Hannah and Joe Ebierbing were the most well-known Inuit of the 19 th century. Their travels included southern Baffin Island, Melville Peninsula, and the mainland northwest of Hudson Bay, as well as northwestern Greenland, England, and northeastern United States.
Hannah was born c. 1838 at Cape Searle, a famous landmark in Davis Strait off the east coast of Baffin Island in the Arctic Archipelago, a rendezvous point for whalers and the Inuit who wished to trade with them. Her Inuktitut name is generally recorded as Tookoolito, although variant spellings in numerous sources exist. She was the sister of Eenoolooapik, who traveled in 1839 to Aberdeen, Scotland, with the whaling master William Penny. Her husband Joe, whose Inuktitut name Ipiirvik was poorly Anglicized to Ebierbing and became the family surname, was born at Qimmiqsut off the south coast of Cumberland Sound, probably in 1836.
Married according to Inuit custom, Hannah and Joe Ebierbing were taken to England in 1853 by John Bowlby, a wine merchant dabbling in an experimental cod fishing venture. During their stay in England, the Inuit couple were presented to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and "exhibited" to the public on numerous occasions in Hull and London. Hannah, only four feet eleven inches tall, was described as "active, sprightly, and full of fun. Her laugh is a joyous laugh" (Cull, 1856: 216). Joe, only two inches taller and still only a teenager, was described as "an intelligent, quiet man, self-willed [who] may be led but not driven," and "a close observer of all that passes" (Cull, 1856: 218—219). It was not uncommon for native people— Inuit, Native American Indians, Africans, and others— to be "exhibited" as curiosities or fundraising attractions in European and American venues such as world fairs and cultural expositions. Hannah and Joe were willing participants in these events. After two years in England, converted to Christianity and with modest proficiency in English, the husband and wife returned to Cumberland Sound where Joe resumed the life of a hunter and worked sporadically for whalers.
In the fall of 1860, Charles Francis Hall, an American printer-turned-explorer, met Hannah aboard a whaling ship, the George Henry, at the mouth of Frobisher Bay. From that point on, the Inuit couple was associated with Hall until the explorer's death in 1871. At the time of their meeting, Hall was pursuing his obsession with discovering the fate of Sir John Franklin's missing expedition. Instead, he learned that he had discovered the lost site of Martin Frobisher's explorations of over two centuries earlier. When Hall returned to the United States, he took Hannah and Joe and their infant son with him. Echoing their earlier experiences in England, the Inuit were publicly exhibited and appeared at Hall's lectures on the Arctic, in which he sought to raise funds for his next expedition. The unfamiliar climate and their rigorous schedule took its toll on Hannah's and the baby's health; the boy died in the spring of 1863. When they were not touring, the Inuit couple stayed with a whaling captain, Sidney Budington, and his wife in Groton, Connecticut.
The next year the couple accompanied Hall on his second expedition in search of John Franklin, this time to northwestern Hudson Bay and west to King William Island. Hall's quest was again futile. Hannah gave birth to and quickly lost another child on this expedition, and adopted a third, a girl, Isigaittuq, from a family at Igloolik. The daughter became known through Hall's writings as "Punna," his rendition of Panik, the Inuktitut word for daughter. In America she was known as Sylvia Grinnell Ebierbing.
Back in Groton in 1869, Joe Ebierbing purchased a two-story house for $300, where he and his family hoped to settle down. He worked as a carpenter; Hannah worked as a seamstress. But in 1871, Hall led them off again on another expedition as his guides, with Budington as captain of the Polaris and the North Pole as its destination. Hall died on this ill-fated expedition; he may have been murdered by the ship's doctor (Loomis, 1971). In the fall of 1872, during a terrible storm with the ship anchored to an ice-floe, 19 people abandoned the sinking vessel for the ice off northwestern Greenland. That party included Hannah, Joe, and their daughter Panik; a Greenlander, Suersaq, with his family; assistant navigator George Tyson; and nine sailors. The ship did not sink, but the party could not return to it. They began to drift with the ice-floe. The expedition had disembarked a large quantity of equipment, so the party of survivors was well-supplied. Their journey on the floe lasted 190 days and took them 1200 miles south. With their ice-floe greatly reduced in size, they were picked up by a sealer north of Newfoundland on April 30.
Hannah and Joe Ebierbing attended an inquiry in Washington into the disaster of the Polaris expedition before returning to Groton. But Joe shipped north almost immediately on a rescue mission in search of the Polaris. In Groton, he resumed his carpentry and also worked as a farmhand. Hannah again worked as a seamstress. Although no one had perished during the drift from Greenland on the ice-floe, Panik's health was irrevocably compromised, and she died on March 18, 1875.
Joe Ebierbing returned north in 1875 aboard the Pandora on a British expedition in search of the North West Passage. He returned to Groton that fall. The following year, on December 31, Hannah died and was-
buried in Starr Cemetery beside Panik and Tarralikitaq, the son who had died in 1863. Despondent, Joe resolved to return North. He accompanied Frederick Schwatka's expedition in 1880 in search of records of Franklin and his crew. Rather than return to America with the expedition, Joe remained in Marble Island, where he had remarried. He died in the Arctic a few years later.
The lives of Hannah and Joe Ebierbing spanned two cultures and two languages. The couple spent almost all of their adult lives in dedicated service to American whalers and explorers. Hall learned from them most of the information on which his reputation is based. The survivors of the Polaris expedition owed their lives to them. A modest plaque in Iqaluit commemorates their lives.
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