Christian Klengenberg, an Arctic enigma

Taissumani: 2009-02-27

By Kenn Harper

Klengenberg is a family name well known in the Central Canadian Arctic. The name is Danish but is now also an Inuit name as it has been for some generations. This series of articles will tell about the adventurous young cook from Denmark who brought the name to the central Canadian Arctic. They will tell also about some of the controversies that tarnished his name and followed him through life.

Christian Klengenberg was 24 years old when he jumped ship in Point Barrow, Alaska in 1893 and began his life among the Inuit. Soon he married an Inupiaq woman, whose name he recorded as Gremnia. He supported himself through whaling and trading.

The following year he took a boatload of supplies to the whaling fleet at Herschel Island, a wild and lawless outpost

of American whaling just east of the Alaskan border in ­Canadian waters. From there he travelled northeast to an island that the whalers assumed to be uninhabited. But while there he saw human footprints. Time did not permit him to investigate, but he determined that someday he would return and find these unknown people.

But the pressures of supporting a growing family kept Klengenberg at home in Alaska for the next decade.

In 1905 Captain James McKenna, impressed by the young Dane's knowledge of sea ice, hired him to accompany him and his two ships, Charles Hanson and Olga, to travel once again to Herschel Island. There McKenna put Klengenberg in charge of the Olga and the two ships headed east into largely uncharted waters. Klengenberg had been ordered to keep in sight of the other ship, but the two separated in heavy fog. The Charles Hanson returned to Herschel Island where it wintered, its captain assuming that the Olga was lost and that her crew had perished.

The following summer, though, the Olga returned with Klengenberg and his family and five of its nine crewmen. Klengenberg reported that ice had prevented him from returning the previous year and that he had wintered on what he thought was Banks Island. In fact, it turned out to be Bell Island off Victoria Island's southwestern shore.

While back at Herschel Island, Klengenberg met the anthropologist and explorer, Vilhjalmur Stefansson and told him that on this island he had met ‘blond' Eskimos who had never seen a ship or a white man before. (But more on that later.)

The rough and ready whalemen at Herschel Island were not interested in blond Eskimos. They wanted to know what had happened to the four men who had not returned with the ship. Klengenberg explained that one had died of natural causes, two had not returned from a hunting trip with him and he presumed that they had fallen through thin ice. But the fourth, he reported, he had shot when he became violent after being confronted for using flour and sugar to make homebrew.

Immediately after he had given this account of the expedition, Klengenberg found it expedient to return immediately to Alaska by whaleboat with his family.

With Klengenberg gone, the remaining crewmen told a quite different story. Klengenberg had shot a crewman, ­Jackson Paul, on two separate occasions, they said, the ­second and fatal shot being fired at the unfortunate man while he was lying in bed recovering from the first shot.

The two men who had been lost on the hunting trip had been witnesses to Paul's killing, and so their failure to return was suspicious. The other man had not died of natural causes; he too had witnessed the shooting and had died of starvation or exposure while chained in the ship's hold.

An American commissioner happened to hear these accounts on Herschel Island and made a report to officials in San Francisco. Klengenberg was charged in absentia with the murder of Jackson Paul. The British ambassador conveniently turned the matter over to the American Secretary of State for trial in an American court, despite the fact that the alleged crime had happened in Canadian waters. Months later, the news reached Alaska and Klengenberg turned himself in at Nome. He was transported to San Francisco where he was tried in November of 1907. But there the crewmen's stories turned out to be so contradictory that Klengenberg was acquitted.

He returned north. But his acquittal meant little to many in Alaska. It was widely believed that he was guilty of the murder of Jackson Paul.

Next Week – More adventures of Christian Klengenberg and another suspicious death.

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to [email protected].

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