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Henry Williamson Howgate: Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies
Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, 1879-1962

Henry W. Howgate

Henry W. Howgate

HOWGATE, CAPTAIN HENRY W(ILLIAMSON), (1835-1901). "The man whose determined
energy, perseverance and will . . . made the lady Franklin Bay Expedition a more
than possibility - A. W. Greely."
Henry Williamson Howgate was born in Leeds, England, March 24, 1835, and died
in Washington, D.C., June 1, 1901.
When only seven months old, he was brought to the United States by his parents,
who were woolen cloth weavers and who, during Howgate's early boyhood , worked at
their trade in various towns in western New York and the adjacent Canadian Province
of Ontario. In 1846 he removed with his mother to southeastern Michigan where, in
1855, he married Cordelia Day, of Romeo, and pursued his vocations of farmer and
journeyman carpenter until his enlistment in the Union army as second lieutenant
of Company B, Twenty-second Regiment, Michigan Volunteer Infantry, July 30, 1862.
On November 17th of that year, while his regiment, a part of the Army of the Cumber–
land, was encamped at Lexington, Kentucky, Lieutenant Howgate was transferred from
line duty to the Signal Corps, in which branch of the Army he served with distinction
during the remainder of the Civil War, earning commissions as Captain by brevet for
gallant and meritorious service at the battle of Chickamauga, during the investment
of Atlanta, and in the Georgia and South Carolina campaign. Honorably mustered out
of the service of the United States as of June 20, 1866, he reentered the Signal
Corps October 22, 1867, as a Second Lieutenant in the Twentieth U.S. Infantry, and
served thereafter in the Corps continuously until he resigned December 18, 1880.
It was early during this post-war service in the Signal Corps that Captain
Howgate's interest in Arctic exploration was first aroused through meeting Captain
Charles F. Hall while the latter was fitting out the "Polaris" expedition and was
being supplied with signalling equipment by the Corps, an interest which Captain
Howgate himself relates was definitely deepened when he later served on a commission
appointed by the President of the United States to examine survivors of the expedition
as to the circumstances of Hall's death in the Arctic.
Accepting in general the theory of a supposed open sea extending poleward at
times from the northern reaches of Robeson Channel, and convinced that it was entirely feasible to establish and maintain in the vicinity of Lady Franklin Bay a
small colony of seasoned explorers fully equipped and ready to take prompt advantage
of any occasion when the ice barrier to the Pole was broken up by favorable winds
and temperatures, Captain Howgate, in December, 1876, launched a vigorous and sus–
tained campaign to secure Congressional approval and financial support of his colo–
nization plan, under which he firmly believed that within three years "the geography
of the Polar Circle would be definitely settled, and that without loss of life."
Howgate opened his campaign with a letter to the New York Times briefly out–
lining the colonization plan, and when this elicited wide-spread favorable comment
drafted "A Bill to authorize and equip an expedition to the Arctic Seas" which was
introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives on January 8, 1877, and referred to
its Naval Committee. This bill empowered the President to expend $50,000 in organ–
izing and sending out one or more expeditions toward the North Pole, to establish a
temporary colony, for purposes of exploration, at some point near the shore of Lady
Franklin Bay, to detail the necessary officers or other persons of the public ser–
vice, and to use any public vessel suitable for the purpose. A similar bill was
introduced in the Senate the following day and referred to the Naval Committee of
that body. Although Howgate, by developing a veritable flood of favorable comment,
succeeded in having the House bill reported out of committee, final consideration
and enactment of the measure failed because the Congress, expiring on March 4, was
busy during its last days with departmental appropriation bills and other more
urgent matters.
In anticipation of favorable legislative action by the next Congress, Howgate
experienced little difficulty in financing, by popular subscription, a preliminary
expedition to the Arctic for the purpose of collecting such supplies during the
ensuing winter as might be of use to the main expedition in 1878, if authorized.
The "Florence," a fifty-six ton schooner, was purchased, and after being strengthened
for ice navigation, sailed from New London, Connecticut on August 3, 1877, under the
command of George E. Tyson, who had been with Hall on the "Polaris." A crew of ten, and two scientists, one of them a meteorologist and photographer, the other a
representative of the Smithsonian Institution, comprised the ship's company.
After an absence of fifteen months, the "Florence" returned to its home port,
having accumulated clothing, purchased dogs, and arranged for the services of a
sufficient number of natives for the proposed station at Lady Franklin Bay, in
accordance with instructions.
Shortly after the next Congress convened in December, 1877, the original
polar colonization bill was re-introduced in both Houses, and on January 22, 1878,
the chairman of the House naval committee again submitted to the House his original
elaborate report recommending passage of the bill. A few weeks later the naval
committee of the Senate, using the same report, also recommended passage. But
again the legislation failed of enactment; when a final effort was made on June 18,
1878, to secure its passage by the House under suspension of the rules, the required
two-thirds majority was not obtained, and the measure was lost for the session.
Howgate was bitterly disappointed at this second failure, which he regarded as due
in large part to the reluctance of many congressmen to appropriate public funds for
polar ventures until the result of the "Jeannette" Expedition, largely financed
privately by James Gordon Bennett II, was known. But resolved to continue the
struggle, Howgate improved the interval between sessions of the Congress by writing
articles for various periodicals, by keeping up a continuous fire through the columns
of the daily press, by soliciting the influence of business men, and by urging
scientists to further the project in every possible way.
At the opening of the Congress in December, 1878, the Arctic bill was again
introduced in both Houses, but no further action was taken during the session.
However, Howgate continued to devote all the time that could be spared from his
official duties to the work of developing and perfecting plans for the expedition
he felt sure would be eventually authorized and sent out. The question of the
availability of balloons for use at the colony engrossed much of his time during
the summer of 1879.
Determined finally on having his plan of exploration tested without further delay, Howgate decided to follow the example set by Bennett and offer to Congress
the use of a vessel large enough for the transportation of a party and its supplies,
with the thought that this would remove Congressional objection to the direct
appropriation of money and would induce Congress to authorize the use of men in
either the naval or military service, and of their equipment from the public stores.
Through the assistance of Dr. John Rae a vessel believed to be suitable for the
purpose was found in Scotland. When this vessel, the "Gulnare," of approximately
200 tons, reached Washington and was placed in the hands of workmen to be strengthened
for ice navigation, legislation was introduced in Congress authorizing the President
to establish a temporary station on or near the shore of Lady Franklin Bay for the
purposes of scientific observation and exploration, to detail such officers or other
persons not exceeding fifty necessary for this purpose, and to accept from Howgate
the use of the "Gulnare" in the proposed colonization plan. This legislation became
law on May 1, 1880. The "Gulnare" left Washington June 21, 1880, but from the
beginning to the end her e career was unfortunate. "After her return from the
disastrous Greenland voyage," Howgate writes, "it looked as if all hopes for the
future prosecution of the enterprise would of necessity be abandoned, although a
good part of the necessary equipment and supplies, together with two members of the
party, Mr. Henry Clay and Doctor Octave Pavy, had been left in Greenland with a view
to the continuance of the effort."
Fortunately for the cause of Arctic exploration, the Secretary of War, when
preparing his estimates for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 1881, informed Howgate
that if he would submit an estimate for Arctic work in prosecution of the colonization
scheme, it would be included with the balance of the departmental estimates and sub–
mitted to Congress with his approval. In accordance with this suggestion, the item
which provided the funds for the Greely Expedition was prepared by Howgate in the fol–
lowing language and was eventually enacted as drawn:
"Observation and Exploration in the Arctic Seas. For continuing the work of
scientific observation and exploration on or near the shores of Lady Franklin Bay,
and for transportation of men and supplies to said location and return, twenty-five
thousand dollars."
Thus at long last was Howgate's dream of polar colonization in a measure realized
through the Greely Expedition to Lady Franklin Bay. That this expedition ended in
sad catastrophe at Cape Sabine was in no degree due to any defect in the original
plans, for the development of which during several years Captain Howgate deserves
major credit. As pointed out by Greely himself in a report to Congress upon the
question of retiring certain of the surviving enlisted men of the expedition:
"It may not be inappropriate to state that the American expedition to Lady
Franklin Bay was the most successful in the record of Arctic expeditions, during the
years 1881 to 1883, in which years it made an unbroken se [: t ] of scientific observations,
for which the expedition was planned and sent forth; that it also made the most north–
ern latitude ever (to that time) attained by man; that it determined the physical
character of Grinnell Land, probably the most remarkable spot within the Arctic Circle;
and that all its labors, whether in the field of science or doscovery, were made
without injury or loss of any member of the expedition, nor did any officer or man
sustain any injuries impairing his physical condition.
"Moreover the party made an Arctic boat retreat for 500 miles southward to meet
the promised relief and landed at Cape Sabine with every man of the original party in
health, with its scientific records, diaries, and all the important instruments intact;
and the sufferings and deaths resulted from the failure of the co-operating expedi–
tions."
All honor and unstinted praise must be accorded Greely for these accomplishments;
but let it not be forgotten that it was primarily through the "determined energy,
perseverance and will" of Captain Henry Williamson Howgate that the Greely Expedition
to Lady Franklin Bay became a reality.
References and Bibliography .

