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Heroism and heartbreak

The Jeannette Expedition of 1881, a mission doomed to failure, was undermined by hubris and overcome by catastrophe.

On a high overlook at the historic U.S. Naval Academy cemetery is a large and mysterious pyramidal mound of granite surmounted by a 12-foot-high cross of white marble, strangely draped in sculpted cascades resembling ice. A bronze anchor lies atop a plaque that reads: “Commemorative of the heroic officers and men of the United States Navy who perished in the Jeannette Arctic Exploring Expedition, 1881.”

The Jeannette's sinking was dramatically portrayed by the popular French artist George Louis Poilleux.

The unusual design of this haunting 1890 Victorian memorial evokes an Arctic cairn erected in Siberia in 1882 to mark a tomb for 10 of those Navy men. Two of their shipmates in a search party of natives had discovered their frozen corpses after a long, arduous search in a desolate wasteland called the Lena River Delta. They wrapped their fallen comrades in tent canvas and laid them in a massive box, cobbled together from the remains of an abandoned workboat. A sepulcher was created on a flat spot of a small mountain, where hundreds of rocks pried from the permafrost were piled up into a pyramidal shape to cover and protect the makeshift coffin. A cross, 20 feet high and fashioned of driftwood timbers, was secured at the top. (The Arctic cairn is still there, cared for by local residents.)

A heartbreaking bestselling book, In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette, (Doubleday, 2014) by historian/writer Hampton Sides, is the latest of many accounts published over the decades about this well-documented 1879-81 expedition. The mission, doomed to failure, was undermined by hubris and overcome by catastrophe, ending in savage deaths for 20 of the 33 crewmembers.

Besides the academy’s elegiac Jeannette Monument, other tangible mementos of the ill-fated expedition are on exhibit at the Naval Academy Museum in Annapolis, Maryland. Amazingly, the extremely fragile “ice journal” of expedition leader Lt. Cmdr. George W. De Long survived and is on display in an exhibit case, along with other touching, related artifacts. The weathered journal was found during a ghastly drama when a crew leader stumbled upon the almost hidden place of mass death. The grim site was revealed by the shocking discovery of De Long’s fully raised, gloveless left arm protruding from the snow — frozen in place for five months, almost as a kind of signpost, saying, “dig here.” The small leather-bound journal, containing the tight pencil scribbles of De Long’s tragic last entries, was by his side. His stark, final sentence dated Oct. 30, 1881, reads: “Mr. Collins dying.” There was not enough effort left in him to write more, as the brave master and commander lay dying of starvation in company with his comrades — too weak to retrieve driftwood to keep their campfire from dissolving into dusty embers.

De Long’s widow, Emma, soon became the voice of the expedition. She published the 237-page The Voyage of the Jeannette: The Ship and Ice Journals of George W. De Long, Volume II (Houghton Mifflin/1883) and willed some of her husband’s personal expedition effects to the academy, from which he had graduated. Sides delves into this ice journal in his 454-page book, which documents the epic tale from its ambitious beginnings to its tragic conclusion.

Sides’ harrowing, thoroughly researched account with new insights into “The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette” depicts it as a foolhardy exploratory adventure that relied on terribly flawed theories. The final chapters left me in tears, and I dare not relate further details of the devastating ending out of courtesy to those who will want to read it themselves. This was an icy nightmarish hell of madness, amputations, frostbite, snow blindness, convulsions, dysentery, lead poisoning, starvation, fearful suffering, men lost at sea, and unimaginable heroics and daring — and with no evidence of cannibalism. At the end, De Long’s group resorted to eating the leather of their own boots after devouring their last surviving sled dog, Snoozer, De Long’s favorite.

There is a cast of many notable characters, including the wealthy and eccentric James Gordon Bennett Jr., publisher of the New York Herald, who financed the entire expedition — mostly to gain rights to a “good story” for his paper. Bennett found the right expedition leader in De Long, an ambitious young veteran of polar exploration who yearned to return to the ice and find fame in discovering the fabled North Pole.

Author Hampton Sides on Wrangel Island, off the Lena River Delta of Siberia, Russia. The photos and iollustrations featured in this article are courtesy of Doubleday Books.

Bennett purchased Pandora, a 146-foot, three-masted ship with auxiliary steam power that had previously survived the crush of Arctic ice, and renamed her Jeannette. De Long had found the ship in England on the Isle of Wight and, with a small crew and his wife aboard, departed from Le Havre and sailed the vessel around Cape Horn to San Francisco. The 18,000-mile non-stop voyage lasted 166 days. The Jeannette performed well and arrived in port with a single bucketful of coal left in her bunker. There the ship was further reinforced for the eventual battle she would lose to the ice. (Bennett probably contributed to the eventual disaster when he dispatched De Long on a wild goose chase for another Artic explorer, which effectively cost the voyage much time and caused the crew to leave too late in the Arctic exploration season.)This much publicized attempt to discover the North Pole by sea was based on some curious fables, among which was a belief that the top of the world was an open polar sea of calm water surrounded by a girdle of ice. The Jeannette set out with great fanfare from San Francisco in July 1879, but her grand voyage of discovery was over within two months when she was beset in pack ice and locked in moving floes of the Arctic Ocean for almost two years.

