By 1876, the first centennial of the United States, no one in the world had ever been to the North Pole. For that matter, no one had ever been to the South Pole.
What was there? What happens to your compass when every direction points south? Every modern Arctic expeditionary attempt had found a sea of ice that was impenetrable. Was everything covered in ice or was there something beyond the ice that was more remarkable?
As early as the 1600s, it was generally accepted and heartedly endorsed by the renown scientists of the day that the top of the earth was crowned by an open sea. Several felt that not only was it an open sea, but that the temperature of the water was temperate. If an explorer could make it through the annulus of thick ice that surrounded the North Pole, they would find sailing to be much like in the Caribbean. Some even theorized that a new continent existed there, full of flora and fauna, and it was not such a wild idea that members of the human race would be found flourishing there.
On the outer edge of the theories, in 1820, an American from Ohio, John Cleves Symmes Jr. theorized that the earth consisted of concentric spheres, with large holes at the North and South Poles that connected to networks of inner cavities. It was even likely that the spheres were inhabited.
Perhaps scoffed at by the leaders in science and government, the public became enthralled with the idea that the poles of the earth consisted of veritable wonderlands waiting to be discovered. This made a new theory remarkably believable – that there existed a large hole at the North Pole through which all the water from the oceans poured, traveling through the center of the earth and emerging out a similar hole in the South Pole, where they became the tail ends of the same oceans flowing north.
When Jules Verne published his Journey to the Center of the Earth in 1864, a considerable number of people didn’t believe that it was fiction.
One of the largest and most famous voyages sent to find answers was the Franklin expedition of 1845. Captain John Franklin and his crew of 129 set sail from England in the Terror and the Erebus, two well-provisioned ships. Within weeks, they sailed into chunks of flowing ice, and were never heard of again.
That was typical of an Arctic voyage.
Other expeditions had launched, would be gone for a year or two, and then a group of scraggly survivors would be found on an ice flow, barely alive. Their stories described sailing into an ice field, their ships then being surrounded by floating chunks of ice which froze and held them immovable. Ultimately, the ice crushed the ship by pressing against its sides and it sank to an icy grave. The stories always ended with terrible ordeals of starvation, sickness, exposure, and continual suffering.
After the Civil War, however, a growing wave of American national pride demanded that the idea of Manifest Destiny be expanded to include an international facet and by 1876, the call for scientific discovery (and planting the American flag on newly discovered territories) gave birth to the U. S. Arctic Expedition and the USS Jeannette.
It took until July 8th, 1879 to get her launched, but the USS Jeannette was all that an arctic explorer would want. Already a proven ice-breaker in the seas to the far north of England, the Jeannette was 146 feet long, three-masted, with a steam engine that powered a single screw propeller. She carried eight boats, including 3 whaleboats, and required only a crew of thirty.
Bought and fitted, she made the trip from England around the tip of South America, spent several months being rebuilt by an elite team of boat builders in San Francisco, was reinforced for every possible challenge of ice-laden seas, and laid in enough provisions for three years of sailing in the upper reaches of the world. Her crew would consist of experienced Arctic sailors, nautical craftsmen, forty sled dogs, two Inuit hunters, two Chinese cooks, several scientists, a doctor, a reporter from the New York-based Herald newspaper, competent junior commanders, and George Washington De Long, a determined, seasoned, and now nationally famous ship captain who would prove to be the best man on the planet for the job.
The New York Commercial Advertiser declared, “Should success crown the efforts of the gallant commander, it will be one of the most brilliant geographical adventures ever won by man. The solution of the Northern Mystery would be the event of the century.”
Having stopped along the way to replenish his store of coal, De Long and his ship sailed from the shores of Alaska for the North Pole and was seen on September 7th, 1879, by a whaling fleet in the Arctic Ocean north of the Bering Strait, struggling through an ice flow. It was the last reported sighting anyone ever had of the USS Jeannette.
It wouldn’t be until May 5, 1882, that a formal dispatch informed the world that De Long had been found, frozen, in the delta of the Lena River on the northern coast of Siberia. He had been dead since October. A few others of the crew survived and their stories of what happened included spending a full year locked-in by ice before the ship was crushed, and taking an extreme escape route of a thousand miles across hundreds of miles of ice while pulling a few thousand pounds of gear and lifeboats, and the rest across the treacherous Arctic Ocean, striving to get to the Siberian coast. Even when there, it was months before any of them would find another human being.
There was no open sea to the North Pole.
And, once again, I’m going to stop complaining about wearing a mask.
In the Kingdom of Ice, the Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette, is a wonderful book to read. Exhaustively researched and cleanly written by Hampton Sides, an editor of Outside magazine who lives an hour away from me, it is only one of several great books that he has written.
In other news, the Roswell Daily Record newspaper agreed to review my historical fiction novel, Teddy’s War. The review should be coming out next Sunday. I’ll post the URL so you can read it.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.