In 1878, New York Herald owner James Gordon Bennett Jr, bought the USS Jeannette (formerly the Royal Navy’s HMS Pandora) for a North Pole expedition. The 142-foot gunboat was refit with boilers and her hull was strengthened in preparation for dealing with Arctic sea conditions.
The U.S. Navy assigned Arctic seasoned explorer Lieutenant Commander George W. DeLong to captain the ship and also assigned a number of her crew even though the ship was privately owned. The scientific voyage through the Bering Strait would involve 30 crew and three civilians.
July 8, 1879 was the day USS Jeannette left San Francisco, heading north. By this time, the U.S. Navy had also asked that the crew search for Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld who had sailed aboard Vega on a voyage that had made it through the Northeast Passage but had not returned.
Jeannette was near Wrangel Island between the Chukchi Sea and East Siberian Sea by early September but became lodged in the ice and was held prisoner by it for nearly two years. While the ship lay idle in her ice-clad home, the men continued their tasks of taking astronomical observations and keeping thorough meteorological records. In the spring of 1881, they charted two new islands they named Jeannette and Henrietta and subsequently Bennett Island was also found and named. On June 12 of that year, Jeannette succumbed to the weight of the ice. The ship was abandoned with all the equipment and stores they could get off.
Next ensued an arduous fight for survival. The crew had to make for the Siberian coast. They were able to get to some small islands and replenish supplies. By September 12, they split up into three of the ship’s boats for the next leg of the impossible voyage. Unfortunately a storm took the lives of eight men in one of the boats, leaving one with 14 men, led by Lt. Cmdr DeLong and one with 11 men, led by George W. Melville, Chief Engineer. Each boat ended up landing in two different areas on the Lena delta.
DeLong’s group trekked inland but the majority of the crew died along the way. While DeLong was still alive, he sent two strong crewmen for help. The crewman survived, managing to find a settlement but DeLong did not. On the other side of the delta, Chief Engineer Melville and his group were rescued by natives. Melville subsequently found the two crewmen from DeLong’s group who survived and eventually led a search party back to look for DeLong. Melville and his group found the ship’s log but did not find the remains of DeLong and two others until Melville tried again in March 1882. A reproduction of the cairn he built over his fallen shipmates stands at the U.S. Naval Academy in remembrance of their sacrifice.
Melville also tried to find the third ship’s boat, without success. In 1884, parts of the wreck of the USS Jeanette were found near the southern tip of Greenland on an ice floe.
© Copyright Vince Capone 2013