As I was scouting the bookshelves a few months ago in search of something to inspire a new exhibit, I came across two volumes of “The Voyage of the Jeannette: The Ship and Ice Journals of George W. De Long, Lieutenant-Commander U.S.N., and Commander of the Polar Expedition of 1879-1881. I was familiar with several 19th-century polar expeditions, particularly that of John Franklin, which left England in 1845, never to return, but De Long was unknown to me. In the end, I found first-hand accounts of many voyages of discovery, which led to the idea to assemble an exhibit on the themes of Discovery, Travel, and Exploration, but it was the Jeannette with which I began and whose story continues to enliven my curiosity.
When the U.S.S. Jeannette set out from San Francisco on 8 July 1879 with 33 men aboard, including its commander, George Washington De Long, its mission was to reach the supposed Open Polar Sea, attain the North Pole, and to record all manner of scientific observations along the way. Initially built as a gunboat for the British Navy and named Pandora, it had three masts and was equipped with a steam engine and propeller. The ship had passed into private hands and successfully survived two trips to Greenland before James Gordon Bennett Jr., owner of the New York Herald bought her, renamed her Jeannette, and had her structure massively reinforced, all in preparation for the polar mission that De Long would command. She would carry provisions to last three years.
By 6 September of that year, the Jeannette was locked in the ice, sooner and further south than anticipated. Through disappointment and routine, mostly good spirits prevailed. On 28 October, De Long wrote:
I think the night one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. The heavens were cloudless, the moon very nearly full and shining brightly, and every star twinkling; the air perfectly calm, and not a sound to break the spell. The ship and her surroundings made a perfect picture. Standing out in bold relief against the blue sky, every rope and spar with a thick coat of snow and frost; she was simply a beautiful spectacle.
The Jeannette would drift in the ice in a northwesterly direction through the “frozen summer” of 1880 and into the spring of 1881. On 11 June–nearly two years after leaving San Francisco–just after midnight, as De Long wrote, “the ice suddenly opened alongside and the ship righted to an even keel.” For the first time in twenty months, the ship was afloat. Cruelly, some forty hours later the situation had changed:
At four P.M. the ice came down in great force all along the port side, jamming the ship hard against the ice on the starboard side of her, and causing her to heel 16˚ to starboard. From the snapping and cracking of the bunker sides and starting in of the starboard ceiling . . . it was feared that the ship was about to be seriously endangered. . . . Mr. Melville . . . saw a break across the ship . . . showing that so solidly were the stern and starboard quarters held by the ice that the ship was breaking in two from the pressure upward exerted on the port bow of the ship.. . . At five P.M. the pressure was renewed and continued with tremendous force, the ship cracking in every part. The spar deck commenced to buckle up, and the starboard side seemed again on the point of coming in.
By 6 PM. the Jeannette began to fill with water and as provisions were removed, the ship heeled 30˚ to starboard. The starboard side had broken in and at 8 PM all hands were ordered off the ship. At 4 AM, the ship went down. They had reached just beyond 77˚ N latitude, some 700 miles south of the pole, and would head southwest hauling their boats and equipment towards the Lena River on the Siberian coast.
Upon reaching open water 91 days later, the crew boarded three boats on 12 September. A gale separated the three and one boat was lost. De Long’s boat, carrying 14 men, reached the marshy Lena delta on 15 September and would soon be abandoned. On 9 October, with the entire party suffering from starvation and exposure, a weakened De Long sent two men ahead in search of help. These two men, Nindemann and Noros, found a small group of hunter-fisherman on 22 October, who took them to the larger settlement they sought. The third boat, commanded by George Melville with eleven aboard, reached the delta on 14 September, nearly 100 miles from the first group, but on a navigable branch of the river. Five days later, they found a fishing camp. Neither Melville’s group nor Nindemann and Noros were able to mount a rescue for De Long’s group, though on 2 November, they did find each other. George W. De Long, however, had written his last log entry on 30 October:
One hundred and fortieth day. Boyd and Görtz died during the night. Mr. Collins dying.
Melville continued the search for his comrades and on 13 November, he found the Jeannette’s log books, instruments, and other items that De Long had buried on 19 September. It wasn’t until the following spring, on 23 March 1882, that Melville and Nindemann found the bodies of De Long and two other members of his party, then those of the remaining seven. One man’s body was never found. They also found the “ice journal” that De Long had kept and which recorded the journey they had taken since the Jeannette was lost. All ten bodies were placed in a makeshift coffin and interred in a cairn on the highest point in the area.
George Melville arrived in New York on 13 September 1882 and brought De Long’s papers, journals, and personal effects to his widow, Emma.
By Act of Congress, the remains of De Long and the nine crew were ordered returned for burial in the US. On 20 February 1884, after a 12,000 mile journey westward, they arrived in New York. De Long and six others were buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. On 18 June 1884 a broken box bearing the name Jeannette and other items from the ship were found off the southern coast of Greenland, thousands of miles east of Jeannette’s final location. Having made their own journey, these items gave new support to the theory of trans-Arctic drift.
So, this was the story that was the spark for an exhibit that will soon go up, one that will present materials offering a range broader than that of polar exploration . . . but, interestingly, the Collection has several accounts of trips using various means to arrive at various poles. Watch for it: