Who was Sylvia Grinnell?
Charles Francis Hall was a man with a plan.
His plan was to discover the fate of the British expedition led by John Franklin, which had not been heard of for more than a decade by the time Hall first arrived in the Arctic.
He got to Baffin Island in 1860 aboard the George Henry, a whaling ship from New London, Conn., that wintered in Cyrus Field Bay at the northeastern extremity of the peninsula separating Cumberland Sound and Frobisher Bay, called the Hall Peninsula.
Hall believed Frobisher Bay was a strait and that it led through to Foxe Basin. He would travel through the area and hoped to eventually reach King William Island.
Of course, Hall never made it to King William Island on that expedition. Instead, he ended up exploring Frobisher Bay.
He discovered relics from Martin Frobisher’s expeditions of nearly three centuries earlier and proved also that Frobisher Bay had no western outlet — it was a bay, not a strait.
In August 1861, travelling with Inuit, Hall camped on the banks of a river near Davidson Point. He and his companions experienced wonderful summer weather and were impressed by the plentiful numbers of Arctic char they caught there.
Hall knew, as most explorers did, that wealthy patrons were necessary to secure financing for expeditions. One of his patrons was Henry Grinnell, a rich New York businessman.
Grinnell was a student of the Franklin expedition and was impressed by Hall’s determination to ascertain its fate. And so, he contributed generously to Hall’s work.
Early in the expedition, Hall named Cornelius Grinnell Bay to honour Henry Grinnell’s father. On Aug. 29, 1861, he named the river he was enjoying after Grinnell’s daughter.
He wrote: “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 my hand, my other in the limpid stream, denominate it ‘Sylvia Grinnell River.’”
Hall also named Sylvia Island and Cape Sarah — after Grinnell’s wife — both closer to where the George Henry was wintering, and Grinnell Glacier on the Meta Incognita Peninsula. Some years later, he would also name Grinnell Lake on Melville Peninsula.
Of Henry Grinnell’s daughter, Sylvia Howland Grinnell, born in 1838, little is known.
She married William Fitzherbert Ruxton, who became an admiral in the British Royal Navy. She moved with her daughter, also named Sylvia, to Paris in 1896 following the death of her husband. She died in 1931 in England.
But there was another Sylvia Grinnell. She was an Inuk girl born in 1866 in or near Igloolik. Her birth name was Isigaittuq.
Two years later, Charles Francis Hall arrived in the area on his second Arctic expedition, this time travelling with an Inuit couple he had recruited in Baffin Island in 1862 — Tookoolito (Hannah) and Ipiirvik (Joe).
Hannah’s first child had died in 1863. At Repulse Bay, early in Hall’s second expedition, Hannah gave birth to a boy whom Hall named King William, after the island that was their destination. Unfortunately, King William only lived eight months.
When they reached the Igloolik area, Hannah was still grieving her loss. Then she met Teeleekum and his wife, Pukinning, and their daughter Isigaittuq who by then was two years old.
Hall suggested Hannah adopt the little girl. Pukinning was willing, but her husband disagreed. Hall solved the problem by buying the girl, exchanging her for a sled.
When the deal was completed, he gave the man a bonus of additional supplies including some shirts and knives. Hall, of course, insisted on naming the girl. He called her Sylvia Grinnell.
Hannah and Joe doted on their daughter, but they didn’t call her Sylvia Grinnell or even Isigaiituq. They simply called her Panik — the Inuktitut word for daughter.
Hall, whose spellings of Inuit words were almost always wildly inaccurate, recorded the name as Punna, and that is the name by which she became known in the history books.
In Groton, Conn., she was called Sylvia Grinnell Ebierbing — the surname is Hall’s mangling of the name Ipiirvik.
In 1870, the family went to New York City for a visit. The city held painful memories for Hannah, for it was where her first child had died seven years earlier. But this visit was to be a more joyful occasion, for its purpose was to allow Panik to visit her well-to-do namesake, Sylvia Grinnell.
From that time on, Panik often received gifts from Miss Grinnell in New York.
Taissumani is an occasional column that recalls events of historical interest. Kenn Harper is a historian and writer who lived in the Arctic for more than 50 years. He is the author of “Minik: The New York Eskimo” and “Thou Shalt Do No Murder,” among other books. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to [email protected].