The Voyage of the Jeannette

WHEN Captain De Long was struggling through the morass of the Lena Delta, one of his men urged him to abandon or to bury the papers which the party were carrying and thus lighten their loads, but he refused ; the records of the voyage should go with him to the end, and to the end they did go. It was the instinctive resolution of a brave man that the story of his endeavor should not be lost, even though it was a story of disaster and defeat. It is no doubt with a similar sentiment that Mrs. De Long has given to the world a full narrative of the expedition which her husband commanded.1 She has made it so full and complete that one feels, in reading it, here is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. It is the truth about the Jeannette which people want, and it is this truth which will give to the expedition and its commander a fame unmeasured by success or failure. The most imperishable monument to a brave man is that knowledge of his life and character which becomes the property of the world, and so passes into human thought and aspiration ; whatever may be the fortune of future expeditions, no results of research can dim the fame of this venture, because its fame rests not on what it accomplished, but upon the witness which it bore to the temper of men.

The bulk of the work before us is occupied with a transcript of Captain De Long’s journals, and it was fit, therefore, that the first chapter should be a sketch of De Long’s life before he took command of the expedition. The book is so far a memorial to him that his early life is not treated as an introduction, but as a constituent part of the narrative. It is curious to find that as a boy he was carefully defended by an over-anxious mother from all perils of the water, and that the bent of his nature was for a life the very opposite of that to which his training was addressed. There is just enough hint of his family circumstances given to suggest to the reader an irksome repression, but one easily believes that the direction which De Long’s life took was not in a reaction from home influence, hut in the growth of a will which was a significant inheritance from his mother. The manliness, the openness, and the obedience of the boy were qualities which do not accord with mere restlessness of temper, and the strength of his will is seen in his final persuasion of his parents, and not in insubordination.

The training which he received, however, in the vain effort of his parents to make a professional man of him, was of great value, for the journals bear testimony to the skill which he acquired as a writer. We doubt if it was his education at the Naval Academy, so much as his public school and his private exercises when a boy, which gave him an ease in expression ; and we venture the opinion that if Annapolis and West Point gave more special attention to literary training, many an officer in the navy and in the army would chafe less under the limitations of his life, and our literature would show a more admirable shelf of books written by such officers than it now does. Be this as it may, there was, no doubt, in De Long’s case a predisposition to literature. “ His spirit and energy,” we are told, “ hemmed in upon the adventurous side, found exercise in an intellectual ardor, and he was a fiery little orator and writer.”

The manner in which he won over his parents to consent to his applying for admission to the Naval Academy, and then badgered everybody, including Mr. Benjamin Wood, the Representative to Congress from his district, and Secretary Welles, until he carried his point, is a boyish exhibition of an indomitable energy and winning faculty, which his after experience repeated in a variety of ways. Just as he had apparently got what he was after, and had gone to Newport, — for it was in the early days of the war, when the Academy was established there, — the officers at the Academy received a dispatch from the Secretary of the Navy, instructing them not to accept Mr. Wood’s young man, for De Long had received the appointment in consequence of the unexpected failure in health of a cadet from Mr. Wood’s district.

“ Back to New York rushed De Long, and demanded of Mr. Wood the reason for the dispatch. Mr. Wood showed him a letter from the Secretary, by which it appeared that the nomination of De Long had been delayed, and that the cadet whose place he was to fill had recovered his health and been reinstated. ‘ So that ends the matter,’ said Mr. Wood; but it did not at all end it in De Long’s mind. He burst into a vigorous invective against the Department. It was all wrong. Mr. Wood had been imposed upon. It was because he was a Democrat that this injustice had been done, and the Republican Secretary was depriving the Congressman of his rights. He ought not to stand such treatment an hour. Mr. Wood was amused and moved by the zeal of the young advocate, and finally said : —

“ ‘ Do you sit down, Mr. De Long, and write what you want to the Secretary. I will sign the letter, and you can take it to Washington yourself, if you like.’

