The Strange and Awful Origins of the Resolute Desk

Resolute Desk

The Resolute Desk. It’s the main desk in the Oval Office. Duplicated a zillion times on film and TV sets, it is immediately recognizable to everyone. (Well, that and the windows.) Let’s learn where it came from!

Search for the Northwest Passage

In the 19th century, every empire worth its salt was trying to find the Northwest Passage. What’s that? It’s an easier way of getting from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific.

The route south of Argentina has notoriously awful sailing conditions. Even today, it’s a rough ride for scientists headed for Antarctica.

Lewis and Clark were trying to find a river route for it. They failed badly, of course. Eventually, we found the solution of having lots of workers die from malaria digging through Panama. But this was before then.

England Loses Two Ships

England sent two ships to explore the waters north of Canada: the HMS Erebus (named for a mythical figure in Hell) and HMS Terror (named after the English word for “terror”). Sailors are superstitious sorts, as a rule, so those aren’t great ship names.

Both ships got frozen in sea ice. Some Inuit oral history suggests that the desperate sailors went all Donner Party. Whatever happened, they didn’t come back.

There’s a brilliant fictionalized TV show about this, called The Terror, in which everyone dies horribly. The star, Jared Harris, is also in the brilliant TV show Chernobyl, which has equally gruesome deaths. It’s Mr Harris’s thing, so it seems. (His dad was in Unforgiven, where most everyone dies — but via standard means and after Harris’ character escapes. There’s no radiation sickness or Death Murder Polar Bears.)

England Almost Loses a Third Ship

The captain of the Terror had a proper English wife, so she pushed for a search-and-rescue operation. It was launched on the HMS Resolute (better name). It also got stuck in Arctic sea ice, but the crew was saved.

America, which was just then building up its own navy, and had unsuccessfully tried to invade Canada a few times, decided to be gracious and permitted the Resolute to be returned to England. Because the thing could still float, barely.

It gets back to England, and it’s basically only worth salvaging for parts at this juncture. But Queen Victoria grasps the point of America’s gesture and responds in kind. They make a very beautifully wood-worked desk out of the Resolute. And they offer it to America as a gift, which we accept

Today, it sits in the Oval Office. (LBJ had it tour the country for a awhile after Kennedy was killed; Carter put it back in.)

So, that’s the Resolute Desk. Betcha thought the name was because Presidents made serious decisions at it. (I did!) Nope, it’s from scraps of a doomed boat looking for two other doomed boats, gifted to us in a geopolitical strategy move. But, hey, geopolitical strategy move is also where the Statue Of Liberty comes from. I’ll take it!

Afterword

The wreckage of the Erebus was discovered in 2014. Two years later, the Terror was discovered in better shape. Their exact locations have not been disclosed, but from what we know I calculate that they were roughly 40 miles apart. The sites have not been fully examined and there is hope that they will find written records.


Image cropped from Barack Obama at Resolute Desk by White House (Pete Souza) — derivative work — under CC BY 2.0.

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About James Fillmore

I am a spy for MI-6 who recklessly sleeps with innumerable gorgeous partners, drinks like a madman, ruins expensive company equipment, and I get away with all of this because I save the world on a consistent basis. As my cover, I am a poor person living in Minnesota.

2 thoughts on “The Strange and Awful Origins of the Resolute Desk

  1. There were 3 more ships abandoned at the same time as Resolute – Assistance (!), Pioneer and Intrepid, which didn’t manage to float out of the ice. Even worse, another, the Investigator (which had entered the Arctic from the west, while the others had come from the east) had earlier been abandoned. A sledging party was sent from the Resolute to see if the Investigator could be salvaged (it couldn’t), and then the order to abandon all the ships (and trek east over the ice) came. So that sledging party came back to an empty ship and a note saying “jolly well done on your epic journey, now you’ve got to do another one to stay alive”.

    • Thanks Barney, that’s incredible! The more one learns about this story, the crazier it gets. You’d think at one point the notion “Arctic Ocean freezes in winter” would get through.

      Incidentally, this is a good talking point against global warming deniers. Oil companies are putting rigs in the Arctic Ocean, now. Would they be doing this if the extent of sea ice wasn’t less than it used to be? Those rigs would be crushed like tinfoil in serious sea ice.

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