For six months, a group of expedition survivors had drifted on Arctic ice floes.
The long, cold, polar nights had begun to take their toll.
They were weak, hungry and close to despair. They had not seen another living soul in the months since their ship disappeared over the horizon off the coast of Ellesmere Island in Canada’s far north.
They were left stranded. The food they had taken from the ship was long gone, having been consumed in a gluttonous display in the first month. The boats that sat on the ice floe initially, had been used to burn small fires to cook food and stay warm.
Now, after thousands of kilometres, they were nearing the coast of Newfoundland, and the hope of rescue increased, but with it came the growing danger of warm waters.
With each passing day, as the sun hovered higher in the sky, the ice floe they were on became smaller.
Yet, there was hope.
Their journey one that should have ended with their starvation long before this point but didn’t.
For on that ice floe was an Inuit man and woman, who kept the survivors alive, fed and sheltered from the elements for MONTHS as they awaited rescue.
The Inuit couple were an amazing duo and already famous in North America for being veterans of Arctic expeditions. You may think that this legendary tale of survival is the entire story of Ipirvik and Taqulittuq, but I promise you, it is only a small part of the amazing story that I’m going to share with you today….
I’m Craig Baird…and this is Canadian History Ehx!
Take a gander at the Arctic on Google Maps. You will see dozens of islands, ranging in size from a mere blip, to massive. These islands stretch far to the north, and for us in the 21st century there is little left to discover. But that wasn’t always the case.
Just a few centuries ago the Arctic was a place of cold, mystery and death, at least for Europeans explorers who wondered what the region had to offer.
For the Inuit, it was simply…home.
Europeans trekked the vast region in the hopes of finding fame and fortune, but also s wanted to find something else, a passage and they were venturing into the unknown. A place of long days in the summer, and long, cold nights in the winter. Where snow and ice reign and death comes for the unprepared.
Throughout the 16th century and the early 17th century, explorers such as Martin Frobisher, John Davis and Henry Hudson searched for the legendary Northwest Passage and a way through the Arctic. The Northwest Passage, a short cut running through the Canadian Arctic had long been sought by European explorers. At the time, the only route to the Pacific Ocean was an immense trip around the southern tip of South America.
In the centuries before the Panama Canal, a passage over North America would save months of travel for explorers and merchants. Less time also meant more profits.
As with most things, money drove these explorers to put their lives on the line in a region they were barely suited for.
The search for the passage began in 1553 with Martin Frobisher, who reached as far north as Baffin Island on his first voyage.
He returned in 1577, spending weeks collecting ore he believed to be gold-bearing.
On his return to England, he didn’t just bring back ore. He brought back kidnapped Inuit– a man, woman, and child, all of whom died soon after reaching Europe. Frobisher returned once more in 1587 when he attempted to establish a settlement, which did not last long. As for the 1,350 tons of ore he collected on his voyages, it proved to be worthless, and was used to build roads in England.
Frobisher never ventured farther than the east coast of Baffin Island in his attempts to find the passage.
And if you’ve seen a map…. Needless to say, there was still a long way to go. Various expeditions were conducted over the next half century until Jens Munk of Denmark came with two ships to find the passage in 1619.
He became the second European after Thomas Button to explore the western parts of Hudson Bay. But he didn’t find the Northwest Passage. Instead, all he found was cold, famine and scurvy. Of the 65 men who arrived in the Arctic with him, only Munk and two others survived by the time they returned home in 1620.
Then, almost as soon as the exploration started, it stopped.
For the next 200 years, only a handful of expeditions were conducted in the Arctic, and none ventured much farther than the mouth of Hudson Bay.
As the 19th century dawned, a slew of expeditions returned with stronger, more modern ships. John Ross, William Parry and James Ross all ventured into the Arctic to find the passage in the first decades of the century. John Ross took three expeditions to the Arctic in 1818, 1829 and 1850 and was the first European to reach the North Magnetic Pole.
Parry was the most successful of the explorers before the 20th century, reaching halfway across the Arctic. He took part in expeditions in 1818, 1819, 1821 and 1824. Then, in 1827, he reached further north than any European before him, setting a record that would last 49 years.
As for James Ross, he took part in four expeditions between 1819 and 1827. In 1831, he personally planted the British flag at the magnetic pole. The most famous of the expeditions was the Franklin Expedition of 1845, which ventured into the Arctic waters with two ships and 129 officers and crew.
Despite careful planning, steam powered ships with an internal heat system, three years supply of food and 1,000 books in two libraries, the expedition ended in failure and became a legend.
None of the men on the ships would ever be seen by European eyes again, and both ships would remain lost for almost 200 years. The Arctic was unforgiving for European explorers, especially those who saw the Inuit as savages and refused to follow their advice.
