Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History June 27, 1911 – Radford and Street Leave Fort Smith
In 1909 a wealthy sportsman from New York, Harry Radford, went north to collect specimens for the United States Biological Survey and the Smithsonian Institution. “Handsome Harry” was known to veteran northern travellers and the police as insensitive, easy to anger, a difficult and headstrong man. Joining him in Fort Smith in the western Canadian sub-Arctic was a strong, young surveyor, 22-year-old George Street of Ottawa.
Radford had an ambitious plan. He and his companion would paddle and portage from Fort Smith to Chesterfield Inlet on the Hudson Bay coast, then sledge north-west to Bathurst Inlet, continue from there along the coast to Fort McPherson in the Mackenzie Delta, and on to the Yukon. Much of this country was unexplored. And Radford insisted that Street sign an unusual contract – he would risk his own life to protect Radford’s; if food became short, he would get less than his share; and he could keep no journals.
The two men left Fort Smith on June 27, 1911. They reached Chesterfield Inlet late in the fall, too late to continue. They wintered at Schulz Lake, and were put up by the local headman, Akulack. Street took immediately to this environment – the cold didn’t bother him, the food was agreeable, the people easy-going. Radford, on the other hand, was impatient and impulsive.
Radford sought guides for the spring trip to Bathurst Inlet. He threatened to shoot one Inuk who offered, then declined, to act as guide. In the end Akulack agreed to be their guide. The trip to Bathurst Inlet took six weeks, the party arriving there in early May. Radford began exploring and mapping this “last strip remaining unexplored of the continental coast of North America.”
And then silence. The two-man expedition seemingly vanished. Nothing more was heard of them until June 1913 when Akulack reported to a Hudson’s Bay Company trader that Inuit had killed both Radford and Street at Bathurst Inlet. The trader duly reported the alleged crime to the authorities and Canada authorized a special patrol of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police to investigate.
But more than tracking down a murderer was at stake. This patrol gave the police the opportunity to extend their authority into a vast, unexplored area.
In July of 1914 a patrol left Halifax for Chesterfield Inlet. It comprised Inspector W. J. Beyts, Sgt. Major Thomas Caulkin, and a few constables. In the Arctic, they continued on to Baker Lake. With that as their base, despite herculean efforts over two years, they failed to reach Bathurst Inlet.
In June 1916 Beyts was relieved of his command and replaced with Inspector Francis French. In May of the following year, French, Caulkin, and a number of Inuit finally succeeded in reaching Bathurst Inlet. There, raising their hands high above their heads, a traditional greeting of peace, they met the Inuit of that isolated area.
French got immediately down to business. He traveled about Bathurst Inlet, questioning the Inuit about the alleged murders. The witnesses’ stories were all the same. The older of the white men, the leader, was called Ishumatok (the one who thinks), the younger one Kiuk (wood) because he was so strong. Ishumatok was extremely bad-tempered. Neither could speak the language of the people, and communication was only by signs.
Radford recruited Harla and Kaneak as guides, but Kaneak changed his mind because his wife had fallen and hurt herself. Radford was incensed and began to beat Kaneak with a dog whip. Street tried to restrain him, but couldn’t. Radford then dragged Kaneak over to a hole in the ice, and the Inuit thought that he was going to force him down the hole. Another man, Okituk, grabbed Radford, while Hulalark stabbed him through the back with a snow knife.
Street ran for the sled. No-one knew if he was running to get a gun or if he was running for his life. But the Inuit could take no chances. Okituk chased after him and held him while Amegealnik stabbed him in the back. Street died immediately. Radford was still alive, so Hulalark slit his throat to end his life. Their bodies were wrapped in skins and left on the ice.
The Inuit unanimously described Radford as a man who had treated them badly, but thought his young companion to be a good man. Amegealnik, who killed him, later offered a number of premium white fox pelts to the missionary, W.H.B. Hoare, to send to Street’s family as a way of making amends for killing their son.
The police concluded that Amegealnik and Hululark had acted in their own defence. Accordingly, French laid no charges. In fact, the police had recognized that Radford and Street had been dealt with according to the principles of Inuit law.
Inspector French gave the Inuit a warning, that his decision in this case would be the last verdict like it that they would see. If they killed or harmed white men again, he told them, “the culprits would be taken away and never return.”
French’s patrol finally returned to Baker Lake on January 29, 1918. It had been the longest, most difficult police patrol in the history of the force to date.
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 [email protected].