Editor’s note: This is one of a series of columns exploring bowhead whales and the bowhead whale exhibit now on display at the University of Alaska Museum of the North.
The U.S. Navy initially followed Nantucket whaleships into the Pacific Ocean in 1818. As Atlantic states’ demands for waxy sperm whale oil outgrew Nantucket’s supply of ships and whaling crews, the Navy planned to support whaling and other commerce by surveying and charting hundreds of actual or potential harbors throughout the vast Pacific. Navy plans evolved into the largely forgotten six-vessel U.S. Exploring Expedition (U.S. Ex. Ex) of 1838 to 1842 under the command of Lt. Charles Wilkes.
Wilkes was a stickler for discipline and accuracy. Upon returning to Washington DC in 1842, disgruntled officers had him court-martialed for treating them harshly. He received a mild reprimand, but stayed in Naval service as overseer of the formative years of the Smithsonian Institution. During Wilkes’ 20-year tenure there, ethnographic and natural history exhibits from the U.S. Ex. Ex. drew about a million visitors.
The Navy did not explore Pacific approaches to the Arctic until after the U.S. Civil War (1860-65), the purchase of Alaska from Russia (1867) and the loss of 32 commercial whaleships crushed by sea ice northeast of Icy Cape, Alaska (1871). The suspected murder of Charles Francis Hall, commander of the USS Polaris Expedition to NW Greenland in November of 1872 drew two key men into collusion. Navy Lt. George Washington DeLong led a dash northward in 1873 to search for Polaris survivors. News of his heroism reached New York City by telegram from St. John’s, Newfoundland before DeLong himself arrived home, alerting James Gordon Bennett, Jr., publisher and editor of the New York Herald. Bennett combined wealth with desire to cover newsworthy events, while DeLong had caught the “polar fever” of the era.
After six years of scheming Bennett and DeLong had bought an ice-strengthened British ship, got her recommissioned by the Navy as the USS Jeannette, outfitted and launched her from San Francisco for an attempt at reaching what oceanographers thought to be the “Open Polar Sea.” From a peninsula supposedly connecting Wrangel Land to Greenland, DeLong was prepared to reach the North Pole with dogsleds driven by Indigenous Alaskans hired in St. Michael.
“Nipped” by sea ice in mid-September 1879, the Jeannette’s drift NW over the imagined peninsula disproved its existence. In mid-June of 1881, sudden ice motion crushed Jeannette’s hull about 600 miles (1,000 km) from the delta of the Lena River. All 33 men travelled safely while dragging two cutters and a whaleboat over ice toward the delta. Two Indigenous Alaskans, Aneguin and Alexey, served as hunters. After reaching open water in mid-September, they sailed for the delta, but were hit with a strong gale. Eight men disappeared in their whaleboat, and the two cutters became widely separated before reaching land.
Twelve men led by G.W. Melville, the Expedition’s Engineer, successfully connected with a series of subsistence communities as they travelled upstream along the Lena River to where they could survive the winter. Twelve of the 14 men in the other cutter, including DeLong himself died of starvation by the end of October, after sending two men south to seek help.