(1)"Polar Colonization - A Memorial to the 45th Congress." 143 pp. (Howgate)

(2) "Congress and the North Pole - An Abstract of Arctic Legislation in the
Congress of the United States." 43 p.p. (Howgate) (Reprint from Kansas City Review
of Science and Industry, 1879.)

(3) "Some of the Practical Advantages of Polar Exploration," being comments by
Prof. Joseph Henry, Professor Loomis, Prof. M. F. Maury, Admiral Osborne, and Sir John
Barrow. 6 pp.

(4) "Notes on Polar Exploration." 4 pp. Collated by Howgate.

(5) "The Cruise of the Florence." North American Review, 1878.

(6) "The Scientific Work of the Howgate Expedition. 10 pp. Orray Taft Sherman.

(7) "Polar Colonization and the Preliminary Arctic Expedition of 1877-78." (How–
gate in The United Service for January, 1879.) 13 pp.

(8) "Arctic Exploration and the Northwest Passage." (Howgate in The United Service
for April, 1879.) 17 pp.

(9) "The Cruise of the Florence, or Extracts from the Journal of the Preliminary
Arctic Expedition of 1877-78." (Edited by Howgate; published 1879, Chapman.) 183 pp.

(10) "The Genesis of an Arctic Expedition, a Narrative of the Preliminary Work of

the American Arctic Expedition of 1881." Mss. 171 pp. (Howgate)

(11) "The Genesis of the Greely Expedition." Mss. 14 pp. (Howgate)

(12) "Story of the Gulnare." Mss. 288 pp. (Howgate)

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