Hundreds of European explorers and sailors died exploring the Arctic. they faced conditions they could not have imagined, and many questioned how humans could survive in such a hostile environment. But humans made the North their home long before the Great Pyramid of Giza and Stonehenge were constructed.
Humans were not only living in the Arctic but thriving. In the Arctic, various cultures emerged over the centuries, including the Dorset, Sadlermuit and, eventually, the Inuit.
And it is two Inuit in particular, who are at the centre of today’s story.
Amid all the exploration that was going on in the early-19th century, two Inuit were born, Ipirvik and Taqulittuq. Ipirvik was born around 1837 in Cumberland Sound, an Arctic waterway located in the western arm of the Labrador Sea between Baffin Island’s Hall Peninsula and the Cumberland Peninsula. Of course, it was not known as Cumberland Sound to the Inuit who lived there. For them, it was Tenudiackbeek.
A year after Ipirvik was born, his future wife, Taqulittuq entered the world. Their home had mostly been ignored by European explorers. John Davis, an English explorer, first arrived in Cumberland Sound in 1585. He soon left after only reaching partway into the Sound.
For the next 254 years, the Inuit of Cumberland Sound lived their lives without European interference or exploration.
Then, in 1839, whaler and explorer William Penny arrived in Cumberland Sound on his ship the Neptune. He soon met Eenoolooapik, Taqulittuq’s brother, who agreed to show him the inland sea, which he said was full of whales. This was quite true, as both the beluga and Bowhead whale lived in the Sound year-round. that was all the whaler needed to hear and soon after his voyage there, the British set up a whaling station.
The presence of whalers in Cumberland Sound had a huge impact on Ipirvik and Taqulittuq. Taqulittuq learned English from the whaler, a skill that would serve her well in the coming years.
Before long, the whalers began to rely on Ipirvik for his hunting and guide skills. But instead of using his name, they simply called him Joe. Ipirvik and Taqulittuq married as teenagers, would have continued without much incident had it not been for the arrival of Thomas Bowlby. Bowlby was a whaler, and in 1852 he took Ipirvik and Taqulittuq to England.
It is not recorded whether or not they agreed to go or not. What is known is that this was not a sightseeing trip for the Inuit couple, but an effort by Bowlby to make money. During their stay in England, Ipirvik and Taqulittuq were exhibited by Bowlby at several venues as curiosities from the Arctic.
During these exhibitions, Bowlby always made sure to tell the crowd that the couple were married and had converted to Christianity. They caused a sensation in England and gained the notice of the most powerful couple in the British Empire, Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert. Both Ipirvik and Taqulittuq met the couple and by all accounts, made a good impression with the Queen of England.
They even dined with the royal couple at least once.
While Bowlby treated the Inuit couple as a curiosity to be exhibited, he did at least return them to the Arctic safely, something that unfortunately was not always the case with less scrupulous men.
The trip to England would have a major impact on Taqulittuq. She kept several European customs and wore her Victorian dresses and bonnets on special occasions. In her seal skin tent in the Arctic, she would provide tea and ask the guest how strong they liked it.
Despite the close relationship the couple had with whalers, Taqulittuq was not a fan of their manners in Cumberland Sound, especially after her time in England.
She wrote in a letter,
“I feel very sorry to say that many of the whaling people are very bad, making the Inuit bad too, they swear very much and make our people swear. I wish they would not do so…I wish no one would swear. It is very bad practice I believe.”
The couple once again settled into their lives in Cumberland Sound, until another European entered their lives and changed them forever. Charles Frances Hall was an American Arctic explorer who was collecting Inuit testimony regarding the Lost Franklin Expedition.
His first expedition to the Arctic was in 1860, and that’s when he met Ipirvik and Taqulittuq. He wrote in his journal how surprised he was to be greeted by Taqulittuq in her Victorian dress while speaking English fluently. “A lady of refinement was there addressing me.”
With Hall, the couple traced Inuit oral traditions of Martin Frobisher’s expeditions in the 16th century.
Ookijox Ninoo, Taqulittuq’s grandmother, relayed the story to Hall of ships that had come a long time ago, before any of them were born. She provided details that Hall was able to cross-reference with books to confirm that she was telling the story of Frobisher’s arrival to the area.
Taqulittuq served as Hall’s interpreter, while Ipirvik served as guide and hunter. It was a common pattern for the couple on various expeditions. Thanks to them, Hall’s expedition was able to locate the original site of Frobisher’s attempted settlement and find several artifacts.
