Sunday, November 16, 2014

In the Kingdom of Ice

In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Voyage of the USS Jeanette

By Hampton Sides

454 p., b&w illustrations, maps, notes, selected bibliography

NY; Random House, 2014

Reviewed by William Barr

Influenced by the deluded idea of German geographer and armchair explorer, August Petermann (and of many of his contemporaries) that the North Pole lay in the middle of an ice-free Open Polar Sea, surrounded by a relatively narrow annular belt of sea-ice, in the 1870’s, following the disastrous outcome of Charles Francis Hall’s expedition on board Polaris in 1871-73, Lt. George W. De Long of the US Navy conceived of mounting another attempt at the North Pole, but by a different route. With the financial backing of James Gordon Bennett, flamboyant  owner of the New York Herald, on  8 July 1879 he sailed from San Francisco on board the bark-rigged, three-masted steamer, Jeannette which, through Bennett’s influence, had been flagged as a unit of the US Navy.  She was northward-bound for Bering Strait. De Long was further influenced by Petermann’s mistaken concept that the Kuro Siwo, the relatively warm current which flows north past Japan and Kamchatka,  must penetrate through Bering Strait and thus produce a zone of relative weakness in the ring of sea ice surrounding the Open Polar Sea.

Having negotiated Bering Strait Jeannette pushed north across the Chukchi Sea but by 7 September she was solidly beset in the ice.  Thereafter the ice drift carried her north and northwest, during which time De Long was able to establish for the first time that Wrangel Island was a relatively small island. The ship’s drift continued through the winter of 1879-80, the summer of 1880 and the winter of 1880-81.  On 17 May 1881 a relatively small island was sighted and named Jeannette Island, and a week later a slightly larger island, named Henrietta Island, after Bennett’s mother, was discovered. A landing party led by the engineer, George Melville, made a brief landing.

As if De Long did not have enough to worry about, since New Year’s 1880 the navigation officer John Danenhower, had been progressively going blind in one eye, the result of syphilis. And in January 1881 De Long was forced to remove Jerome Collins, the civilian meteorologist, from duty for insolence and disobedience.

Jeannette’s painfully tedious westward drift continued but during a particularly severe bout of ice pressure on 12 June 1881 her hull was crushed and she began to sink. But before she sank a substantial amount of provisions, equipment, dogs, three boats and boat-sledges were unloaded onto the ice.  This occurred at a position some 160 km to the northeast of New Siberia, the easternmost of the New Siberian Islands.

Assisted by their dogs Jeannette’s crew started south by the soul-destroying labour of hauling the boats on sledges. On 29 July they landed on a fairly large island, which was named Bennett Island. Taking advantage of the abundant driftwood for fuel and the great flocks of sea-birds for food De Long decided to stay encamped on the island for a week while he and his men recouped their strength.   By this time the ice was breaking up and when they left the island on 6 August it was by boat, with De Long in charge of one boat,  engineer George Melville in a second, and executive officer Charles Chipp  in the third, and smallest.

On 30 August they landed on Faddeyevskiy Island, to the west of New Siberia. Running south through the strait between the two islands, the boats then coasted west along the south shores of Faddeyevskiy Island and Kotelniy Island, and on 6 September they headed southwest across the Laptev Sea, aiming for the Lena Delta.. After a brief landing on Semenovskiy Island, they encountered a steadily  strengthening gale and rising seas.  Chipp’s boat dropped astern and finally disappeared; Melville’s, the fastest of the three, also disappeared ahead.  De Long’s boat rode out the storm to an improvised sea anchor, and finally on 15 September he and his party reached land on the northeast coast of the Lena delta.   Then on the 19th, having cached all non-essentials, and with only a few days’ food they started walking south, guided by a totally inadequate map, across the vast, complex labyrinth of channels, lakes and innumerable intervening islands, which is the Lena delta, with winter rapidly approaching.

On 6 October Erichsen, whose feet had frozen, was the first to die; he was buried through a hole in the river ice.   On the 9th, by which time every member of the party was exhausted, emaciated, frost-bitten and starving, De Long sent the two strongest men, Nindemann and Noros, ahead to find help.  To their good fortune , on the 22nd a Yakut, Ivan Androsov, found the two men, barely alive, in one of his seasonal huts.  He and his companions fed and sheltered them but insisted in traveling south with them.  Despite their best efforts,  because of the language problem Nindemann and Noros were unable to  convince their rescuers that they should head north to rescue De Long and his companions.  But ultimately, by a series of coincidences, on 2 November, engineer George Melville discovered them at Bulun, some 125 km upstream from the head of the delta.

