For Women’s History Month, Atlas Obscura lives on a knife edge with Women of Extremes, our series dedicated to those who have dared to defy expectations and explore the unknown.
In 1845 Captain Sir John Franklin led HMS Erebus and HMS Terror to navigate the Northwest Passage. Both ships soon disappeared and the 128 crew and their captain were never heard from again. It was a mystery that gripped the western world and demanded an explanation. Charles Francis Hall believed he was the man to solve this mystery and set out to do so, traveling north numerous times to search for clues.
But that’s not Franklin’s story. And that’s not Hall’s story. We are not interested in Franklin’s disappearance or Hall’s mysterious death while searching for the missing explorer and his crew in 1871. We are here for what happened after Hall disappeared when the surviving crew aboard USS Polaris became locked in the ice of Smith Sound in October 1872. We want to know how, when the ship’s hull was crushed, 19 crew members spent six months stranded on Arctic ice floes and survived.
This is the story of Tookoolito. The local knowledge and ingenuity of the Inuit guide and her husband, Ebierbing, saved the lives of Polaris crew.
According to John Bennett and Michelle Filice writing in the Canadian Encyclopedia, Tookoolito, also known as Hannah and Taqulittuq, was born in 1838. She worked as a translator and guide, with Ebierbing whom she married when they were both teenagers. Recognized by the Canadian government as Persons of National Historic Significance, Tookoolito and Ebierbing contributed significantly to non-Inuit knowledge of the North, write Bennett and Filice.
Their first encounter with Hall was in 1860 when his ship, George Henry, wintered in Davis Strait between Greenland and Baffin Island. In time, Hall spent the days with the Inuit, learning about their culture, as explained by Chauncey Loomis, the late Dartmouth professor and Arctic historian in Weird and Tragic Shores, The Story of Charles Francis Hall, Explorer.
“The arrival of a remarkable Eskimo couple facilitated his education,” writes Loomis. “They were called Ebierbing, called Joe by the whalers, and Tookoolito, called Hannah, and Hall’s meeting with them was a defining occasion in his life.” (Although once commonly used to refer to Inuit and Yupik peoples, the term “Eskimo” is now considered offensive and is no longer used.)
Loomis writes that the couple’s reputation as guides had preceded them, but Hall was surprised by what he perceived as Tookoolito’s “sophistication”, i.e. the European customs she had adopted then. that she worked as a guide for English explorer Thomas Bowlby and later traveled to England. . “[Her] the voice was that of a refined woman… [he saw] a woman dressed in a crinoline and wearing a large bonnet,” Loomis says of their meeting.
“Tokoolito has adopted English customs and ways of life, such as drinking tea and wearing English clothing, while retaining his Inuit culture,” Bennet and Filice explain. She had also adopted Victorian attitudes. “‘I wish no one swore… This is very bad practice, I believe,'” Tookoolito reportedly exclaimed, according to excerpts from Hall’s diary.
Tookoolito and Ebierbing were there to teach Hall the customs of their own region and in doing so ensure the survival of his men. Tookoolito cut Hall’s beard so it wouldn’t ice up during a storm, and later when the party was starving on their first shared expedition in the early 1860s and Hall asked to eat the strips rotten whale meat that Tookoolito had saved. for their sled dogs, she saved him from eating them and getting seriously ill.
Recounting how the group had survived that first trip to the Arctic, Loomis writes that “Hall, of course, had also been preserved by the ‘native Innuit [sic] the tribes of the cold north themselves; without Ebierbing and Tookoolito, he would inevitably be dead.
The couple’s association with Hall would last for over a decade, with the relationship not ending until Hall’s death. During this time, Tookoolito gave birth to a baby boy and then another, both of whom died. She and Ebierbing adopted a young girl (exact age unknown) before Hall’s last expedition in 1871. Their daughter was with them during the terrible six-month ordeal on the ice.
The party is believed to have strayed about 12,000 miles from their route, surviving on Ebierbing’s hunting skills and Tookoolito’s common sense. They were eventually rescued in the Labrador Sea by a sealing vessel.
The health of Tookoolito and Ebierbing’s daughter was compromised by her time in the desert, and she died in 1875. Tookoolito retired, moving to Groton, Connecticut, an area of the country she had visited with Hall during ‘A Lecture Tour on the East Coast in the Fall of 1862.; Tookoolito and Ebierbing were exhibited as arctic curiosities. She died in 1876, aged 38. Ebierbing returned to the Arctic, accompanying an American expedition in 1878 to find the Northwest Passage before his own death around 1881.
The hardships and untimely deaths of Tookoolito, Ebierbing and their children are an all too familiar story in the history of Indigenous peoples and Western expansion. No doubt their names should be remembered longer than those of Hall and Franklin. Without Tookoolito, these white men would most likely have frozen, starved, or perished long before the history books ever heard of them.