August Sonntag's birth date is unknown. In 1848, he was a youthful aide at the observatory of Altoona in the then Duchy of Holstein. From 1848 until about 1853 he continued working at that observatory, publishing in both the Astronomische Nachrichten and the Astronomical Journal.
In late 1852 or early 1853, Sonntag emigrated to America. He volunteered for the post of astronomer on the Arctic expedition being organized by Dr. Elisha Kent Kane of Philadelphia. The expedition sailed from New York on May 31, 1853. The brig Advance sailed northward along the coast of Greenland looking for an open polar sea. On September 10th it was frozen in for the winter in Rensselaer Harbor, about 150 miles north of the present Thule air base.
Within days of arrival, a tiny observatory was set up near the imprisoned ship. Sonntag had four chronometers, a theodolite, a transit instrument, and equipment for measuring the earth's magnetic field. This was Sonntag's headquarters for nearly two years. Among other observations, he determined his longitude by timing the culminations of the Moon. Several occultations of Saturn and Mars by the Moon were timed in 1853-1854, as well as a partial eclipse of the Sun.
August 1854 found the Advance still trapped in the ice and after enduring a second winter of extreme hardship, the expedition set out on a desperate escape journey by sled and open boat to Upernavik, nearly 600 miles to the south. The expedition reached Upernavik on August 6th and was picked up by two U.S. Navy relief ships five weeks later. Later in 1856, Sonntag went to Mexico with the scientific expedition of Baron Muller and climbed 17,887-foot Mount Popocatepetl.
In 1857, a book was published about his Arctic adventures entitled Professor Sonntag's thrilling narrative of the Grinnell exploring expedition to the Arctic Ocean, in the years 1853, 1854, and 1855, in search of Sir John Franklin, under the command of Dr. E.K. Kane. This "literary imposture, its authorship repudiated by Sonntag, and its authenticity rejected by other members of the expedition ... this work is said ... to have been prepared by Charles C. Rhodes from a brief ms. article on the expedition purchased by Rhodes from Mrs. Sonntag, during Sonntag's absence in Mexico."--Arctic Bibliography 14449. Day, Search for the Northwest Passage, 43 82.
In 1859, Sonntag became Assistant Director at Dudley Observatory under the acting directorship Franz Brunnow. In 1860, both astronomers left Dudley, Brunnow to become professor of astronomy at the University of Michigan and Sonntag to go on another Arctic expedition, with Isaac Hayes in the schooner United States.
Hayes' aim was to retrace Kane's track along the west coast of Greenland in search of the mythical open polar sea. In the course of this effort, in January, 1861, Sonntag and an Eskimo companion were traveling over the ice near Cape York when the astronomer fell into the water and died soon after of cold and exposure.
Adapted from Joseph Ashbrook, The Astronomical Scrapbook: Skywatchers, Pioneers, and Seekers in Astronomy, Sky Publishing Co, Cambridge, Mass. 1984.
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