Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History
Jan. 9 – A Wooden Leg for Tulluahiu
John Ross’s first encounter with the Nattilingmiut on the ice off Boothia Peninsula on January 9, 1830, was the subject of my last two articles. One of the men Ross met on that occasion, Tulluahiu, was pulled on a sled by his relatives. He had lost a leg in a hunting accident. A polar bear had ripped his leg from his body just below the knee, and he had very nearly lost his life.
But this didn’t prevent him from playing a part in the first encounter. By the time Ross’s party had reached the group of Inuit on the ice, Tulluahiu was standing, supported by two other men, a long knife concealed behind his back. He held it there until it was apparent that these white men were no threat. (I am using Ross’s spelling of Inuit names throughout this article.)
Two days later, Tulluahiu visited Ross’s ship again, drawn on a sled by his friend Tiagashu. The temperature was minus 35 degrees Fahrenheit.
Ross took some interest in the unfortunate amputee, and his name appears many times in the explorer’s narrative of his expedition. Indeed Ross referred to the man and his family as “the most remarkable family we met with.” Tulluahiu was about 40 years old, and about five feet eight inches in height. He was a little fatter than others of his countrymen, probably because of his immobility.
Ross felt compassion for the man and asked the ship’s doctor to examine the stump that remained of his severed leg. The doctor found the wound to be well-healed and the stump to be sound because the injury was an old one. The knee, he thought, was in good shape. Ross then sent for the carpenter, Chimham Thomas, who measured the man up for a wooden leg.
The construction of an artificial leg would take a few days. Tulluahiu remained on the ship for the rest of that day and he and Tiagashu drew some maps of the surrounding area for Ross.
Three days later Tulluahiu came again, as one might do today for the preliminary fitting of a prosthetic device. The carpenter – for this had now become solely a job for a craftsman rather than a surgeon – had to determine whether the length was correct, and then put the finishing touches on his workmanship.
The next day, Tulluahiu returned. The leg was complete and the carpenter fastened it to the man, who strutted about the deck of the ship, elated at his newfound freedom. John Ross was proud of his carpenter’s efforts. He wrote that he doubted “if any effort of surgery ever gave more satisfaction than was thus conferred, in reproducing a man fully serviceable once more to himself and his community.” The carpenter had proudly inscribed the word “Victory,” the name of Ross’s ship, on the leg.
It would take some time for Tulluahiu to become totally at ease with his new appendage. The camp where he was staying was two miles away, so when it was time to leave the ship, he removed the leg and packed it on the sled. Some time later, Ross learned, Tulluahiu was able to accompany other hunters on a seal hunt.
But the carpenter, Thomas, wasn’t yet satisfied with his results. He manufactured a better foot for the leg, more suitable for walking on snow, and fitted his patient with it on his next visit. On January 24, Tulluahiu proudly walked the whole distance from his camp to the ship, being by now the “master of his implement.”
Some time later, Tulluahiu paid Ross another visit. He had damaged the trunk part of his wooden leg, but it was easily repaired with bands of copper. The carpenter died of scurvy before the expedition left the Arctic in 1833, but before his death he made several spare legs, which were presented to the ever-grateful Tulluahiu for future use.
There is a bizarre postscript to this act of charity. Over a hundred years later, in March of 1950, a permit was issued to Lorenzo Learmonth under the Ordinance Respecting the Protection and Care of Archaeological Sites. Learmonth, a longtime employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company who spent many years in the Kitikmeot Region, was an amateur archaeologist and liked to dig in the summers. Local Inuit helped him in his collecting.
That summer Learmonth’s Inuit assistants excavated the grave of Tulluahiu a little west of Thom Bay. Fifty-six items were removed from the grave “alongside of which lay the wooden leg made by John Ross’s ship’s carpenter…” Learmonth sent all the grave goods to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. There is no record of what became of the wooden leg.
Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History recounts a specific event of historic interest, whose anniversary is in the coming week. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.