“ The letter was written, and De Long set off at once to Washington. It was in the fall of 1861, when the trains were packed with soldiers, and the boy had to stand all the way from Philadelphia to Washington. He reached the city at six in the morning, and as soon as he could get something to eat presented himself at the door of the Secretary’s office, and was ready when the hour came for business. He entered and handed Mr. Wood’s letter to the Secretary. Mr. De Long often enjoyed telling of that interview ; how he watched the various expressions of Mr. Gideon Welles’s face as he read the tempestuous letter which the boy had written. When the Secretary finished, he pushed his spectacles up and looked at his visitor.

“ ’ And you are Mr. De Long, are you ? Well, well, this is a very strange state of affairs. Mr. Wood seems very much excited ; but he is laboring under a delusion. We have no intention of slighting him in any way. You can return to the Academy. I will give the necessary orders for your reception there, and please say to Mr. Wood that he shall not be deprived even of his imaginary right.’ ”

De Long completed his term at the Naval Academy without further interruption, and entered active service. His high spirits, his curiosity, and his resolute will are sketched in a number of entertaining and suggestive incidents; but the event which most distinctly foretold his career was the boat-expedition which he made with a small party, when he was lieutenant on the Juniata, a steamer sent to the coast of Greenland to search for the missing Polaris. De Long volunteered to take the steamlaunch and explore Melville Bay, and the narrative of his daring adventure, told in his own words, gives one a keen sense of the courage and prudence which characterized him. He went to the full length of his powers, but there was an absence of mere recklessness, and that in such affairs counts for as much as courage.

The boat-journey gave him that taste of Arctic adventure which is sure to whet the appetite of a high-spirited man. To say that De Long caught the Arctic fever then, and was uneasy until he was again in high latitudes, would be true, but might give a false view of the controlling motive of his career. A craving for mere adventure, the love of excitement, the restless desire for peril, are after all rather physical than high mental or moral inspirations, and the natures which obey such impulses have not the stuff out of which real heroism is made. If there were no other evidence, the power of silent, cheerful endurance of disappointment which De Long and his party showed would intimate that they were sustained by some higher motive than a desire to achieve adventure. There is other evidence, for the whole tenor of De Long’s own words concerning the expedition and the comprehensiveness of his preparations indicate how completely he threw his whole life into the enterprise, and with what generous purpose he conceived the adventure.

The expedition was linked with the historical Arctic explorations of America in an interesting fashion.

“ When the Juniata was ordered to the coast of Greenland, Lieutenant De Long called upon Mr. Henry Grinnell, of New York, to obtain from him any information which his long connection with Arctic explorations could afford. Mr. Grinnell offered the use of charts which had been employed on the several expeditions he had fitted out, and upon the return of the Juniata Lieutenant De Long restored these charts to Mr. Grinnell, and acquainted, him with his own experience. The two held a long talk upon Arctic subjects, and shortly after Lieutenant De Long dined at Mr. Grinnell’s in company with Dr. Bessells and other Arctic voyagers. At this dinner Mr. De Long asked Mr. Grinnell : —

“ ‘ Why do you not fit out an expedition to the North Pole ? I should like much to take command of one and solve the problem. You have tried so often you ought to try again.’

“‘I am too old a man,’ replied Mr. Grinnell, ‘ and I have done my share. Younger men must take the matter in hand. There is Mr. James Gordon Bennett. He is the man to undertake such an expedition. You should apply to him.’ ”

Mr. De Long did apply, and found Mr. Bennett already thinking of the scheme. Thus it was that the power which had essayed to solve the African problem and had achieved so much success was the one to attack the Polar problem. Nations and commerce have had their turn in discovery ; it remains for the fourth estate to organize further victories, with this advantage that, its power of making known its discoveries is as great as its power to endow research, and, moreover, that the very reason of its being leads to the fullest, most detailed report.

It was nearly six years before the plans then conceived were so far consummated that the Jeannette sailed out of Sau Francisco harbor on her voyage of discovery ; and though the time was not all expended in direct preparation, it may be said that De Long never lost sight of his great purpose. A naval officer in time of peace finds little in the service to call out his highest qualities, and De Long was not the man to be satisfied with a life of routine. He did good work meanwhile in connection with the school-ship St. Mary, and he made acquisitions in science which qualified him for observation and speculation when he confronted the perplexing problems of the Arctic Ocean.

