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ARCTIC INDIAN MITTENS – COLLECTED 1866 – 1882 BY CAPT. BENJAMIN FRANKLIN REYNOLDS, USN – WELL KNOWN 19TH CENTURY ENGINEER, EXPLORER, & NAVIGATOR – PARTICIPANT IN THE CONSTRUCTION OF THE USS MONITOR:  This pair of 19TH Century Arctic Indian Mittens was originally collected by Captain Benjamin Franklin Reynolds, US Navy, during one of his expeditions into the Arctic Seas.  Often overshadowed by the post-Civil War western expansion onto American Frontier, the last half of the 19TH Century was also an era of notable explorations into the yet uncharted and unknown regions of the earth – the Arctic being one of the primary focal points of these efforts. 

Purchased at a 1983 sale of the property from “John Brown’s Cave”, a small private museum in Nebraska City, Nebraska – probably the least likely place one would expect to find an Arctic Expedition relic – the acquisition of these mittens prompted me to research the fascinating life and accomplishments of Captain Reynolds. 

Captain Benjamin Franklin Reynolds, a well known engineer, explorer and navigator – who was commonly known and entered into official records as “Frank” - was born in Mansfield, Connecticut on January 29, 1833.  Reynolds had 11 siblings, many of whom were involved in engineering, and in 1859 an older brother, George H., became the chief draughtsman at the Delamater Iron Works of Brooklyn, New York, where John Ericsson would soon begin construction of the famous U.S.S. Monitor.  George Reynolds, known as one of the nation’s preeminent mechanical engineers, was a friend of John Ericsson and in fact, it was George Reynolds who invented, and built the engine that powered the Monitor.  

The 1860 Census for Brooklyn, New York listed George Reynolds as the head of household and recorded his brother “Frank” as residing in the same household, listing Frank’s occupation as engineer.  In an October 15, 1899 edition of the Omaha World Herald newspaper, Frank Reynolds stated he assisted in the construction of the Monitor.  Given that he was living with his brother at the time and he was an engineer, it is quite certain that Frank was given a job at the Delamater Iron Works by his brother, and that Frank was assigned to work on the Monitor during its construction in 1862.   

In the same 1899 article, Frank Reynolds also reported that he served on the crew that sailed the Monitor from the shipyards in New York down the coast to Fortress Monroe, Hampton Roads, Virginia, where the Monitor was joined by her permanent crew.  

Reynolds subsequently joined the US Navy, serving for the duration of the Civil War aboard the ironclads “Dawn” and “Roanoke” and attaining the rank of Captain.  In 1866 Reynolds departed New York on his first Arctic expedition, a whaling venture that was also charged with attempting to locate the ill-fated Sir John Franklin Expedition and in the course of that voyage some relics of the Franklin party were recovered.  The 1845 Franklin Expedition had disappeared into the Arctic and by 1850 the general opinion held that the crew had succumbed.  During the 1850’s through the 1880’s several expeditions were launched to search for survivors without result, and in 1880 a US Army expedition was sent to find the expedition records.  In 1872, Reynolds joined an expedition to the South Pole and the seas surrounding Antarctica in the employ of the United States Fur Company.  

Reynolds made his second expedition to the Arctic-North Polar region in 1881.  He probably acquired this pair of mittens during this second expedition - the date used on the museum display card described below being in error. The second expedition resulted in Reynolds’ ship being caught in an ice floe and destroyed, and Reynolds and the crew had to take refuge at the government station at Point Barrow (Alaska).  Having lost most of their personal possessions with the ship, Reynolds related the men were outfitted in native clothing, and I suspect this is where these mittens originated.  Being a keepsake of that rescue, the mittens would have been special to Reynolds and it makes sense that he would have retained them in his personal lifelong collection of artifacts.   

Reynolds’ collection was described in some detail in a news article printed in the Omaha World Herald, July 8, 1894 and from the description of the contents of the collection, Reynolds maintained many artifacts he collected on these earlier expeditions, to include pieces of native equipment and clothing.    

Having retired from the sea after this last ill fated voyage, Reynolds returned to engineering work and in 1885 he took employment as the chief engineer at the Florence Water Works being constructed near Omaha, Nebraska.  Reynolds remained in that post until his death in 1905 at the age of 72.  Reynolds’ residence in Nebraska until his death explains how this pair of mittens came to rest in a museum so far from any seafaring center. 

These adult sized mittens, measuring 10 ˝” long and 5” wide, are made of what appears to be native tanned hide – most likely seal or walrus.  The leather is stiff with age as is to be expected, but they are in excellent condition.  The mittens retain their full form with no loss of leather surface, all the welted and finely sewn seams are intact, and each mitten is fitted with a fabric liner. 

Acquired with the mittens at the time of the museum sale, is a hand lettered display card bearing “ALASKA INDIAN’S FISHING MITTENS PRESENTED BY PROF. DAWSON COLLINS” within a blue and gold decorative border.  On the opposite side of the card, written lightly in pencil in period script is the inscription, “Brought by Capt. Reynolds of the Omaha Water Works at Florence, Neb when in command of the Government Expedition to the Artic Sea in 1859-60.”  I was not able to identify Prof. Dawson Collins, but it is apparent that Dawson obtained the mittens from Reynolds and subsequently donated the mittens to the John Brown Cave Museum.  The pencil inscription is legible to the naked eye, but due to the tone of the back of the card, and the minimal contrast with the pencil lead, this inscription was very difficult to photograph as can be seen below.  The inscription does read as it is recorded above in this paragraph. 

Provided with the mittens to the new owner is a considerable amount of research which fills a 1” thick binder that includes: US Census records which reflect the residences of Benjamin F. Reynolds; photocopies of period news articles about the Reynolds’ family, Capt. Benjamin F. Reynolds, and the USS Monitor; an original printing of the Connecticut Magazine article “In Unknown Southern Seas – Being the story told by Captain Frank Reynolds who sailed from New London, Conn. …in 1872”; a copy of Reynolds’ death certificate, his obituary, and funeral service records, and a photograph of his tombstone. 

Artifacts identified to any of the early Arctic Explorers are by their very nature, and the environment in which they were used, very rare items in today’s collectors market.  This pair of mittens not only has survived the passage of time in excellent condition, but is identified to a respected explorer who also is associated with the construction of the U.S.S. Monitor.  This is a very long description, however an understanding of the full depth of Reynolds’ accomplishments and historical associations is necessary in order to appreciate the significance of these relics. These mittens will be a notable addition to any nautical or explorer related collection.  $450  

Historical Note of Interest:  The U.S.S. Monitor was the first warship to have flush toilets.


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