The Lady in the Ice: Jeannette Expedition


The first USS Jeannette, a bark-rigged wooden steamship, was originally HMS Pandora, a Philomel-class gun-vessel of the Royal Naval force. The ship was built in 1861 at Pembroke Dockyard and was acquired in 1875 by Sir Allen Young for his arctic voyages in 1875-1876. The vessel was purchased in 1878 by James Gordon Bennett, Jr., proprietor of the New York Herald; and renamed Jeannette. Bennett was an Arctic devotee, and he gotten the participation and help of the government in fitting out an expedition to the North Pole through the Bering Strait. In March, Congress authorized the specifying of naval officers to the journey, and Lieutenant Commander George W. DeLong, a veteran Arctic explorer, accompanied Bennett to Europe to choose a ship. After Jeannette was chosen and named, DeLong sailed her from Le Havre to San Francisco, California during the summer and fall of 1878. At Mare Island Naval Shipyard, Jeannette was fitted with modern boilers and other gear. Her hull was enormously fortified to allow her to explore the Arctic icepack. Although privately owned, Jeannette was to sail under orders of the Navy, subject to naval laws and discipline. The crew consisted of 30 officers and men, and three civilians. The ship contained the latest in scientific equipment; in addition to reaching the Pole through Bering Strait, scientific observation ranked high among the expedition’s list of goals.

US naval officer George Washington de Long in 1879 before leaving on his disastrous expedition to the Arctic (Picture US Naval History and Heritage Comman)

Jeannette leaving the port of San Francisco on 8 July 1879, the Secretary of the Navy having added to her original instructions the task of searching for the long-overdue Swedish polar expedition of Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld (whose ship Vega had successfully traversed the Northeast Passage). Jeannette pushed northward to Alaska’s Norton Sound and sent her last communication to Washington before starting north from St. Lawrence Bay, Siberia on 27 August.

Under Lt. Cdr. DeLong’s direction the ship then set out for the Chukchi Peninsula on the Siberian coast and sighted Herald Island on 4 September. Soon afterward she was caught fast in the ice pack near Wrangel Island at 71°35′N 175°6′E / 71.583°N 175.1°E. For the next 21 months, Jeannette drifted to the northwest, ever-closer to DeLong’s goal, the North Pole itself. He described in his journal the important scientific records kept by the party: “A full meteorological record is kept, soundings are taken, astronomical observations made and positions computed, dip and declination of the needle observed and recorded… everything we can do is done as faithfully, as strictly, as mathematically as if we were at the Pole itself, or the lives of millions depended on our adherence to routine.” In May 1881, two islands were discovered and named Jeannette and Henrietta. In June, Bennett Island was discovered and claimed for the U.S. On the night of 12 June, the pressure of the ice finally began to crush Jeannette when they had reached 77°15′N 154°59′E / 77.25°N 154.983°E. DeLong and his men unloaded provisions and equipment onto the ice pack and the ship sank the following morning.

The expedition now faced a long trek to the Siberian coast, with little hope even then of rescue. Nonetheless they started off for the Lena Delta hauling their sledges with boats and supplies. After reaching several small islands in the Siberian group and gaining some food and rest, they took to their three boats on 12 September in hope of reaching the mainland. As a violent storm blew up, one of the boats (with Lt. Charles W. Chipp and seven men) capsized and sank. The other two, commanded by DeLong and Chief Engineer George W. Melville with respectively 14 and 11 men, survived the severe weather but landed at widely separated points on the delta.

Jeannette crew members survived after an epic escape from the Arctic (Pictures George T Andrew US Naval Institute)

The crew headed by DeLong began the long walk inland over the marshy, half-frozen delta to hoped-for native settlements, and one by one the men died from starvation and exposure. Finally DeLong sent the two strongest, William F. C. Nindemann and Louis P. Noros, ahead for help; they eventually found a settlement and survived. DeLong and his 11 other companions died on the Siberian tundra.

Meanwhile, Melville and his party had found a local village on the other side of the delta and were rescued. Melville at that point begun for Belun, a Russian outpost, where he found the two survivors of DeLong’s vessel, Nindemann and Noros, and initiated a group of locals to go with him in search of his commander. He succeeded in finding their landing place on the Lena and recovered Jeannette’s log and other critical records, but returned to Belun on 27 November without finding the DeLong and the rest of the crew. Keeping only two of his party, Melville then turned northward once more, and at last found the bodies of DeLong and two of his companions on 23 March 1882. He built a huge cairn over the grave of his companions, a monument which has been replicated in granite and marble at the United States Naval Academy. Before leaving Siberia, Melville made an attempt to discover the remains of Jeannette’s third boat, though the chance of survivors was small. He returned disappointed to Irkutsk, the capital of Siberia on 5 July 1882, almost three years since his departure from San Francisco in Jeannette. The results of the expedition, both meteorological and geographic, were important. Melville was rightly honored for his courage and tenacity, and the name of George Washington DeLong is considered among the ranks of the Navy’s explorer heroes.

Search and rescue attempts included those with the revenue cutter Thomas Corwin and previous steam whaler, Rodgers. They established that the Jeannette had been seen, in great condition and steaming west; that she had not landed parties on Herald or Wrangell Island; and that no survivors had come ashore within reach of their shore search. A party from the Rodgers, upon reaching Srednekolymsk received word of the landing of the Jeannette survivors in the Lena delta; this party at that point traveled to join the Jeannette survivors. On June 18, 1884, wreckage from Jeannette was found on an ice floe near Julianehåb (now Qaqortoq) near the southern tip of Greenland. This proposed to Fridtjof Nansen the theory that the ice of the Arctic Sea was in consistent motion from the Siberian coast to the American coast. To demonstrate this, Nansen arranged and executed the Fram expedition 1893-1896, which affirmed the movement of the Arctic sea-ice.

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