Anniversary Post: Arctic Voyage of USS Jeannette

USS JeannetteOn this day in 1879, the USS Jeannette set sail from San Francisco on a scientific expedition for the North Pole. I have the greatest respect for people who do fool things like this. It is so contrary to my notions of how a sane person should act that I stand in awe. The expedition was headed by Lieutenant Commander George W DeLong. In total, there were 30 Navy officers and men and 3 civilians. Things did not go well.

By September of 1879, the Jeannette was at 71°N and caught fast in ice. And they stayed in that state for 21 months — almost two years! But the ride ended on 12 June 1881, when the pressure of the ice started to cause the ship to leak. DeLong had his crew move the supplies and three lifeboats onto the ice. The ship sank the next day. But the crew managed to make its way to the open sea.

They managed to make it to some small islands way north of Siberia. This allowed them to get some food and prepare for the big trip to the continent. Again, I find all of this amazing. I would have been inclined to stayed on the ship and died there. But maybe not. The will to survive is strong and these people kept on going. It probably helped that others were yelling at those like me who are not so tenacious of life.

On their way to Siberia, a big storm came up, capsizing one of the boats, killing eight of the men. But the other two boats made it to the continent — but they did so in completely different locations. One of the groups was headed by DeLong. Things did not go well for them. Of the 14 men, only two of them survived — the rest starved to death. The other group of 11 men, was headed by Chief Engineer George W Melville. They were able to find a native village and so survived. So of the original 33 men, only 13 survived.

I tend to think of these kinds of guys as real men. But it was a matter of necessity for these guys. I have the luxury of being an agoraphobic coward. What bothers me about most of the “real men” I see in America is that it is posturing. Their lives are as easy as mine — easier, perhaps. But they go off hunting or doing whatever in the name of feeling like they belong to the tradition of DeLong and Melville. And in a sense, I suppose they do. If put the Jeannette, they would have acted like everyone else. But as I noted, so would I have. So doing things like killing deer seem to me more like little boys playing army. It isn’t the same thing.

But we mark this day 136 years ago when the USS Jeannette started its insane voyage to the North Pole.

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