After the three boats had become separated on 12 September Melville and his party, like De Long’s party, had survived the severe storm by improvising a sea-anchor.  They reached land on the east side of the delta on the 17th.  Heading up a major channel, on the 19th they encountered a group of Evenki who fed and sheltered them.   They were at the settlement of Zemovyalakh when Melville heard by chance that two  other Americans were at Bulun, and hurried south  to meet them.

Having obtained from Nindemann and Noros a sketch map of their wanderings, and especially of where they had left De Long and party, and having instructed Danenhower to head south with the rest of his group to Yakutsk, on 5 November Melville set off north again with two dog teams driven by the Yakuts Vasiliy and Tomat.  On his northward trip he failed to find the bodies of De Long and party, but on 13 November he reached the coast and found the depot which De Long had left  there. Retrieving all the records and various artifacts, he then started back south, but lost the trail and again failed to find the bodies of De Long and party.   Realizing that they must all be dead, he  continued south to Bulun, reaching it on 27 November. From there, along with Nindemann and Noros he traveled south to  the city of Yakutsk by reindeer sledge, arriving there on  30 December.

On 16 January 1882 Melville set off back north to the Lena delta, accompanied by Nindemann and Bartlett, but also by a squad of soldiers and Yakut guides and  with the full support  of the Russian government, to renew the search for De Long and his companions,  and also for any traces of Lt. Chipp’s party.  Although delayed by vicious weather at Bulun until mid-March, he pushed north into the delta once again and on 23 March discovered the  frozen bodies of De Long and his entire party, with the exception of the Alaskan Inupiat, Aleksey. The bodies were loaded onto dog-sledges and hauled south some 20 km to a small but conspicuous hill named  Kuyel Khaya . On its summit, using lumber from an abandoned scow, Melville and his men built an imposing tomb measuring 7’ by 22’  and  2’ deep, into which the bodies were placed; a pyramid of rocks was built on top of it and an imposing cross 20’ high with a cross-arm measuring 12’ was raised above it.  The site is now known as Amerika Khaya.

Danenhower and most of the survivors from the Jeannette  were back in New York by May 1882.  Melville, Nindemann and Noros arrived there, to a tremendous welcome, on board the liner Parthia on 13 September.

This is simply the barest outline of the remarkable story of the Jeannette expedition, as told by Sides in a lively, readable style, with  a useful selection of illustrations and map.  Unfortunately, however, the story as he tells it is far from complete, in that we learn only a small part of the complex history of the various searches  for the missing men.  Admittedly Sides does devote three chapters, totaling 28 pages. to the cruise of the Thomas Corwin, Captain Calvin Hooper, of the Revenue Cutter Service. A search for the Jeannette was added to Hooper’s normal duties during a cruise in the Bering and Chukchi seas (Muir 1917 ; Hooper 1881).  Among his other achievements Hooper landed briefly on both Herald and Wrangel islands, and claimed the latter for the United States, but found no trace of the Jeannette.

Another search vessel, the steamer USS Alliance, Captain George Wadleigh, put to sea from Norfolk, Virginia on 6 June 1881.  A reporter for the New York Herald, Harry Macdonna, was on board.  After calling at Reykjavik and Hammerfest Alliance headed north, and after calling at various locations on Spitsbergen, was blocked by ice and forced to turn back at 80° 00’ 55” N.  After running south to Hammerfest to bunker, Wadleigh made yet another attempt at searching in the area of Spitsbergen, before  running for home, arriving in New York in November (Newcomb  1883:70-78). Sides barely mentions the cruise of the Alliance.

The cruise of yet another search vessel, the USS Rodgers, commanded by Lt. Robert Berry,  perhaps the most dramatic of the three, receives an equally brief mention in Sides’s book.  With the New York Herald  reporter  William H. Gilder on board,  Rodgers put to sea from San Francisco on 16 June 1881, and having called at Petropavlovsk and St Michael’s Alaska, on 24 August reached and landed on Herald Island, and on the 26  anchored in Rodgers Bay on Wrangel Island (Gilder 1888).   From there, while Berry hiked inland for a distance of about 30 km, two boat parties were dispatched round the coast, one clockwise, the other anticlockwise.  At their farthest points each was  within sight of the farthest point reached by the other.  Running back south through Bering Strait, Berry put his ship into winter quarters in St. Lawrence Bay on 16 October 1881. There, unfortunately, Rodgers caught fire and was a total loss, although everyone got ashore safely.  Her crew members were dispersed among four Chukchi villages in the vicinity for the winter.

