Who was Sylvia Grinnell?

An Iqaluit archaeologist answers one of Town’s frequently asked ­ and least answered ­ questions: Who was Sylvia Grinnell?


Douglas Stenton

Over many years of conducting archaeological research on southern Baffin Island, I have often been asked about the derivation of European place names that appear on current topographic maps.

With respect to the Frobisher Bay area, one of the questions I have frequently been asked is “Who was Sylvia Grinnell?” This question was raised most recently by a visitor to the Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum, prompting me to write this brief historical note.

Between the years 1860 and 1862, an American explorer, adventurer and scientist named Charles Francis Hall lived amongst the Inuit of the outer Frobisher Bay area, who were known at the time as the Nugumiut.

Hall journeyed to the Arctic with the aim of reconstructing the fate of the Franklin Expedition and, if they existed, to locate survivors.

Hall wanted to learn Inuktitut

To accomplish this Hall felt it was critical that he learn the customs of the Inuit, and especially the Inuktitut language, which would allow him to personally interview Inuit from the King William Island and Boothia Peninsula districts, which were to be the focus of his later search.

Hall proposed to reach the latter region through a somewhat ambitious itinerary: traveling from Cyrus Field Bay north to Northumberland Inlet (Cumberland Sound), west to Nettilling Lake via Nettilling Fiord (and several portages), across Nettilling Lake to Fox Channel (Foxe Basin) via the Koukdjuak River, and then north again to Igloolik.

From Igloolik he planned to eventually travel west to several destinations in the area around King William Island. Hall never made the planned journey across Baffin Island, but did reach and explore the King William Island ­ Boothia Peninsula region from 1864 to 1869.

During the 28 months he resided with the Nugumiut, Hall not only learned to speak basic Inuktitut, but also a great deal about the prerequisites for survival in the Arctic.

Travelled with Inuit

His lessons in survival were learned first-hand by traveling extensively with his Inuit teachers throughout the year. One of the longest trips undertaken was the attempt to circumnavigate Frobisher Bay in the summer of 1861.

Hall and his companions departed from Cyrus Field Bay on August 9, 1861, sailing through Lupton Channel into Frobisher Bay and then proceeding northwesterly along the north shore toward the head of the bay (which at the time was shown on maps as a “strait”).

Between August 23 and 29, the group camped on the west side of what is now known as the Sylvia Grinnell River, not far from Davidson Point. This was their thirteenth encampment of the trip, and Hall was impressed not only by the abundance of fish and wildlife that they encountered in the area, but also by the week of beautiful weather that they were favored with.

Because expeditions such as Hall’s were costly, funding was often obtained through the aid of influential supporters of a project.

Named after Henry Grinnell’s daughter

Henry Grinnell, a New York businessman, had a keen interest in the Franklin expedition and was among the most generous of Hall’s financial backers.

In keeping with a tradition of explorers throughout history, Hall expressed gratitude to his benefactor by naming several landforms in the Frobisher Bay area after members of the Grinnell family. On the morning of August 26 he named the river that flows today beside Iqaluit:

I see not why this river should not have an American name. Its waters are an emblem of purity. I know of no fitter name to bestow upon it than that of the daughter of my generous, esteemed friend, Henry Grinnell. I therefore, with the flag of my country in one hand, my other in the limpid stream, denominate it ‘Sylvia Grinnell River.’
(Hall 1865:394)
Other landforms named for the Grinnell family are Sylvia Island, at the eastern end of Lupton Channel, Cape Sarah (named after the wife of Henry Grinnell), which forms the northern boundary of the Countess of Warwick Sound, and Grinnell Glacier, on the south side of Frobisher Bay.

The Grinnell place names represent only a small proportion of Hall’s commemoration of the generosity of his patrons, and of the achievements of other historical figures and explorers.

Invented many Iqaluit area place-names

A cursory review of Hall’s narrative of his experiences yielded more than approximately 75 place names, approximately 95 per cent of which of which appear on current topographic maps.

A more thorough examination would undoubtedly increase raise the number to well over 100. Familiar landmarks named by Hall in the inner Frobisher Bay area include Ward Inlet, Augustus Island, Frobisher’s Farthest, Davidson Point, Peale Point, Jordan River, Bishop Island, Silliman’s Fossil Mount, Cape Rammelsberg, and Cape Caldwell.

Hall’s list also includes places named in honour of the Inuit to whom he owed a monumental debt.

Chief among these were the couple Ebierbing and Tookoolito, often referred to as “Joe and Hannah.” Ebierbing and Tookoolito were Hall’s mentors and he would have accomplished very little, and perhaps not even survived, were it not for their commitment and loyalty to him on this and his two subsequent Arctic expeditions.

At the headland of the Hall Peninsula, along the west side of Cornelius Grinnel Bay are found Ebierbing Bay and Tookoolito Inlet. South of Tookoolito Inlet is Tukeliketa Bay, named after the infant son of Ebierbing and Tookoolito, who died in New York in 1863.

On current maps this bay is shown as Butterfly Bay. Other place names include Ookijoxy Ninoo Island (now Shepard Island), named in honour of Ebierbing’s grandmother, who directed Hall to the site of Martin Frobisher’s 16th century gold mining activities (the exact location of which had remained unknown to European historians for nearly three centuries); and Tweroong Island, (near Cape Rammelsberg) named in recognition of an Inuk woman who showed Hall great kindness when he took ill during the boat trip.

For Iqalungmiut, the most familiar of Inuit place names would be Koojesse Inlet, which forms Iqaluit’s harbour. Koojesse was an Inuk whom Hall regarded very highly for his intimate geographic knowledge of the Frobisher Bay region, as well as for his demonstrated skills as a hunter, navigator and cartographer (Koojesse produced several of Hall’s maps).

For readers interested in learning more about Charles Francis Hall’s involvement in this fascinating period of Frobisher Bay’s history, I highly recommend the following:

Hall, Charles Francis
Arctic Researches and Life among the Esquimaux: Being the Narrative of an Expedition in Search of Sir John Franklin, in the Years 1860, 1861, and 1862.Harper & Brothers, New York.

Loomis, C.

Weird and Tragic Shores: The Story of Charles Francis Hall, Explorer.New York:Knopf.

Share This Story

(0) Comments