The actual preparation for the expedition was arduous, and De Long threw himself into the labor with all his impetuous and steady might. His oversight extended to the minutest particular, and backed as he was by a man who had great resources and a generous confidence in him, he spared no pains to make the best use of whatever was available. The combination of advantages was certainly very great. Mr. Bennett bad money, influence, and a liberal zeal. Captain De Long had experience, enthusiasm, a cool head, and special training, while the United States lent the powerful aid of her naval organization and discipline. It seems pitiful that at the last moment, when every hour was precious, some inexplicable economy or churlishness upon the part of the government should have compelled Captain De Long to lose a fortnight at least, if not more, from the necessity of taking along to Alaska a schooner for consort, instead of a government steamer.

The whole story, indeed, is one of mournful might have beens. The delay at the start was lengthened by the errand in search of tidings of Nordenskjöld. That prosperous voyager was calmly making his way through summer seas, while De Long was anxiously exploring the coast about Behring Strait for tidings of him. Of course it was all right, and there was no help for it, and De Long only did a humane duty ; but the pity of it ! A month in the summer of 1879 spent in comparatively low latitudes contains all manner of possibilities in the way of progress northward. It is impossible to say what parallel he might have made if he had sighted Herald Island on August 4th instead of September 4th. He might simply have been a month longer in the ice, but the cruel truth is that he had scarcely weighed anchor for the great enterprise on which he was bound before he was closed in by the ice, which held him in a sullen grip for nearly two years.

Instead, therefore, of a voyage of interesting discovery and abundant incident, the Jeannette and her company were doomed to an Arctic prison, where the only change was that brought by the sun and moon in their rounds and the restless heaving of the ice. Land was seen from time to time, as the ship moved wherever the icy bed in which she lay was willed to go, drifting in currents, or impelled by winds. The aurora displayed its splendid colors, and the various phenomena of an Arctic sky passed before them by night and day. Bears, seals, walruses, foxes, and a few fowl visited the lonely ship, and once, near the end of their imprisonment, a party made a hazardous expedition to an island past which the ice was drifting, and took possession of it in the name of the United States.

Of what, then, does the record of these twenty-one months consist, and what interest has it for the reader? In the hands of many brave captains, the story would have been dry enough, but Captain De Long had resources rarely granted to Arctic explorers. He had a power of making the details of the daily life they led instinct with meaning and vividness. The bear hunts, the adventures of the different members of the party, the characteristics of the dogs, the routine of the ship, furnished him with material for his diary, which he wrought simply, naturally, and most effectively. He did not often indulge in rhapsodical descriptions of Arctic scenery, but his account of the most notable feature of their imprisonment, namely, the action of the ice in which they were held, is one of exceeding force. This movement of the ice made so large a part of their experience and gave rise to such alternations of hope and discouragement that his record is frequent and detailed, but also singularly fresh and varied. Yet he despaired of giving any adequate conception of this pulsation of the Arctic Ocean, and seems to have laid aside his pen more than once with a sense of the futility of conveying through words a notion of the sights and sounds which impressed themselves so deeply on his own sensory.

“ A day of great anxiety,” is one of his entries. “ At 6.10 A. M. I was awakened by the trembling and creaking of the ship, and almost immediately the man on watch came into my room to inform me that the ice was again in motion. Hastily tumbling out and dressing, I went out on the ice. The grinding and crushing flow of ice to the westward had again commenced, and the jamming of large pieces from time to time, splintering our floe, caused breaks and upheavals to within about seventyfive feet of the ship. The ship groaned and creaked at every pressure, until I thought the next would break her adrift. The pressure was tremendous, and the noise was not calculated to calm one’s mind. I know of no sound on shore that can be compared to it. A rumble, a shriek, a groan, and a crash of a falling house all combined might serve to convey an idea of the noise with which this motion of ice-floes is accompanied. Great masses, from fifteen to twentyfive feet in height when up-ended, are sliding along at various angles of elevation and jam, and between and among them are large and confused masses of débris, like a marble yard adrift. Occasionally, a stoppage occurs ; some piece has caught against or under our floe ; then occurs a groaning and cracking; our floe bends and humps up in places like domes. Crash ! the dome splits, another yard of floe edge breaks off, the pressure is relieved, and on goes again the flowing mass of rumbles, shrieks, groans, etc., for another spell.”

