Tookoolito and Ipiirvik called their daughter Panik, but her real name was Isigaittuq. Charles Francis Hall later named her Sylvia Grinnell Ebierbing. (Photographer unknown, courtesy of Indian and Colonial Research Centre, Old Mystic, Conn.)

Who was Sylvia Grinnell?

By Kenn Harper

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.

Panik’s grave marker in Groton, Conn., where she died in 1875. (Photo by Kenn Harper, from Kenn Harper Collection)

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

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(12) Comments:

  1. Posted by MARK SEIDENBERG on

    It was on 13 September 1871 at Thank God Harbor on Greenland that Charles Francis Hall lead a landing party of only US Citizen from the ship USS POLARIS to take formal possession of Greenland in the name of G-D, POTUS U S. GRANT, and the SecNav in the name of the United States.

    Charles Francis Hall also named the
    Land which Kellett seen near Herald
    Island in 1849 and named Kellett’s Land as Wrangell’s Land. Captain Long named that Land as just Wrangell Land in 1867.

    Since Captain Thomas Long was a citizen of Hawaii, POTUS Andrew Johnson used the name assigned by Charles Francis Hall in his Executive Memorandum of 17 February 1868 for what is now known as Wrangell Island, Alaska. It entered Alaska on 17 May 1884.

    • Posted by Kenn Harper on

      Your comments are misleading and quite simply wrong. I know you have a bee in your bonnet about Wrangel Island and a mistaken belief that it belongs to the USA. It doesn’t. C F Hall had nothing to do with naming Wrangel Island – he was never in that area. Don’t mislead readers with nonsense.

      • Posted by Mark Seidenberg on

        I never claimed that Charles Francis Hall ever was near “Wrangell’s Land”. I only stated that that what he called Kellett Land. POTUS Andrew Johnson used the name that Mr. Hall coined for what Captain Calvin L. Hooper, USRM called New Columbia Land on 12 August 1881.

        It was on 17 December 1883 that United States Senator Benjamin Harrison (who was the Chairman of the Senate Committee of Territories) informed Major Ezra W. Clark, Jr., USV (ret.) to have the Alaska Board of the United States Department of the Treasury add six islands to Alaska that were not included under the Alaska Treaty of 30 March 1867 (n.s.) , viz., Bennett,
        Forrester, Henrietta, Herald, Jeannette, and Wrangell.

        When Ezra W. Clark, Jr , ordered Captain Calvin L. Hooper, USRM to take formal possession of Wrangell’s Land he used the name coined by Charles Francis Hall. Hooper changed the name to New Columbia Land on 12 August 1881.
        It was 3rd Lt. William Edward Reynolds, USRM that took formal possession of New Columbia Land.

        When Harrison met with Clark on
        17 December 1883 both knew that
        Wrangell’s Land was an island.

        It was on 1 April 1924 that Stefansson sold Wrangell Island to the Lomen Brothers of Nome, Alaska..

        Wrangell Island has been part of Alaska since 17 May 1884. The Clark River on Wrangell Island was named for Major Ezra W. Clark, Jr.

        • Posted by MARK SEIDENBERG on

          Charles Francis Hall was fluent in German like Captain Thomas Long of Honolulu, Kingdom of Hawaii.

          Both read the book of Admiral Wrangell on his exploration to the north of Siberia in the 1820’s. Long therefore name what was also called Kellett Land by the Royal Navy as ” Wrangell Land”. Hall called the same land as “Wrangell’s Land”. It is historically clear of those naming because Lorin Blotget published that as a fact on 1 February 1868. Then POTUS Andrew Johnson by an Executive Memorandum in mid February 1868 adopted the name coined by Hall which was renamed by Captain Calvin Hooper, USRM as
          “New Columbia Land” on 12 August 1881.

          • Posted by MARK SEIDENBERG on

            One issue I need help.with relates to.the view of the British Columbia Social Credit Party platform on the so-called “Sector Theory” for the American Arctic Archipelago (or the Queen Elizabeth Islands). When W. A. C. Bennett the Primer of British Columbia met with Ike Eisenhower
            at Ottawa in July 1958 he told him.that the so-called Sector Theory was a violation of international law.

            He wanted the Plover Group of islands to the north of Alaska attached to British Columbia because they were annexed in 1850 in the name of Queen.Victoria and therefore they did not come to the United States by the Alaska Treaty of 30 March 1867 (n.s.) on 18 October 1867 (n.s.).

            The question was it W.A.C. Bennett personal view or was it also the view of the British Columbia Social.Credit Party in 1958 or 1959?

      • Posted by Mark Seidenberg on

        Bottom line Charles Francis Hall had everything to do with the naming of the largest of the three Wrangell Islands in Alaska, because POTUS Andrew Johnson used the Hall coined name in his Executive Memorandum to Secretary of State William Henry Seward in reply to Seward’s Secretorial Memorandum of 8 February 1868.

  2. Posted by Mesher on

    An interesting tale of days not so long past, and that from an excellent, well versed raconteur Kenn.

  3. Posted by Jim on

    Great story Ken 🙂
    I find we all tend to colour historical facts with good or bad actions/happenings without considering the huge logical paradigm that underpins our feelings. You display the admirable historian’s trait of just discussing/presenting the facts. Cheers.

  4. Posted by Invention on

    “Hall, whose spellings of Inuit words were almost always wildly inaccurate”

    Did the Inuit have a written language in the mid 1800’s that he could be wildly deviating from?

    • Posted by Kenn Harper on

      No, they had no written language at that time. But Hall’s orthography was inconsistent and often defies logical attempts to figure out pronunciation from the English letters he used. Example: punna for panik. Another example: ninoo for nanuq.

  5. Posted by Hunter on

    The river had a name in Inuktitut that should be used instead. Just like Frobisher Bay changed to Iqaluit.

    Grinnell name is important to Hall but nothing to Inuit who lived there in the past and continue to live there today.

    Use the traditional Inuit let Inuit reclaim their land back.

    • Posted by Kenn Harper on

      Of course it had a name. Almost all rivers are named “kuuk” plus a suffix describing largeness, smallness, beauty, etc. This results in many rivers having the same name. Although the place names folks at Inuit Heritage Trust would probably disagree, I see nothing wrong with a place retaining its English name or having two official names. Nunavut has a history, and that history includes Qallunaat as well as Inuit. The stories of exploration by Qallunaat are an integral part of Nunavut’s history, and deserving of remembrance.


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