In the mid-nineteenth century as an ambitious young country expanded its horizons westward, Dr. Isaac Israel Hayes, a young physician from an Orthodox Quaker family in the rural farmland of Pennsylvania, turned his eyes to the North. As a member of the harrowing American arctic expedition under the command of Dr. Elisha Kent Kane in search of the lost British explorer Sir John Franklin, Hayes became obsessed with making his own mark in the far northern polar regions. Overcoming tremendous apathy, he organized his own privately funded voyage to the Arctic in 1860, during which he claimed to have reached a ‘farthest north’ and to have stood on the edge of the fabled “Open Polar Sea,” a mythical ice-free zone in the high northern latitudes.
But Dr. Hayes was much more than a mere participant in the history of Arctic discovery during its ‘heroic’ age. Hayes stood at the forefront of American and European Arctic efforts, among other things, initiating the modern race for the North Pole and the crossing of the Greenland ice-cap, as well as contributing meaningfully to the literature of the polar regions. He successfully influenced the course of Arctic discovery. During the U.S. Civil War and as an elected politician in New York State during its Gilded Age, Hayes served the ‘public good’ for a decade, with accomplishments as far reaching as his Arctic service, but little recognized during his lifetime.
Polar Hayes brings to light the complete story of an immensely talented individual who occupied a central position in the cause of Arctic discovery and exploration, and also as a man of public service. Drawing upon Hayes family papers, little-viewed diaries from Hayes’s own expeditions, and unpublished primary sources, the story emerges of a remarkable but forgotten explorer, writer, politician and humanitarian who epitomized the rugged and restless spirit of adventure and individualism of nineteenth-century America.
Douglas Wamsley, an independent scholar and attorney who lives in Ridgewood, New Jersey, has written and lectured extensively on the history of nineteenth-century Arctic exploration and its participants.