While the three had a good relationship, Hall was known for bursts of anger towards the couple when he felt they were not listening to his demands. One such fit of rage occurred when Ipirvik refused to take Hall to King William Island, 1000 kilometres away from Cumberland Sound, stating there was a hostile Inuit group located there.
Hall was forced to turn around, but for years, he would mock Ipirvik for being afraid to venture to the island. Despite rocky points in their friendship, Hall was smart enough to know he could not succeed in his expeditions without the couple. While Ipirvik ensured Hall and his men were fed, Taqulittuq was essential for survival tactics in the Arctic.
Taqulittuq told Hall to shave his beard so that it wouldn’t become encrusted with ice during a storm. She also prevented Hall from eating rotten strips of whale meat that had been saved for sled dogs.
Eating the meat would have made Hall violently ill. He was always impressed with Taqulittuq, and he wrote in his diary,
“I could not help admiring the exceeding gracefulness and modesty of her demeanor. Simple and gentle in her way, there was a degree of calm intellectual power about her that more and more astonished me.”
In 1862, Hall returned to the United States and brought Ipirvik and Taqulittuq, along with their son Tukerliktu. Like Bowlby before, he saw the couple as a means to make money and fund future expeditions. Hall gave talks with the Inuit couple standing next to him on stage, while showing discovered relics of the Frobisher expedition.
Ipirvik and Taqulittuq always wore their traditional Inuit garments during these lectures.
The success of Hall’s lecture tour attracted the attention of P.T. Barnum.
Barnum was the American showman and businessman who purchased a museum and renamed it Barnum’s American Museum. In the museum he showed hoaxes and human curiosities such as the Fiji mermaid and General Tom Thumb. Offering Hall funds to help finance another expedition, Barnum was able to display Ipirvik and Taqulittuq as human curiosities in his museum.
Barnum advertised the couple as the first and only inhabitants of the Arctic ever brought to the United States.
By all accounts, their brief time with Barnum was horrible. at least four evenings a week, they were forced to wear their fur clothes, in the sweltering hot showrooms of Barnum’s Museum.
Hall became aware of the conditions and when Barnum asked to have the couple again at the museum and offered a great deal of money for the opportunity, Hall refused him.
In 1863, Hall embarked on his next lecture tour of the east coast and once again brought Ipirvik and Taqulittuq with him. Sadly, the rigors of the tour took their toll on the family. Within a few weeks of the tour, the couple’s son Tukerliktu, died but the cause is not recorded. Leaving the tour to deal with their grief, the couple stayed at the home of whaling captain Sidney Buddington in Connecticut.
There they found peace and quiet so that they could enjoy time away from the lectures and from Hall.
Meanwhile for Hall, the concern over Tukerliktu’s death was more to do with how it impacted Taqulittuq and his next Arctic expedition, which was fast approaching. Despite the sometimes-strained relationship, the couple again joined Hall in the Arctic when he ventured on his second expedition from 1864 to 1869.
During those five years Taqulittuq gave birth to a son, King William, who died in infancy. This is when Welcome Sound, Repulse Bay and King William Island were visited but Hall accomplished little else.
Once again, both Ipirvik and Taqullittuq were essential to Hall’s survival, providing him with food, advice and guidance on where to travel.
Upon the end of the expedition, the couple decided they wanted to live in Connecticut.
They bought property and adopted a two-year-old Inuit girl that they named Panik, which is Inuktitut for daughter.
But their association with Hall, though, was not quite over.
In 1871, Hall reunited with the couple during his Polaris expedition to the North Pole. This time, the journey was a complete disaster due to poor leadership and insubordination as the ship became encased in ice during the frigid winter. Hall became ill after a sledding journey on the ice floe.
He would never recover and died on Nov. 8, 1871.
Prior to his death, he accused the members of the crew of poisoning him. Years later, Ipirvik said that Hall was quote,
“Never be such a good man as Hall again. Never so good to me.”
After his death, discipline broke down on the ship, but everyone was able to make it through the winter. By June 1872, the ship finally reached open water and began to look for a southern route. By this point, the ship had lost three lifeboats as they were crushed by ice over the previous year and the expedition’s goal was soon abandoned in favour of returning home.
What no one could have known, was that not only would the journey home take a lot longer than they expected, but it would also be without Polaris itself.
On Oct. 15, as the ship traveled south between Greenland and Ellesmere Island, it ran aground on a shallow iceberg and water began to pour into the ship. As the ship took on water some of the crew chose to stay on the surrounding ice during the night and brought supplies with them.
about 20 crew members remained on board to deal with the leaks and rising water. When morning came, ten crew members and all of the Inuit, including Ipirvik, Taqulittuq and their daughter Panik, found the ship gone. They were left stranded on an ice floe.
