The Short Life and Sad Death of Tarralikitaq

Taissumani: 2008-02-29

By Kenn Harper

Today we have television, movies, magazines and travel to satisfy our curiosity about the lives of people who live in lands distant from our own. The Discovery Channel, National Geographic, and any number of travel shows bring far-off people into our living rooms and our consciousness.

But before modern media and travel allowed us these luxuries, there were other ways. A hundred years and more ago, the exotic was brought to our ancestors in person. Promoters recruited people of different ethnic backgrounds, brought them to North America and Europe, and presented them – in carnivals, circuses or in lectures.

In 1862, the American explorer, Charles Francis Hall, took a family of Inuit from Baffin Island to America. I've written about various aspects of their lives before, for in their day they were quite famous.

The parents went by the names Hannah and Joe. Their Inuit names were Tookoolito and Ipiirvik (usually spelled Ebierbing by the explorers). Almost a decade earlier, when they were still teenagers, they had spent two years in England, and were said to have been married there.

On this trip with Hall, they were accompanied by their first child, a boy called Tarralikitaq. The name meant Butterfly. Hall usually wrote it Tuk-e-lik-e-ta, and said, "I never saw a more animated, sweet-tempered, bright-looking child. Its imitativeness was largely developed, and was most engaging. Tuk-e-lik-e-ta was a child to be remembered by all who ever saw him." After a time in America, he was simply called Johnny.

Hall had offered them an opportunity to visit America. He had mentioned nothing about exhibitions. But Hannah and Joe probably expected that they would be put on display – after all, they had been extensively exhibited when they were in England. Why should America be different?

Hall wasted no time. On the week commencing Monday, Nov 3, they were exhibited at Barnum's Museum "every day and evening." They were advertised as the "Esquimaux Family, Just brought to this country, From Davis Straits, Greenland."

The geography was wrong, of course. The poster advertising their exhibition went on to say that "the notoriety recently given to this singular race of men by the several Arctic exploring expeditions, including Dr. Kane's, Dr. Hays (sic), and Mr. Hall's, has invested them with an interest in the public mind, which no other race at the present time possesses."

They were displayed three times daily, from 10 a.m. to 12 noon, from 2 to 4 in the afternoon, and from 7 to 10 in the evening. The price of admission was 25 cents. Hannah, Joe and their baby appeared with Commodore Nutt, the midget successor to Tom Thumb, performing bears and a family of albinos.

By January 1863, Joe was sick. In a letter to his wealthy benefactor, Henry Grinnell, Hall wrote: "Returned from Eskimo yesterday noon. Owing to the severe illness of Ebierbing [Joe], the man Esquimaux, could not call till now. Ebierbing took a cold while at Elmira. Was up with him nearly all last night – hope to be able to report more favorably of him to-morrow. As the Esquimaux desire to remain with me, have taken a [suite?] of rooms at a low price that will accommodate them and myself."

Indeed, the record of the time during which these Inuit spent in the United States reads like a litany of illnesses. They had no immunity to the diseases that were common outside the Arctic and, like other Inuit who travelled to America or Europe before and after them, they were prone to colds, flu, and tuberculosis.

Sidney O. Budington, the ship's captain who had brought Hall and his party to America, objected to Hall's exploitation of the family. He thought their health was beginning to show the strains of the constant activity. Finally Hall wrote to Budington, asking if he and his wife would once again care for the family.

But even before arrangements for their transportation to Groton could be made, Tarralikitaq died in New York on February 28. He was only 18 months old.

Hall wrote that both parents felt the loss of their infant son greatly "but to the mother it was a terrible blow. For several days after its death she was unconscious, and for a part of the time delirious. When she began to recover from this state she expressed a longing desire to die, and be with her lost Tuk-e-lik-e-ta."

The Budingtons attended to the funeral of Tarralikitaq. He was buried in the Starr Burying Ground, not far from the Budington family plot, on the outskirts of Groton. More than a decade later his mother would join him there.

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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