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Wilhelm August Graah: Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies
Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, 1879-1962

Wilhelm August Graah

EA-Biography
[Kaj Birket-Smith]

W. A. GRAAH

August Wilhelm Graah (1793-1863), Danish explorer and naval officer, was
born on October 24, 1793, in Copenhagen, the son of Peder Hersleb Graah, a judge
of the Supreme Court of Denmark, and Eleonora Sophie nee Beck. In 1813 Graah
entered the service of the Royal Navy as a sub-lieutenant, in 1820 he was promoted
to lieutenant, in 1830 to lieutenant-commander, and ten years later, to commander.
In the early years of the 19th century the maps of Greenland were still
extremely inaccurate, even those of the colonized parts of the west coast, and
printed sailing directions did not exist at all. Graah had at that time, in
spite of his youth, attracted the attention of the naval authorities. As early
as 1818 he had published a work on the maritime wars of Denmark ( Udkast til
Danmarks Søekrigshistorie
) and in 1821 he had surveyed the region around Beru–
fjord in Iceland. To correct the deficiencies of the Greenland maps he was sent
to Greenland in 1823-24, where, with Godhavn on Disko Island as headquarters, he
undertook a series of astronomical determinations of a number of important places
between Egedesminde and Upernivik. The results of this work were published by
the Royal Hydrographic Office, 1825, as a Mercator projection map of the coast
betweenimportant anchorages. As a supplement to the map a detailed description
of the coast surveyed by Graah was also published, containing directions for the
navigation of Davis Strait and the settlements in the northern part of west
Greenland ( Beskrivelse til det voxende Situations-Kaart over den vestlige kyst af

EA-Biog. Birket-Smith: Graah

Grønland fra 68° 30′ til 73° Bred , 1825).
During his sojourn in Greenland, Graah had acquired a well-founded knowledge
of arctic traveling technique, and it was therefore natural that when an expedi–
tion to East Greenland was planned by the Government, he was entrusted with the
command. At that period the east coast of Greenland was still unknown for the
greater part, in spite of numerous attempts to force a way through the polar ice
pack, the only parties who are known with certainty to have landed being Scoresby,
Clavering, and Sabine in the north and Peder Olsen Walløe in the extreme south.
This circumstance alone was, of course, sufficient reason for sending out an ex–
pedition. To this, however, was added another motive. Throughout the 18th
century it had been the general opinion that the medieval Eastern Settlement of
the Norsemen was situated east of Cape Farewell. It is true that H. P. von
Eggers, in a pioneering paper published in 1793, had asserted the view which
afterwards proved to be the correct one, viz., that the Eastern Settlement
should be looked for in the Julianehaab District on the southernmost west coast.
As long as the east coast was shrouded in mystery, skeptics might, however, still
urge their doubt with some right. The conflicting views gave, in fact, the de–
cisive impulse to the planned expedition, the only scientific enterprise of Denmark
in these regions before the activities of Holm, Ryder, and Admrup in the latter
part of the century.
Graah's undertaking was carefully prepared. His intention was to follow the
same route as that of P. O. Walløe more than two generations previously, starting
from the southern west coast with native skin boats and penetrating as far north
as s possible within the ice belt along the coast. His own task was the surveying
of the country. As members of the expedition he was accompanied by J. L. M. Vahl,
a young naturalist in charge of the botanical, zoological, and meteorological

