The Ill-fated Jeannette Expedition to The Arctic

Jan 13, 2024 0 comments

In the mid-19th century, explorers and geographers were seized by an idea that was first floated in the 16th century by the English cartographer Robert Thorne, that there was a vast ocean free of ice surrounding the North Pole. The idea was intriguing because it meant that a more direct route between the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans was possible rather than going around the Cape of Horn. Many explorers such as Elisha Kane, Isaac Israel Hayes, Charles Francis Hall, and George Nares reported to have seen the fabled ocean, fueling optimism in the theory.

Abandoning the Arctic exploration ship Jeanette on June 12th 1891. Illustration by James Gale Tyler.

Leading cartographer August Petermann from Germany was a firm believer in the Open Polar Sea theory. Petermann posited that if one followed the Gulf Stream, which swept up the coast of Norway to the unexplored Arctic regions, one could penetrate the protective ice ring and into the heart of the ice-free ocean.

In an effort to validate his theory, Petermann sponsored two Arctic expeditions—the German North Polar Expedition of 1869, led by Carl Koldewey, and the Austro-Hungarian North Pole Expedition of 1872, helmed by Karl Weyprecht and Julius von Payer. However, when these expeditions were unable to penetrate the ice barrier as envisaged, Petermann's optimism waned.

James Gordon Bennett, owner of the New York Herald, became interested in Petermann's theories, and in 1877 traveled to Gotha to discuss possible Arctic routes with the geographer. Having failed to find a way to the Arctic Ocean through the Gulf Stream, Petermann now believed that the best route would be through the Bering Strait. Petermann believed that a branch of the Kuro Siwo, a warm ocean current in the North Pacific Ocean, flowed through the Bering Strait and might be powerful enough to create a path to the polar sea. Bennett thought Petermann’s theory was sound enough to attempt a new American polar venture.

An early 17th century map showing an ice-free ocean surrounding the North Pole.

On his return from Gotha, he got in touch with US Navy officer and explorer George W. De Long, and instructed him to begin the search for a suitable ship. De Long went to England and bought a 142-feet, 570-ton Royal Navy gunboat called Pandora and renamed it to USS Jeannette. He then spent the next two years outfitting the ship with necessary tools and scientific equipment such as a darkroom, observatory, current trackers, wind trackers, and magnetic and meteorological instruments. He also gathered a crew of thirty-three which included many veterans of Arctic explorations, such as George W. Melville, who was with the Polaris rescue mission. Other experienced Arctic hands were William F. C. Nindemann, a Polaris survivor, and the ice pilot William Dunbar, who had many years' experience in whalers.

Jeannette departed from San Francisco, on July 8, 1879. The ship made good progress and on September 2, was about 100 nautical miles from Wrangel's Land, but with ice thickening all around, movement became slow and erratic. Three days later, Jeannette became trapped in ice.

The Jeannette trapped in the ice, off Herald Island.

Throughout that winter, Jeannette drifted back and forth along with the ice pack. With nothing else to do, the crew analyzed sea currents, salinity and temperature that proved that the Kuro Siwo had no effect north of the Bering Strait. As the ship found itself encased in an unending expanse of ice, the credibility of the Open Polar Sea theory also began to diminish.

Summer came and went, but Jeannette never budged an inch. On the last day of 1880 De Long wrote in his journal: “I begin the new year by turning over a new leaf, and I hope to God we are turning over a new leaf in our book of luck”.

The arrival of the second Arctic summer brought renewed optimism that Jeannette would finally break free from the ice. On June 11, she briefly floated in a small pool, raising hopes of liberation. Unfortunately, the following day the ice returned with renewed force, which battered the ship and finally penetrated the hull beyond repair. Captain De Long made the decision to evacuate the ship, and on June 13, 1881, Jeannette sank approximately 300 nautical miles (560 km) off the Siberian coast.

Woodcut engraved by George T. Andrew after a design by M.J. Burns, depicting Lieutenant Commander George DeLong and his party wading ashore from USS Jeannette's first cutter, on the north end of the Lena River Delta, Siberia, 17 September 1881.