The occupations of officers and crew during this enforced isolation were not especially different from those of other Arctic voyagers, but it gives one a strong impression of what Captain De Long and his associates would have done in the way of scientific observation, when one sees how indefatigably they worked within the narrow limits of their opportunity. Meteorological observations went on day after day, and, above all, experiments were made looking to the health and comfort of the crew which contain valuable results, positive as well as negative, which Captain De Long has recorded in his journal. His investigations into the presence of salt in potable water and his persistent attempts to secure conditions of dryness in the quarters plainly constitute valuable contributions to the practical science of Arctic exploration. The thoroughness with which the interior discipline of the ship was observed and the unfailing attention given to details of management bore fruit in the exceptional well-being of the party.

It is, however, as a record of human endurance and high courage that the ship journal has a special value. It is perhaps too much to expect that most readers will follow the narrative day by day through the dreary months of winter and the even more cheerless summer, and yet only by such faithful perusal can the whole force of the narrative be felt; for the imagination has to reconstruct a life which is not sharply to be conceived, but to be felt as a weight. That dull iteration of days, that appalling cold and darkness, that gloomy succession of monotonous incidents, come finally to lie upon the imagination and sink into the mind; and it is only when this has been done that the reader can rise to a conception of the undaunted faith and cheerful hope which pervade the book. It gives one a new intelligence of what man can do when nature plants herself with chin on hand to face him out of hope and belief.

Captain De Long was chary of his reflections, and yet, under the pressure of the life which he led, it is not strange that there escaped from him now and then a cry of pain and disappointment. The chapter headed A Frozen Summer, which records the experience of the summer of 1880, to which all had looked forward as the time of escape from the wintry fastness, has a number of passages which indicate how he was fretted and galled by his confinement; but scarcely has he given vent to his impatience before he rises to a new confidence in the coming of a brighter day. Entering the fact that they had reached the longest day of the year to some people, but not to them, he writes, “ There can be no greater wear and tear on a man’s mind and patience than this life in the pack. The absolute monotony ; the unchanging rounds of hours ; the awakening to the same things and the same conditions that one saw just before losing one’s self in sleep; the same faces ; the same dogs; the same ice; the same conviction that to-morrow will be exactly the same as to-day, if not more disagreeable; the absolute impotence to do anything, to go anywhere, or to change one’s situation an iota; the realization that food is being consumed and fuel burned with no valuable result, beyond sustaining life ; the knowledge that nothing has been accomplished thus far to save this expedition from being denominated an utter failure : all these things crowd in with irresistible force on my reasoning powers each night as I sit down to reflect upon the events of the day; and but for some still, small voice within me that tells me this can hardly be the ending of all my labor and zeal, I should be tempted to despair.”

There was an end at length to this monotony. Early in the first winter the Jeannette had sprung a leak, and there is an interesting account from time to time of the efforts made to close the leak and to pump the ship without recourse to wasting manual labor. The ingenious contrivances of the commander and of the engineer, Mr. Melville, to economize coal and utilize the steam power had culminated in the invention of a windmill apparatus; and by the way, we wish drawings of this appliance had been given. In June of the second year, however, the ship suffered a more serious accident from the pressure of the ice, and it was plain that she must be abandoned. So complete had been all the preparations for this emergency that when the event came there Was no confusion or disorder, and no hasty loss of what was afterwards to be regretted. Captain De Long saw his ship sink, and had now before him the perilous transportation of men and stores across the frozen ocean to the nearest land.