Aboard the comparatively cozy, well-provisioned ship, 33 men lived in relative comfort until the ship was crushed by ice in June 1881 and sank. Just prior to the sinking, De Long noted a promising sign when the “ice suddenly opened alongside, and the ship righted to an even keel. … There being many large spaces of water near us, and the ice having a generally broken-up appearance, it was concluded to ship the rudder, to be ready for an emergency awaiting the moving of the ship … and everything cleared away in the wake of the booms and yards for making sail.”

But within two days the ice returned “in great force,” closing in to snap and crack the sides of the ship and its ceiling. Fearing the vessel “seriously endangered,” the captain ordered his men to haul away the boats to the ice floe as the ship began breaking in two and cracking in every part. The starboard side, broken in and heeled 30 degrees, was submerged and the “ship was settling fast.” At 1 a.m. on June 13, “the mizzen mast went by the board, and the ship was so far heeled over that the lower yard arms were resting on the ice.” At 4 a.m., the Jeannette went down, but not before once again eerily righting herself to an even keel. “The maintop-mast fell by the board to starboard, then the foretop-mast and finally the main mast. … The foremast was all that was standing.” Her position was recorded as latitude 77° 14’ 57’’ N, longitude 154° 58’ 45” E.

The USS Jeannette, then known as the Pandora, photographed in Greenland in the mid-1870s.

They had prepared for such a disaster and took to the ice with 26 sled dogs, three sleds to transport three small sailboats, tons of supplies from the ship and 60 days of provisions. All provisions had been unloaded well before the abandon-ship order, but even so, many valuable photographs and much equipment had to be left behind.

The cruel irony of the hardship they would endure, traveling over and around boulders of growling ice and small icebergs, was that they believed they were struggling south toward Siberia, many hundreds of miles away, when the floes were often taking them northward on a moving carpet of ice. “Everybody seems bright and cheerful, with plenty to eat and plenty of clothes. … Just now we are living royally on good things, and not working very hard, and we are all in glorious health,” De Long noted strangely but confidently of their first days of being marooned castaways on the ice. In the early days of the ordeal, the men even sang old ballads while trudging onward. It was warm in daylight, and they had to guard against sunburn. They tramped along, harnessed as pack mules, pulling by night and sleeping during the day.

Those times did not last long, however, and the shipwrecked mariners soon entered into a long, exhausting struggle for survival as they searched for open seas in which to launch their boats and seek native settlements. “Open water was still nowhere in sight,” writes Sides. “These moving mazes of mush and rubble seemed to stretch out forever, with no landmarks to aim for, no fixed destination on the horizon to give purpose to their toil. The central coast of Siberia was still more than 500 miles away. And De Long knew time was running out; the short Arctic summer would soon expire, and they would be trapped on the winter ice.” The two cutters and one whaleboat, which they so laboriously dragged on sleds in the hope they might carry them to safety, would, of course, not be serviceable in a frozen sea.

A map by Silas Bent illustrates the popular idea of an open polar sea girdled by ice.

After weeks of severe conditions on the ice, on July 13 they experienced a profound turn of events when they confirmed that what they had at first thought to be a mirage was an actual landmass and that could mean game and food, fresh water, driftwood for fires, shelter in trappers’ huts and even rescue. They shot and ate a seal, then bagged a 1,500-pound bull walrus. On July 24 their larder grew richer when they felled a 500-pound polar bear. The men’s spirits soared, and they began singing again. Even their ice floe was moving in the right direction. Most incongruous of all was coming across a butterfly. They landed on this uncharted island’s rocky shore on July 29 but were promptly greeted by an ominous, colossal rock avalanche. De Long took possession of the landmass “in the name of the President of the United States” and named it Bennett Island. Although there was much game available, they knew that remaining there would mean certain death.

They mended their broken and abused boats in preparation to set sail. They also culled their sled dogs, executing 11 of 23 because room on the small vessels was extremely limited. Some dogs escaped from their harnesses and vanished into nothingness. “But as our boats are so heavily loaded that the slightest motion causes the water to wash in through the oarlocks, carrying dogs becomes a risk,” wrote De Long. “Perhaps the most sensible thing would have been to shoot them all, but with the island so near, I thought if they escaped from us they might get back and perchance live. So that chance for life was given them.”

On Aug. 6, 55 days after being shipwrecked, they finally launched the boats. De Long’s clinker-built 20-foot cutter carried 14 men; Lt. Charles W. Chipp’s slow 16-foot cutter had nine; and engineer George Melville’s swift 24-foot, double-ended whaleboat held 10.

