Exploration Mysteries: Searching for the Bones of Jens Munk’s Crew

archival illustration of Churchill Harbour
Jens Munk's map of Churchill Harbour in 1624, after his return.

With a bonanza of polar bears readily available for touristic photo shoots, Churchill, Manitoba, has been called “The Polar Bear Capital of the World”. A Danish explorer named Jens Munk once ended up near this present-day tourist mecca not because he wanted to gawk at polar bears, but because he was looking for the Northwest Passage. His two ships, the frigate Unicorn and the sloop Lamprey, were forced into an estuary of the Churchill River due to the notoriously unpredictable weather in Hudson Bay.

Just after Monk’s arrival in September 1619, the northern winter began its siege.   Monk’s crew started dying one by one, and by spring of the next year, only Munk himself seemed to be alive. He was expecting, perhaps even looking forward to his own death when two of his crewmen who’d earlier gone ashore returned to the boat and helped him off the Unicorn, then fed him some of the previous year’s berries and plant roots. His health returned, and the three men sailed back to Denmark.

Caused by a Vitamin C deficiency, scurvy was probably the expedition’s main culprit.   For Munk’s men had no access to Vitamin C during their overwintering. In other words, they had no fresh meat (note: raw meat is better than cooked meat as an anti-scorbutic), no greens, and no fruit. They might have had medication for their bleeding gums, loose teeth, swollen eyes, and painful joints, but the ship’s doctor couldn’t read the Latin names in his medical kit.

The 63 bodies were either put into unmarked graves near the shore or simply rolled off the ships. A hundred years later, James Knight, who was setting up a Hudson Bay Company post at this site, found numerous “sculls and bones of men” at the Munk overwintering site. He also noted that “a great many of the graves be under some part of our building.”

Jens Munk’s route to Churchill. Photo: Wikipedia

Lest you think that Knight was inconsiderate of the Danish dead, the only place in the vicinity flat enough for a building was where the graves had been dug.

On a visit to Churchill, I decided to investigate the Munk overwintering site, so I went across the river with a local guide named Kelsey Eliasson. We put the boat ashore in a small cove and immediately noticed quite a bit of scurvy grass (Cochlearia offinalis), a plant that’s very high in Vitamin C — higher, in fact, than oranges or lemons. Since Roman times, it had been eaten or used a tea to fight off scurvy. Apparently, Munk and his men were unaware of this fact.

Now we walked uphill a hundred or so feet because, rather than being on the shore, the site of Munk’s overwintering would now be inland due to glacial rebound — i.e., the perpetual rise of land in the Hudson Bay area. We searched for a piece of cutlery, a candlestick, a clay pipe, or perhaps a stray Danish bone. Meanwhile, Kelsey kept his rifle at the ready in case a polar bear showed up and decided that, in the absence of a seal, one of us might be a decent edible.

Kelsey Eliasson. Photo: Lawrence Millman

Soon we found ourselves mired in a dense forest…a dense forest of willows two to three feet high. Since we had climbed up a modest slope, we were probably above the burial site, so we began climbing down the slope at a different spot than where we’d climbed up.

And then we found…berries. Crowberries, bilberries, gooseberries, and salmonberries. Berries galore.

Right away Munk’s overwintering became history in our thoughts, and we transformed ourselves into hunter-gatherers. Or I should say our hunter-gorgers, since we were now popping huge amounts of berries into our mouths.

I especially looked for cloudberries (Rubus chamaemorus), whose name (note: the other names are bakeapple and salmonberry) suggests that it possesses a bland, wispy flavor. Quite the contrary. With leaves very similar to the leaves of a maple, these bunched amber-colored berries in the Rose family carry a hint of sumptuous decay that suggests a fermented, red-blooded cherry.

Kelsey introduced me to eating the bright pink flowers of fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolium), the first plant that usually colonizes eroded or waste areas in these parts. Chewing them will ease the discomfort of a sore throat, he told me. Since I didn’t have a sore throat, I returned to my cloudberry gorging.

In the end, we didn’t find a single Munk artifact or even a sliver of a 17th-century Danish bone. No matter. It’s the journey rather than the destination that matters…especially if that journey includes cloudberries.

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About the Author

lawrence millman

Lawrence Millman is a man who wears a variety of hats. As an explorer, he has journeyed to the Arctic 35 times, but not once to Rome; as a mycologist, he has a fungal species named after him (Inonotus millmanii); and as a former prisoner of war in academia, he has taught at Harvard, the University of New Hampshire, and — best of all — the University of Iceland.

His 18 books include such titles as Last Places, Our Like Will Not Be There Again, Lost in the Arctic, A Kayak Full of Ghosts, Northern Latitudes, Hiking to Siberia, At the End of the World, and Fungipedia. Bruce Chatwin called him “the master of the remote,” and environmentalist Paul Kingsnorth describes him as “a true original who takes no prisoners.

He keeps a post office in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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Mikael Funch
Mikael Funch
4 months ago

Great story, thanks for sharing. The danish explorer, Munk (aka Monk) was one of many norwegian-danish (at that time one united country) seafarers reaching far out in the arctic (Vitus Bering 1681-1741, and later Freuchen, Wandel, Knud Rasmussen). Jens Munk’s life was hard and unfair, but he wrote himself into polar history. After spending the winter in Churchill, he sailed back to Norway with two men, where Jens Munk was thrown into prison by the lord of Bergen for wasting the king’s ships and men. The king later released him and nurtured hopes of a new expedition, but Jens Munk… Read more »

Last edited 4 months ago by Mikael Funch
lawrence millman
L. Millman
2 months ago
Reply to  Mikael Funch

First he was thrown into prison in Norway because a captain was supposed to be responsible for his crew, and his two surviving crewman got pugilistically drunk shortly after they set foot on Norwegian shores.

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