From there Gilder started west overland, bound for Irkutsk, with a view to sending a telegram to New York about the fate of the Rodgers. Lt. Berry and Ensign Henry Hunt also headed west overland. Meanwhile another reporter for the Herald, John P. Jackson, was traveling to the Lena delta from Europe. Also dispatched from New York were Lt. G.B. Harber and Lt. W.H. Schuetze, with orders to search the delta for traces of Lt. Chipp’s party. The story of  the travels of these various parties,  and their  further searches of the Lena delta is an extremely complex one, but we learn nothing of them from Sides’s account. Nor do we learn  from it that having searched the delta and returned south to Yakutsk Harber and Schuetze received further instructions to disinter the bodies of De Long  and his companions and to repatriate them to the United States.  Heading back north to the delta once again, having disinterred the bodies from their impressive  tomb Harber and Schuetze started south with the frozen bodies in a cavalcade of  seven dog sledges  on 3 March 1883 (Harber 1884; McAdoo 1902).  Having switched to 16 reindeer sleighs at Verkhoyansk, they reached Yakutsk on 29 March. The bodies were then stowed in a pit 10-12 feet deep in the permafrost for the summer.  Then on  28 November, with the bodies in sealed tin-lined  coffins Harber and Schuetze started east to Irkutsk with seven horse-drawn sleighs.  From there, traveling by various means, the bodies were transported east, being greeted with impressive ceremony at every town and city they passed through in Siberia, Russia, and Western Europe, complete with catafalques, wreaths and military escorts.  They reached Hamburg on 3 February 1884 and New York on the 22nd. De Long and his men were buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx on 23 February 1884.

Even with this Lt. Schuetze’s duties relating to the  searches for the survivors were not complete.  He was sent back to the Lena delta with testimonials, swords, gold watches and medals for officials and local residents who had assisted the survivors or helped in the searches (McAdoo 1902)..  He left New York on 8 July 1885, reaching Bulun on 5 February 1886. He gave out medals and gifts of supplies at five settlements in the delta and surrounding area.  Starting back south on 3 April 1886 he was back in New York by 26 September 1886.

Although  the complicated story of the searches for Chipp’s party, the repatriation of the bodies and Schuetze’s subsequent journey back to the Lena delta are clearly integral parts of the story of the Jeannette expedition, there is at best only passing mentions of them in Sides’s book.

Moreover, nowhere in Sides’s text do we learn that  there were two official Boards of  Inquiry into  the expedition. The report of the first, entitled  Jeannette Inquiry. Before the Committee on Naval Affairs of the United States  House of Representatives. Forty-Eighth Congress was published in 1882. The  second Board of Inquiry, whose report is entitled Loss of the Steamer Jeannette: Record of the proceedings of a Court of Inquiry convened at the Navy Department 1884, was held because of accusations  from his family that Jerome Collins, the civilian meteorologist, “had been treated with every indignity and outrage” and that the first Board of Inquiry had simply been a cover-up.  While both reports are  very substantial documents (the second one runs to a daunting  total of 1043 pages), at least some discussion of them  clearly  should have a place in  a history of the Jeannette expedition.  In short, Sides’s book  falls far short of telling the whole story.


Gilder, W.H. 1888. Ice-pack and tundra. An account of the search for the Jeannette and a sledge journey through Siberia. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Harber, G.B. 1884. Report of Lieut. G.B. Harber, U.S.N., concerning the search for the missing persons of the Jeannette Expedition, and the transportation of the remains of Lieutenant-Commander De Long and companions to the United States. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.
Hooper, C. 1881.Report of the cruise of the U.S. Revenue Steamer Thomas Corwin in the Arctic Ocean, 1881.  Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.
McAdoo, W. 1902. William Henry Schuetze. New York: Privately printed.
Muir, J. 1917.  The cruise of the Corwin. Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin Co.
Newcomb, R.L. 1883. Our lost explorers: The narrative of the Jeannette Arctic Expedition ... Hartford, Conn.: American Publishing Co.

William Barr,
Arctic Institute of North America,
University of Calgary,
Calgary AB T2N 1N4

1 comment:

  1. I liked this book, but found Bruce Henderson's book "Fatal North" to be a more entertaining and more informative narrative. The books recount two different arctic voyages in a similar time frame and includes some of the same characters...Fatal North being the first chronologically.