlagsboghandel. (1860)
Report of the Arctic Committee Together With The Minutes of Evidence Presented to Both Houses of Parliament. Her Majesty’s Stationery Office (1852)
Ross, W. Gillies – Hunters on the Track: William Penny and the Search for Franklin, McGill-Queens University Press (2019)
Stuart, John – The Relief of the Franklin Expedition: What Has Been Done and What May Yet Be Done (1852)
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Villarejo, Oscar M. – Dr Kane’s Voyage to the Polar Lands, University of Pennsylvania Press (1965)
Zachary, Logan – The Cape Riley Rake, illuminator dot blog (2020)