They “probed and threaded among these icy labyrinths, sometimes rowing their three boats, sometimes towing them, from cake to melting cake,” writes Sides. Winter was clearly setting in, and there was no time to waste. The dangerously overcrowded boats were leaking — being swamped and bailing were constants. Occasionally trapped on ice floes, they were moving in a good direction and, better yet, heading toward another island in the New Siberian archipelago named on De Long’s chart as Faddeyevsky. By the end of August they were standing upon its shores. There were deer and fresh water, and they found an abandoned trapper’s hut, one of several they would use for shelter and rest during their tortured trek. But they camped there for just one night because they had to keep moving before winter set in.

By Sept. 10, after stopping at several more small islands, they were about to plunge into an open sea in their dash to the Siberian mainland and into the puzzling labyrinth of the vast Lena River Delta, some 80 miles distant. The three boats were battered and nearly capsized in a full-on gale with mountainous seas. They soon became separated, and Chipp’s boat disappeared with all hands and was never seen again. “Turning to scour the seas ahead, De Long saw nothing of Melville,” writes Sides. “He, too, had vanished. It was hard to make out anything through the foam and spray and sleet. As darkness fell over the Laptev Sea and the storm howled on, De Long and his crew of 13 knew they were on their own.” After their sail was blown out and the mast knocked down, they found themselves on Sept. 16 bogged down and trapped in hidden sandbars of silt 3 miles out from the Delta.

At this point De Long decided to abandon his vessel and start walking with whatever they could carry, which included the precious folio-sized ship’s logbooks, all of which were saved. Sides writes: “Their odyssey had ended one phase and was now beginning an entirely new one. Whatever obstacles might lie ahead, salt water and ocean ice packs would not be among them. Their metamorphosis was complete. Having been creatures of the ice, then of the sea, they were now creatures of the land.”

The Jeannette's abandonment depicted by maritime painter James Gale Tyler

Without revealing any more of the ending of this story, these grim excerpts from the final pages of De Long’s ice journal paint the picture of the men’s despair.

• Sept. 19, 1881: After trying for two days to get inshore without grounding, or to reach one of the river mouths, I abandoned my boat, and we waded one and a half miles ashore, carrying our provisions and outfit with us. We must now try with God’s help to walk to a settlement, the nearest of which I believe to be 95 miles distant. We are all well, have four days provisions, arms and ammunition, and are carrying with us only ship’s books and papers, with blankets, tents, and some medicine; therefore, our chances of getting through seem good.

• Sept. 20: Every one of us seems to have lost all feeling in his toes, and some of us even half way up the feet. That terrible week in the boat has done us a great injury.

• Sept. 21: We have three lame men who cannot make more than five or six miles a day; of course I cannot leave them, and they certainly cannot keep up with the pace necessary.

• Sept. 30: Ericksen is no better, and it is a foregone conclusion that he must lose four of his toes of his right foot and one of his left foot. The doctor commenced slicing away the flesh after breakfast. … May God pity us. … Now, of course, the man must be dragged for walking is out of the question.

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• Oct. 4: And now for supper! Nothing remained but the dog [Snoozer]. I therefore ordered him killed and dressed. … Eriksen soon became delirious, and his talking was a horrible accompaniment to the wretchedness of our surroundings. … Nearly everyone seemed dazed and stupefied, and I feared that some of us would perish during the night.

• Oct. 6: At 8:45 a.m. our messmate Ericksen departed this life. … What in God’s name is going to become of us, 14 pounds dog meat left, and 25 miles to a frozen settlement?

• Oct. 7: I trust in God, and I believe that He who has fed us thus far will not suffer us to die of want now.

• Oct. 9: Sent Nindemann and Noros ahead for relief. We are following Nindemann’s track though he is long since out of sight.

• Oct. 10: Eat deerskin scraps. Yesterday morning ate my deerskin foot-nips. … Nothing for supper except a spoonful of glycerine. All hands weak and feeble, but cheerful. God help us.

• Oct. 13: We are in the hands of God, and unless He intervenes we are lost. We cannot move against the wind, and staying here means starvation.

• Oct. 15: Breakfast, willow tea and two old boots. … Alexey breaks down, also Lee.

Unknown to De Long, natives had rescued Melville’s party, and he almost immediately began organizing a search for the other missing crews. After locating the frozen bodies of De Long’s crew, they set off on an exhausting but fruitless search for Chipp and his men until the fierce winter forced them to give up and turn back.

Emma De Long died in 1940 at the age of 91 and is buried next to her husband at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York. She knew her letters might not reach her husband, and she made a copy of each one for her own journal. Sides gained access to them and included a few in his book.

After reading that Melville’s party had survived, Emma De Long at first was hopeful that her husband might still be found alive, but in her final, agonizing letter, she wrote: All this will be forgotten when we meet again; it will seem only as a bad dream — a fearful nightmare that has been successfully passed through. However dangerous your surroundings are at present I can still trust God and hope a little longer. I often dream of you and you seem all right, only sad and not as strong as you used to be. O darling! I cannot show you my love, my sympathy, my sorrow for your great sufferings. I pray to God constantly. My own darling husband, struggle, fight, live, come back to me!

See related article:

- A forgotten monument

January 2015 issue