Postal History Gallery of Related Events
Charles Francis Hall gave portions of his flag to friends as a memento of his "farthest northing" of 82° 16' North.
His sudden death in 1872 ended all work. Ice damage to the ship led to an emergency base being set up on an iceberg, but the POLARIS broke free, stranding half the crew on the ice. Near the end of the season, both parties were rescued safely.
They Found Land Where None Was Known
British Arctic Expedition
Preparation for the Arctic Expedition
"When we first came over on the west side of this sea Capt. Barns saw the JEANNETTE, Bennets steamer going north for Herald Island in the same lead of water that the whale ships worked north in."
This single paragraph, in a letter from Captain B.F. Homan of the Bering Sea whaling fleet, recorded the last sighting of the first ship to attempt to reach the North Pole by way of the Bering Strait. It was also the last word of the JEANNETTE to reach the world for two and a half years.
James Gordon Bennett, editor of the New York Herald who had sent Stanley into Africa to find Dr. Livingston, knew that a rescue expedition could sell newspapers as nothing else could. Therefore, when the prolonged absence of the Nordenskjöld Expedition became newsworthy he arranged to purchase Sir Alan Young's yacht PANDORA a veteran of two arctic voyages in search of the fate of Sir John Franklin, and after renaming it JEANNETTE he presented it to the United States government and insisted that they send it on an immediate polar voyage. The government reluctantly agreed and commissioned Lt. George Washington De Long to lead the party.
The JEANNETTE is Sighted by Whalers
De Long, who had his first taste of the Arctic when he participated in the search for the POLARIS in 1872, theorized that the best approach to the Pole was through the Bering Strait. After passing over the pole he would search for Nordenskjöld. He supposed that Wrangel Land, now known to be a small island, was a vast land mass. In accordance with the principles of ocean currents the JEANNETTE could follow its coast line northward until it could work no further and then, if necessary, sledge parties could start out for higher latitudes. He also hoped to prove that the warm Japanese current flowed northward into the Polar Sea, resulting in a basin of open water somewhere beyond the fringe of packed ice. This warm Japanese current through the strait was expected to help in opening a path through the ice pack.
The experienced whaling captains told De Long that he was taking a deadly course because all their experience denied the existence of such a basin and more than one whaler was caught in the ice only to disappear forever into the frozen north. Still there were some whalers that agreed with De Long, as evidenced by another paragraph in Captain Homan's letter:
The ship left San Francisco on July 8, 1879 and after picking up dogs and final supplies from the Alaskan Commercial Company's trading posts at Michaelovsk they continued on to St. Lawrence Bay in Siberia, where last minute mail was sent home, and then the great adventure was on.
The crew was in high spirits as they passed through Bering Strait and it was then that the SEA BREEZE, retreating southward, sighted the JEANNETTE under full sail and steam. They made an effort to hail her for the Eskimos had predicted an early closing of the "pack" and the whalers had learned to respect their predictions after more than thirty vessels were lost as a result of ignoring this information in previous years. Lt. Danenhower's narrative of the expedition recorded the meeting:
By the following day the ice floes began to form around the vessel and she was forced to drift with them. Each day De Long expected the ice to loosen and allow them to drift free, but this never happened, finally they drifted past Wrangel Land. Too late they discovered that it was a tiny island instead of a continental land mass.
One of the modern innovations of the JEANNETTE was an invention by a man named Thomas Edison -- a generator which was supposed to light the ship during the long dark months. No matter how they tinkered with it they could not raise a single spark and they finally discarded it convinced that the electric light would never replace the oil lamp.
They drifted for fourteen months suffering disappointments and escapes until on May 16, 1881 they sighted land. It was only a small island 76 degrees north, which they named "Jeannette," and not Franz Josef Land as they had hoped to reach by that date, but it was land. This barren rock was the first land they had seen since sighting Wrangel Island in 1879 and it must have served a heavy blow to their waning hopes of survival. The vessel was now leaking at the rate of two hundred gallons an hour from ice pressure and the crew was constantly on the alert for an immediate evacuation. Suddenly on June 11, 1881, the ice separated and the ship righted itself, but their joy turned to horror when the ice closed again and the JEANNETTE was broken in two and disappeared under the ice. The crew barely escaped with their equipment.
The only place to go was the Siberian coast where the available maps furnished only rudimentary information. The story of the march over the ice, dragging boats and equipment until all the dogs were dead or disappeared, is one of the arctic epics of courage and willpower, but also desperation.
On August 30, when they came to open water, the battered sleds and unnecessary equipment was discarded. A deserted hut was found on the New Siberian Islands and a week later more deserted huts were found on Koltenoi Island. This was at least some sign of life. They were traveling in three boats when a storm separated them. One group was never heard from again. De Long's party landed on the Lena Delta, but were too weak to continue and the third boat was lucky enough to hit the mouth of one of the rivers that empty on the Lena Delta and were able to sail up river until they found a settlement.
The De Long party sent two men ahead for help, but their signs were misinterpreted and they were taken to the settlement where Chief Engineer Melville and First-mate Danenhower from the other boat were resting. By then it was too late in the season to attempt a rescue and the bodies of the De Long party were recovered the following spring. Word of the disaster did not reach the outside world until the spring of 1882 because Yakutsk, the end of the telegraph line, was fifteen hundred miles away.
(Exhibition pieces courtesy of George Hall)