At this point begins a narrative of extraordinary interest. Without flurry or discomposure the commander quietly perfected his plan of march, divided his company, distributed his stores, waited coolly till all was ready, and then set out with cautious, intelligent steps toward Siberia. The account of the six weeks occupied in the march till they made their first land, the hitherto unknown Bennett Island, is exceedingly spirited, and gives a hint of the manifold perils of the journey. Here, for instance, is one illustration of the difficulties which they encountered : —

“June 29th, Wednesday. At 1.30 turned to. Right at our feet we had some road-making to do, and then we came to some very old heavy ice, dirty and discolored with mud, with here and there a mussel shell, and with a piece of rock on it, which, as it was similar to that on Henrietta Island, I carried along. Going ahead with the dog sleds and Mr. Dunbar, we suddenly came to water, and peering into the fog it seemed as if we had some extensive lead before us. Going back hurriedly, I sent the dingy ahead for an exploration; but, alas! it was fruitless. The favorable lead which we thought we had turned out to be another wretched opening seventy-five feet wide, which we had to bridge. By great good fortune a large piece was handy, and by hard hauling Dunbar, Sharvell, and I succeeded in getting it in place, and a fortunate closing of the lead a foot or two jammed it in as a solid bridge. Unfortunately openings were occurring in our rear, and we had more bridging to do there.

“ Never was there such luck. No sooner do we get our advance across a lead than a new one opens behind it, and makes us hurry back lest our rear should be caught. By the time we have got a second sled ahead more openings have occurred, and we are in for a time. These openings are always east and west. By no means, seemingly, can we get one north and south, so that we might make something by them; and these east and west lanes meander away to narrow veins between piled up masses, over which there can no road be built, and between which no boat can be got. It is no uncommon thing for us to have four leads to bridge in half a mile, and when one remembers that Melville and his party have to make always six and sometimes seven trips, the amount of coming and going is fearful to contemplate. Add to this the flying trip of the dog-sleds, and the moving forward of the sick at a favorable moment, and it is not strange that we dread meeting an ice opening.”

In the midst of all this terrible experience Captain De Long found that the ice was moving more rapidly to the north than he was making to the south, and to his dismay they were getting farther and farther away from the continent. He kept his intelligence to himself, changed his course, and corrected the error. The result was the discovery of an island not before seen by Arctic explorers, and named by him Bennett Island. The landing upon the island from a surging mass of ice and water is most graphically described, and one feels a sense of relief as these heroic travelers touch solid earth again, and at once go to work collecting specimens, making observations, and acting as if their journey had been for the express purpose of exploring Bennett Island.

It was after the island was left and they are able to make more use of the boats that the gloomiest portion of the journey was reached ; for, with the hope of deliverance at hand, they were again doomed to imprisonment in the ice. Here was another of the fatal might have beens. A quarter of an hour’s detention of one of the boats resulted in a ten days’ confinement, and one’s sympathy goes out to the captain as he records on what proved to be the last day of this detention : “ I have concluded that there is very little use in calling all hands at five A. M. day after day, when we have no chance to move along, and God knows the hours of waiting pass drearily enough without unnecessarily lengthening the days. Accordingly, all hands this morning slept on until 6.30, and when up we found that the ice seemed more tightly closed than ever.”

From this time onward the record is one of misfortune closing in, and unflinching will grappling with untoward events. In the cold, stormy September they made the New Siberian Islands and took a little breath; then pushed out for the Lena Delta, and, halting for a Sunday at Semanovski Island, made their last voyage to the coast. In a gale, September 12th, which struck them just after they had left shelter, the three boats in which the company was distributed were driven asunder. One, the second cutter, commanded by Lieutenant Chipp, was never again seen by mortal eye; another, the whale-boat, commanded by Mr. Melville, reached the east coast of the Delta where natives gave them needed assistance; and Captain De Long himself, with his party in the first cutter, reached the northern shore.