The Polaris could be seen in the distance, 15 kilometres away, and attempts to get the attention of those on the ship failed.
The ship, and those still on board, were never seen again. As for those left on the ice floe, there were 20 people in all including Ipirvik and Taqulittuq, their daughter, Inuit explorers Suersaq and his wife Mequ with their three children, American navigator George Tyson, and various other crew members from the ship.
All the castaways had was 860 kilograms of food, two whaleboats and two kayaks, one of which would soon be lost to the ice. The crew members did not conserve or ration their food. Instead, they went on an eating binge one night in November and consumed most of the food.
They also broke up a whaleboat for firewood, further stranding them on the ice floe. For the next six months, Ipirvik and Taqulittuq, with the other Inuit, kept the crew alive. Ipirvik ensured the crew was fed and hunted seals. Years later in 1875, he told the story of how he cautioned the men not to eat the liver of a large seal he had killed as it was poisonous.
They didn’t listen, and became violently ill, making their struggle for survival even worse. The group drifted for 2,900 kilometres before they were finally rescued off the coast of Newfoundland on April 30, 1873. To put that in context, which is almost the same distance between Edmonton and Montreal.
Even more amazingly, the number of survivors on that ice floe increased by one as Hans Hendrik, wife had a baby. He was an Inuit man who was born in Greenland and his baby survived the ordeal. George Tyson, the ranking officer among the marooned party, wrote in his journal after they were rescued,
“We survive through God’s mercy and Joe’s ability as a hunter.”
Without Ipirvik and Taqulittuq, those on the ice floe would have surely died. But when financial rewards and compensation were given to the survivors, the couple only received a fraction of what the others did.
The New York Herald wrote about this,
“Is it not a little strange, that after all this, when these men came home, that no attention was paid to what Ipirvik had done, no notice was taken of him?”
While Tyson received $1,200, the couple received $300 combined. During the subsequent investigation into what happened, both Ipirvik and Taqulittuq stated they believed Hall had been poisoned.
Ipirvik said in the inquest,
“Captain Hall good man. Very sorry when he died.”
In 1968, an analysis of Hall’s remains discovered that he had ingested a large amount of arsenic in the last two weeks of his life. After the rescue the couple settled in Connecticut, but Ipirvik returned to the Arctic to work as a guide on occasion. He took part in the expeditions of Captain Allen Young on the Pandora as it sought to find the Northwest Passage and determine the fate of the Franklin Expedition.
In all, Young took two expeditions to the Arctic, and Ipirvik joined him both of them. Journalist J.A. MacGahan, in his book on the expedition, said Ipirvik had,
“A quiet dignity and gravity about him.”
Taqulittuq never returned north and remained with her daughter at home in Connecticut and worked as a seamstress.
The experience of spending six months on the ice floe took a toll on the family. Panik, the couple’s adopted daughter, died on March 18, 1875, at the age of nine from pneumonia. With the loss of her daughter, Taqulittuq soon fell ill and died on Dec. 31, 1876, of tuberculosis. Ipirvik returned home from the second expedition with Young to find his beloved wife had died.
Overcome with grief, He remained only briefly in Connecticut. He eventually left to take part in the expedition of Frederick Schwatka, who was looking for clues to the fate of Franklin and his ships. Ipirvik taught Schwatka how the Inuit survive in the Arctic but by this point he was older, and the expeditions were becoming more difficult for him.
He left the expedition, but he did not return to Connecticut, and chose to stay in the North. He died in 1881. The circumstances around his death are not known.
And although he wanted to be buried beside Taqulittuq, the location of his body is unknown.
Instead, next to her headstone and grave in Connecticut, sits only a headstone for Ipirvik.
That’s the end of the story of Ipirvik and Taqulittuq but there’s something else you should know about them…. and how they’ve been honoured in Canada.
While the story of Ipirvik and Taqulittuq is not well known, many places around the Arctic have been named after them.
Ebierbing Bay is named for Ipirvik using the European spelling of his name, while Tookoolito Inlet is the European spelling of Taqulittuq.
Near the inlet, you will find Butterfly Bay. That was the nickname Ipirvik gave Taqulittuq during their life together.
Lastly, Taqulittuq’s grandmother Ookijox Ninoo had an island named after her that was later changed to Shepard Island.
Lastly, in 1981, both Ipirvik and Taqulittuq were named Persons of National Historic Significance by Parks Canada and their plaque is located nearby to where the couple lived in Cumberland Sound.
Information from Smithsonian, Canadian Geographic, Wikipedia, Arctic Profiles, Northern Voices, Nilliajut 2, Canadian Encyclopedia, Atlas Obscura, Erasure as a tool of 19th Century European Exploration