Jeannette’s party drag the boats over the ice after abandoning ship.

The expedition then began the long trek to the Siberian coast, hauling their sledges with boats and supplies. Their goal was to reach Lena Delta, which was studded with settlements, which they hoped would provide them with shelter and safety. By August, the ice began to break up and so the party transferred to the boats. On September 10, they reached the tiny Semyonovsky Island, fewer than 100 nautical miles (190 km) from the Siberian coast.

After gaining some food and rest, the party took to their three boats on September 12 for the last stage of their journey to the Lena Delta, their planned landfall. On their second day at sea, a violent storm blew up and one of the boats—with lieutenant Charles W. Chipp and seven men—capsized and sank. The other two craft, commanded by De Long and chief engineer George W. Melville with 14 and 11 men respectively, survived the severe weather but landed at widely separated points on the delta.

Portrait of George DeLong.

The party headed by De Long began the long march inland over the marshy, half-frozen delta in search of native settlements. But progress was extremely slow due to the poor conditions of the men. Eventually they reached an abandoned hunting camp, where the party rested for several days. The shooting of a deer afforded fresh meat that raised the spirits of the men.

After much hardship, with many of his men severely weakened, De Long sent the two strongest, William F. C. Nindemann and Louis P. Noros, ahead for help. They eventually found a settlement and survived. Meanwhile, De Long’s party struggled on, sometimes making barely a mile a day. The men were starving and exhausted. His entry for October 10 recorded that there was “nothing for supper but a spoonful of glycerine”. Despite diminishing strength, De Long continued to update his journal but as the days went, his entries became terse, mostly recording the death of his men. His last entry, dated October 30, records the deaths of Boyd and Görtz and ends “Mr Collins dying”.

The last page of Lieutenant Commander George DeLong's journal.

In the meantime, on the other side of the delta, Melville and his party had found a native village and managed to locate Nindemann and Noros, from whom Melville learned of De Long's plight and his urgent need for rescue. Melville persuaded a group of locals to help him search for his commander. He succeeded in finding their landing place on the delta, and recovered De Long's logbook and other important records, but the coming winter forced him to return without locating De Long and his comrades. The following spring Melville set out again with two of his colleagues and eventually found the frozen bodies of De Long and his companions. Melville's party wrapped all the bodies in canvas and placed them in makeshift coffin crafted from driftwood. This structure was then covered with rocks, topped by a large wooden cross bearing inscriptions of the names of the departed individuals.

On June 18, 1884, wreckage from Jeannette was found on an ice floe near Julianehåb, near the south-western corner of Greenland. This indicated that an ocean current flowed from east to west across the polar sea, giving rise to the idea that a properly-constructed ship could enter the ice in the east, survive the pressure during the drift, and emerge in the Atlantic perhaps having traversed the pole itself. This theory was the basis of Nansen's Fram expedition of 1893–1896.

Route of the Jeannette party after leaving the ship, which was crushed by Arctic ice near Henrietta Island in 1881.

Although the Jeannette expedition failed to find an ice-free route to the Arctic, it did contribute much to science. The crew explored and mapped hundreds of miles of uncharted territory, provided oceanographic and metrological measurements, and collected natural history specimens. They also disproved the theory that a temperate current called the Kuro Siwo flowed from the Bering Strait to the North Pole. The crew also discovered two unknown islands—Henrietta Island and Jeanette Island—which De Long named after his mother and the ship, respectively.

The crew extensively explored and mapped previously uncharted territory, offering valuable oceanographic and meteorological measurements, and gathering specimens for natural history studies. Furthermore, they debunked the theory suggesting the existence of a temperate current, known as the Kuro Siwo, flowing from the Bering Strait to the North Pole. Additionally, the crew identified two previously unknown islands—Henrietta Island and Jeannette Island—named after De Long's mother and the ship, respectively.

In 2015, a well-known Russian media personality announced plans to raise the wreck of Jeanette from the icy waters, but when a survey was conducted to locate the ship where it sank, the ship was not there. As a December 2019, the Jeanette is still untraceable.


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