EA-Biog. Birket-Smith: Graah

observations, and J. M. Mathiesen, manager of the Frederikshaab colony, who
acted as interpreter. After his return Graah published a detailed report on
his journey (Undersøgelses-Reise til Østkysten of Grønland, 1832; new edition
with notes by Kaj Birket-Smith, 1932. English translation: Narrative of an
Expedition to the East Coast of Greenland
, 1837).
On April 27, 1828, Graah and Vahl landed at Frederikshaab, whence they
traveled by boat to Julianehaab where they arrived in the middle of June. Here
they had the good luck of meeting an Eskimo from the southern east coast who
promised to stay at Nanortalik on the west coast near Cape Farewell during the
winter and accompany them on the expedition the following year. Graah himself
made an excursion to Nanortlik, Frederiksdal, and the hot springs at Unartoq,
whence he returned to Julianehaab and visited the church ruin at Qaqortoq, the
most famous and best preserved Norse remains in Greenland, of which he gave the
first detailed description and illustrations. During the summer Vahl had been
engaged in botanical investigations, and skin boats for the coming expedition
had been built. At the approach of autumn Graah arranged his winter quarters at
Nanortalik, but, in spite of the advanced season, he was still determined to
undertake a reconnaisance trip to the east coast. In October he made an attempt,
proceeding through Prince Christian Sound, but was stopped by the ice immediately
inside its eastern outlet and had to return to Nanortalik, where he arrived on
November 2. During the winter Graah was busy with meteorological work, observa–
tions on the aurora borealis, terrestrial magnetism, etc. As [: ] early as March 21
the expedition had finished its preparations and was ready to start. Besides
Graah, Vahl, Mathiesen, and a Danish sailor, there was a crew of five Greenlanders
and ten native women. They had two umiaks, and a third boat was hired to accompany
them for the first three or four weeks.

EA-Biog. Birket-Smith: Graah

It had been Graah's intention to pass south of Cape Farewell, but the plan
had to be abandoned because of unfavorable conditions. Graah pointed out, how–
ever, that Hans Egede had been wrong in placing Cape Farewell on the island of
Sermersoq, and rightly identified it with Umanarssuaq of the Eskimos and
Statenhoek of the Dutch whalers. The expedition then took the same route as
the previous autumn, proceeding through Torssukatak and Prince Christian Sound,
but was again stopped by the ice near the outlet and had to spend 25 days on a
small island there. Meantime the assisting boat was sent back, and finally,
on April 26, they got free of the ice and reached Aluk on the southernmost east
coast. When three days later they were able to leave this place they succeeded
in passing the point whence Walløe had bad to return in 1752, and were now in
unknown territory, but immediately afterward the ice again put a stop to their
progress.
The weeks to follow were one continuous fight against ice, gales, and
snowstorms, and the expedition made very slow headway. Just north of Danell
Fjord they were imprisoned no less than seventeen days. North of Cape Torden–
skjold they came to a camp of fifty east coast natives. At this the pro–
visions were already very short, and the West Greenland crew were beginning to
raise objections to proceeding [: ] farther, for fear of passing the dangerous
Puissortoq glacier. Graah therefore decided to send back one of the boats with
Vahl, Mathiesen, and nearly the whole crew, while he want on alone in the other
boat, with two women from Nanortalik and some east coast Eskimo. It was three
days before they were able to pass puissortoq, and even after that was a o cc omplished
the ice was a constant obstacle. When at last they reached the small Vend-om
Island the pack was impenetrable. Graah could undertake only some short excursions
in the immediate neighborhood, on one of which, on August 8, he reached his

EA-Biog. Birket-Smith: Graah

northernmost point, Dannebrog Island, 65° 15′ 36° N. latitude. The whole
coast he had passed he named Frederik VI Coast after the King.
The ice showed no signs of spreading and autumn gales began to blow. On
August 21, Graah was, therefore, obliged to return to the place he had selected
for his winter quarters, the small island Nugarfik (the present-day Imaersivik)
at about lat. 63° 30′ N., between Bernstorff and Sehested fjords. After con–
stant danger of being crushed by the floes, he arrived there on October 1,
and immediately started preparations for the winter. By arctic standards the
region was fairly well inhabited, and before leaving the place on his outward
journey Graah had requested a native family to build a winter house for his use.
Nothing had been done, however, and, although the soil was already frozen and
covered with snow, Graah now had to arrange his own quarters with the aid of a
single man and two women. The resulting house was a primitive earth lodge,
only about 4 meters long and 2 meters wide, into which he and his companions
had to move when only one-half of the roof was finished.
Still more serious was the food question. Even when the rations were cut
as much as possible, they were hardly sufficient for three and a half months, or little
more than half of the winter. As a rule, the southeast coast of Greenland is a
poor hunting district; land game is not found at all and even seals and bears are
often scarce and difficult to approach. During the first part of the winter
Graah managed to buy some meat from the Eskimos, but when the weather and ice condi–
tions became unfavorable in the beginning of January the entire population, with
the exception of a single family, moved away. Under these circumstances, and after
the physical and mental strain of the preceding summer, it is no wonder that Graah
fell ill. When he was able to work he was occupied with drawing a map of the
region he had explored or studying the Eskimo language, and as soon as the first

EA-Biog. Birket-Smith: Graah

signs of spring appeared in April 1830 he was ready for a fresh start northward.
He left Nugarfik on April 5 but had not even reached Bernstorff Fjord when
he was delayed two weeks by snowstorms, and, although he was then able to resume
his journey, he was constantly troubled by ice and storm. Generally speaking,
there were storms seven days out of ten at this time of the year. When at last
he arrived on the north side of the fjord every possibility of success seemed
to be out of the question; still he would not give up, and during the months of
May and June he made no less than eighteen attempts at penetrating farther north,
but every time in vain, so that he finally had to return to Nugarfik. However,
he immediately resumed his efforts afresh. This time conditions were even worse,
and they had to remain fifteen days on a small rock north of Alikajik, entirely
surrounded by the ice. The glacier close by calved every day, and on one occa–
sion both the tent and the umiak were washed several yards away from their places
by the wave resulting from the activity of the glacier.
In the latter part of July the situation grew really dangerous. Their pro–
visions were entirely exhausted and neither seals nor birds were seen; for some
time they subsisted on dog meat and afterwards had to eat old and dry sealskin.
All plans of proceeding northward had to be [: ] abandoned, and ones again they
started on the return journey, partly walking and carrying the umiak across the
[: ] floes and living on small pieces of whale blubber thrown up by the sharks. At
last they reached open water, where they luckily got a seal, and although they were
still much hampered by ice, and Graah had a fresh attack of illness, they reached
Prince Christian Sound on August 8. About ten days later they were back in Nanor–
talik after an absence of a year and a half. Graah spent the winter in Juliane–
haab; during the following summer he continued his survey of the Julianehaab and
Frederikshaab districts and left for Denmark in August 1831.

EA-Biog. Birket-Smith: Graah

Some time after his return he was appointed a member of the board of direc–
tors of the Royal Greenland and Farosse Trade, in which capacity he again
visited West Greenland in 1836. However, he did not get along well with the
other [: ] director, J. H. Gedde, and retired in 1850. Before that time
he had, in 1837-38, made a cruise to West Indian waters as commander of the
St. Thomas , a brig of the Royal Danish Navy, on which occasion he collected
a considerable amount of cartographical material. He died in Copenhagen on
September 16, 1863.
Graah's greatest feat was beyond doubt the East Greenland expedition. He
was the first explorer to survey a considerable part of the coast south of the
region visited by Scoresby and Clavering. In the description of his journey
he gave an accurate and sober picture both of the stirring events and of the
country. He also provided a valuable sketch of the native population, which in
his day numbered about 600 persons but who, in the subsequent years of the century,
left this part of Greenland to settle in the more favorable districts around
Angmagssalik or west of Cape Farewell. On the basis of his own experience
he described their dwelling places, dress, way of living, and shamanistic
performances; whereas his remarks on their customary law are copied almost ver–
batin from an old paper of Glahn on this subject from West Greenland, and conse–
quently cannot be taken as valid also for East Greenland. In the appendices to
his work he lists his botanical collections and the mammals, birds, and fishes
observed during the expedition [: ] as well as his extensive magnetical observations.
To this is added a paper on the Norse settlements in Greenland. As mentioned be–
fore, the main object of the expedition was to find out whether the Eastern
Settlement had been situated on the east coast or, as Eggers supposed, on the
southernmost part of the west coast. Graah had found no traces of Norse remains,

EA-Biog. Birket-Smith: Graah

nor had be been able to obtain any information about Norse ruins from the
Eskimos of the country. On the basis of his own experience, and with due atten–
tion both to the medieval sources and the discussion of Wormekjold and Eggers,
he arrived at the conclusion — which has, of course, since found ample
corroboration — that the opinion of the latter should be regarded as correct.
In the long period after the Napoleonic wars, when the economy of Denmark
was shattered, and until the exploration of Greenland was resumed by men like
H. Rink and Gustav Holm, Graah's expedition was the most outstanding Danish
contribution to arctic geography.
Kaj Birket-Smith
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