A Brief History
On July 8, 1879, the USS Jeannette sailed from San Francisco on an ill-fated voyage to the North Pole. Not realizing the North Pole is on completely frozen sea water, the voyage could not have been successful, but little did the sailors know just how unsuccessful the voyage would be!
The ill-starred ship started its career in 1861 as the HMS Pandora, a Royal Navy gunboat that patrolled the coast of West Africa for 14 years before being decommissioned and sold. A private party, Allen Young, bought the Pandora as a substantial yacht, and made 2 trips to the Arctic in the ship. Young sold the ship to the owner of the New York Herald, James G. Bennet, Jr., in 1877.
Bennet renamed the ship the USS Jeannette and planned another Arctic trip, this time with the intention of reaching the North Pole, a destination not yet known to have been reached by humans. Bennet thought the path through the Bering Strait would continue with open water all the way to the North Pole on the mistaken assumption that the warm Pacific waters would keep the ice at bay via a “thermometric gateway.”
A Naval officer, George W. De Long would command the now renamed ship, with 33 people aboard, along with scientific gear to record their observations. Although privately owned, the voyage would fall under the auspices of the US Navy laws and regulations.
Soon encountering heavy ice, the Jeannette was trapped in ice on August 27, 1879, and drifted helplessly within the ice. For nearly 2 years the ship drifted with no hope of steering her, but the men aboard did whatever they had to do to survive, until finally in June of 1881 the ice began to crush the hull of the hapless Jeannette.
The crew unloaded as much by way of supplies as possible onto the ice, including small boats. Dragging the boats and makeshift sledges across the ice, the crew traveled across the ice for 3 months until reaching Siberian islands where they loaded up their 3 small boats and began a voyage with the Lena Delta as the destination. So far, everyone from the Jeannette had survived, truly a testament to the discipline and savvy of the officers and crew. The trip in the small boats would not be so lucky.
A storm sank one of the small boats, killing all aboard. The other two boats, containing 14 and 11 men respectively made it to shore, but separated by many miles. The men in the boat commanded by Captain De Long tried to walk to salvation, but could not stand up to the difficult travel. They sent 2 men to scout for help, which they found, but too late for the remaining 12 men that died in the partly frozen marsh. The other boat, commanded by Chief Engineer George Melville, landed closer to a native village and all 11 men were rescued. Melville enlisted the locals to help him search for De Long’s group, but was unsuccessful in finding anything more than De Long’s log and a few items.
The bodies of De Long’s group were recovered a year later when Melville went back to look for them, and the wreckage of the Jeannette was located in 1884 off Greenland, proving that the ocean ice flowed all the way from the Pacific side of the Arctic to the Atlantic side, causing seamen to dream of a sea route across the Arctic, although a route that would include being encased in ice. The voyage of the Jeannette dissuaded the idea of an open water route across the North Pole.
In 2015 a Russian entrepreneur announced a plan to recover the wreckage of the Jeannette, which he said was only 59 feet below the surface, which would presumably help mend US-Russia relations!
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For more information, please see…
De Long, Emma and George Washington De Long. 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, Volume I & II. Houghton, Mifflin, 1883.
Guttridge, Leonard F. Icebound: The Jeannette Expedition’s Quest for the North Pole. Naval Institute Press, 1986.
Sides, Hampton. In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette. Anchor, 2015.
The featured image in this article, a photograph of Jeannette at Le Havre in 1878, is a work of a sailor or employee of the U.S. Navy, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, it is in the public domain in the United States.