Howgate’s Preliminary Arctic Expedition and Polar Colonization

Polar Expedition

The Polar Colonization Plan by Henry Howgate involved an Arctic expedition preliminary to US participation in the First International Polar Year.

The Howgate Polar Colonization Plan featured two phases, the first of which was the Preliminary Arctic Expedition. The ultimate goal of the Polar Colonization Plan was to establish a sustainable base from which to voyage even farther north—indeed, as far north as Earthly possible, across the hypothesized open polar sea to the geographic North Pole itself. The Florence was to supply a depot. Stored provisions and personnel at the depot were to be removed to the projected polar colony near Lady Franklin Bay.

Arctic Colonization Plans Addressed the Failures of Polar Expeditions

By 1875, two distinct paradigms for future polar exploration and study had emerged: the international, cooperative, multi-colony model espoused by Karl Weyprecht; and a proposal for the US to develop a proprietary polar colony. The latter was championed by Henry Howgate of the US Army Signal Corps.

Both models addressed the failures of previous excursions, such as those by Charles Francis Hall, Sir John Franklin, Koldewey, Nares, and Sir William Edward Parry. Prior expeditions were self-contained enterprises that failed in varying ways–even in all but unspeakable disaster. The polar colonization plans in play in 1875 posited that the single-voyage approach to polar exploration was ineffective.

Conditions were too harsh, extant technologies too limited, to favor the odds that a small, isolated group could manage a fully successful polar exploration, whether Arctic or Antarctic. Historically, “success” was defined as winning the “race to the pole,” or planting your flag “farthest north.” Such gamesmanship did not cease but, increasingly, the advocates of polar expeditions justified the expense of exploration by touting the potential for the projects to make meaningful contributions to the sciences.

Taken together, The Polar Colonization Plans introduced increasingly systematic, cooperative, multi-phased efforts towards safer, more effective, deeper polar excursions. They would share technology and resources, and engage in scientific studies, the benefits of which could compound through the discovery of newly viable commercial opportunities.

The Preliminary Polar Expedition of the Florence is often dismissed as relatively ineffectual. It represents, however a significant first step towards US participation in cooperative polar exploration and study, such as the International Polar Year.

The Mission of the Preliminary Expedition

The 1877 voyage was given simple, clear objectives by Henry Howgate, who set three objectives:

  • First: collect material for the projected colony at Lady Franklin Bay, including, most importantly: an Eskimo (Inuit) crew; at least 25 dogs; 2 sledges, fully outfitted; clothing for 50 men for 3 years, made by the Inuit, of fur and skin.
  • Second: collect scientific data and specimens
  • Third: collect whale bone and oil to make a profit

Howgate’s instructions adamantly state that the profit motive was of lower priority than the objectives of colony preparation and scientific endeavors. The crew did not force the issue, as competition from other whalers in the waters was stiff, and weather conditions were uncooperative. Although the Inuit personnel and gear lacked the quality Captain Tyson targeted, the objective was met. Numerous bureaus of the US War Department pitched in valuable supplies, as did private citizens and businessmen, who contributed cash and in-kind articles via subscription to accumulate the necessary provisions for the colony.

Most importantly, the scientific work completed on the expedition not only met but surpassed expectations.

Howgate’s Preliminary Polar Expedition Contributed to Arctic Studies

Considerable research was conducted by the crew’s scientists, assisted by the Inuit contingent. Yale’s Orray Taft Sherman acted as photographer, astronomer, and meteorologist. His monograph, Meteorological and Physical Observations on the East Coast of British America, was a direct product of his voyage.

Ludwig Kumlein, a Smithsonian naturalist, contributed heavily to polar botany and ornithology, collecting plant, algae, and rare bird specimens, cataloging a previously unknown species of gull. The crowning achievement of the expedition may have been Kumlein’s ethnological studies of Inuit habits and legends, complete with portraits. He collected native clothing and adornments; archaeological digs yielded museum-quality artifacts such as stone tools and weaponry.

The Legacy of the Preliminary Arctic Expedition

Reports of the expedition are conspicuously devoid of lurid content; they recount no horrifying icebound escapes, no near ruinous rescues from the clench of death; no man’s diet depended upon the flesh of another’s for survival—the small crew of the Florence pursued its modest goals with a minimum of mishap. Lackluster it may have been, but the Preliminary Arctic Expedition was effective, and is unfairly dismissed. Its express mission was to play an unabashedly humble role within the overarching paradigm of polar colonization and, however ho-hum, it did.

Phase two of Howgate’s plan did not materialize precisely as planned, but that should not diminish the legacy of the Preliminary Expedition. Its results paved the way for the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition and its mission to establish a polar colony to represent the US participation in the paradigm devised by Karl Weyprecht.

Weyprecht’s plan ultimately crystallized as the First International Polar Year. Internal Polar Year projects remain active: the Fourth International Polar Year made 200 projects possible. Over 60 nations, and over 1000 researchers, cooperated on studies conducted between 2007 and 2009.


  1. Guttridge, Leonard F. Ghosts of Cape Sabine: the Harrowing True Story of the Greely Expedition. New York: Putnam, 2000.
  2. Howgate, Henry W. “Plan for the Exploration of the Arctic Regions.” Journal of the American Geographical Society of New York 10 (1878): 276-98.
  3. “Polar Colonization. The Howgate Scheme of Discovery–A Preliminary Expedition–Subscriptions Called For.” The New York Times [New York] 29 May 1877.
  4. Tyson, George E., and Henry W. Howgate. The Cruise of the Florence, Or, Extracts from the Journal of the Preliminary Arctic Expedition of 1877-’78. Washington: J.J. Chapman, 1879.
  5. The Wilson Bulletin XLVIII (1936): 86-93.