A little less than two months later, Mr. Melville entered a hut where were two men, Nindemann and Noros. They were the sole survivors of the party under Captain De Long. That party, crippled by cold and hunger, had been making its way across the great morass, without guides, with imperfect maps, finding here and there a deserted hut, but no natives. The half-frozen streams could not be navigated by rafts, and the snow and swamp gave way beneath their weight, as they struggled on, bearing the dying Ericksen through that fearful wilderness. A month after the landing Captain De Long, facing death, sent these two men forward to seek relief, then dragged his little party a few miles further on, and sat down, unable to move, to wait for help.

The journal which began with so much life and fullness in San Francisco Bay, and was carried forward through the months of isolation in the Arctic Ocean, retaining whatever could be found of incident and observation, which recorded the terrible experience as the unbroken company toiled under their brave commander toward land and salvation, becomes nervously brief as the end draws near, until at length the daily record is only the short memorandum which sets down the fatal facts. Even here De Long’s self-possession and officer-like deliberation do not fail him.

“ October 23d, Sunday. One hundred and thirty-third day. Everybody pretty weak. Slept or rested all day, and then managed to get enough wood in before dark. Read part of divine service. Suffering in our feet. No foot gear.

“ October 24th, Monday. One hundred and thirty-fourth day. A hard night.

“ October 25th, Tuesday. One hundred and thirty-fifth day.

“ October 26th, Wednesday. One hundred and thirty-sixth day.

“ October 27th, Thursday. One hundred and thirty-seventh day. Iversen broken down.

“ October 28th, Friday. One hundred and thirty-eighth day. Iversen died during early morning.

“ October 29th, Saturday. One hundred and thirty-ninth day. Dressler died during the night.

“ October 30th, Sunday. One hundred and fortieth day. Boyd and Görtz died during night. Mr. Collins dying.”

There the pencil falls from his hands, and the record is closed. The last tally was kept by no mortal hand. The snow fell and covered the dead. There they lay until uncovered by their comrades searching for them months afterward.

The Voyage of the Jeannette is thus far the record of Captain De Long, but the editor has completed the narrative from authentic sources, and given in detail the marvelous journey of Nindemann and Noros, the adventurers of the whale-boat party, the efforts to find De Long, and the experiences of the company until the return of the last member to the United States. The public had already learned much in a fragmentary and detached way from the reports of the Court of Inquiry called to examine the evidence relating to the loss of the Jeannette, but this narrative furnishes an ordered and connected story which one is glad to get. The maps, moreover, and spirited illustrations put the reader in clearer possession of the facts as they appeal to his imagination.

The book altogether is a most impressive work. If the records of the Franklin Expedition could have been found in anything like the completeness of these journals of Captain De Long, the world might have had an equally momentous history. As it is, there has been no book in the great list of Arctic explorations which can be compared with this, as a memorial to human endeavor. The very meagreness of the results attained lifts the humanity of the work into higher and bolder relief. The sentence with which the book closes contains the verdict which the reader may justly pronounce. That it should be the deliberate conclusion of the editor will convey to many a sense of the self-control and devotion of which steadfast human nature is capable.

“It is the record of an expedition which set out in high hope, and returned broken and covered with disaster. It is also the record of lives of men subjected to severer pressure than their ship met from the forces of nature. The ship gave way ; the men surmounted the obstacles and kept their courage and faith to the end. It is, above all, the record of a leader of men who entered the service in which he fell with an honorable purpose and a lofty aim ; who endured the disappointment of a noble nature with a patience which was the conquest of bitterness ; who bore the lives of his comrades as a trust reposed in him; and who died at his post with an unfaltering faith in God whom he served and loved.

“ The voyage of the Jeannette is ended. The scientific; results obtained were far less than had been aimed at, but were not insignificant. Something was added to the stock of the world’s knowledge ; a slight gain was made in the solution of the Arctic problem. Is it said that too high a price in the lives of men was paid for this knowledge ? Not by such cold calculation is human endeavor measured. Sacrifice is nobler than ease, unselfish life is consummated in lonely death, and the world is richer by this gift of suffering.”

  1. 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. Edited by his wife, EMMA DE LONG. With steel portraits, maps, and many illustrations on wood and stone. In two volumes. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company. 1883.