The Fate of the Polaris Expedition

Protocol provided by the Secretary of the Navy turned command over to Budington, who according to testimonies from the expedition’s investigation allowed the crew to become rowdy, lazy and drunk. Budington also issued the ships supply of firearms to the crew for reasons unknown, and encouraged the burning of precious coal at a much higher rate than before. Tyson, who had himself been seen “drunk like old mischief” remarked, “There is so little regularity observed. There is no stated time for putting out lights; the men are allowed to do as they please; and, consequently, they often make nights hideous by their carousing, playing cards to all hours.” Had the crew gone mad? Were they experiencing severe seasonal affective disorder, what we call seasonal depression? Had they all given up?


It is possible that many members had given up, but Tyson and a few other members continued to seek out the furthest point north. Attempt after attempt, they failed and had lost two of the Polaris’s four whaleboats.


In October, nearly a year after Hall’s death, the Polaris ran aground on a shallow iceberg. With a second iceberg threatening the ship, Budington ordered cargo be jettisoned and the crew began to toss goods overboard. Some crew consisting of Tyson, Meyer (the meteorologist), six seamen, the cook, the steward and all of the Inuit camped on the ice overnight rather than stay aboard this ship. When they awoke in the morning, they found themselves to be stranded on drift ice, with the Polaris eight to ten miles away. The crew aboard the Polaris made no attempt to rescue their stranded comrades.  


Luck was on their side, as the Inuit members of the crew were incredibly skilled at surviving the Arctic and are the only reason they survived. The stranded crew also had the two remaining whaleboats, 1,900 pounds of food and a kayak. They were rescued by the ship Tigress on April 30, 1873 but left behind the whaleboats.


Budington’s crew aboard the Polaris had a very similar fate. With coal stores running low, Budington decided to run the ship aground near Etah, an abandoned settlement in Greenland. Due to their haphazard jettison of goods, they were left with very little and were in very poor condition for the winter. They built a hut from the lumber salvaged from the ship and watched as the Polaris heeled over on her side, half in the water. Lucky for the crew, they had met Etah Inuits who helped them survive the winter. They were rescued by the whaler Ravenscraig in July and returned home in June of 1873.


When the crew members of the Polaris Expedition had all returned home, without a ship, half-alive and with a dead commander, an investigation took place. Testimonies from crew members claimed failure to lead, drunkenness, insubordination, murder and more caused the failure of the mission. No charges were filed.


Ultimately, the Polaris Expedition successfully explored the west Greenland channel, discovered the frozen sea and extended the land of Greenland and Grinnell a degree and a half of latitude toward the pole.


In 1905, Robert Peary, another Arctic explorer, recovered the only remaining artifact of the Polaris Expedition – one of the Polaris’ whaleboats. It was brought to the Museum of Natural History, where Robert Cushman Murphy, a famed ornithologist and naturalist, was a board member and curator. The Polaris whaleboat was removed when the museum installed a new sprinkler system. This is when Murphy offered the artifact to Ward Melville. The Polaris Whaleboat became an official part of the Hercules Pavilion in 1954.


Learn more about the incredible history of Stony Brook Village - its landmarks, people and artifacts. Continue to the Three Village Inn to follow along in location order.










Stony Brook Village Audio Experience
  1. The Hercules Pavilion
  2. The Hercules Figurehead
  3. The Polaris Expedition & the Death of Commander Hall
  4. The Fate of the Polaris Expedition
  5. Three Village Inn
  6. Three Village Inn Exterior
  7. Three Village Inn Interior
  8. Three Village Inn Interior – The University Room
  9. Jazz Loft
  10. Stony Brook Fire Department
  11. Post Office
  12. Inner Court
  13. Dogwood Hollow
  14. Market Square