Captain George Washington DeLong and his brave men will finally conquer the North Pole, that much is clear, and they will also prove that the North Pole, indeed the whole Arctic Ocean, is an open, warm sea. Perhaps the men will return with unknown animals they will discover in the high north. Maybe even with suntanned North Pole natives in bast skirts. At least that’s what it says in the newspaper, or more precisely in the “New York Herald”, which, after all, only reflects the opinion of scientists.
In fact, at this time, researchers from all branches of geography are firmly convinced that the Arctic Ocean is not covered by a meter-thick ice cap, but must be an open, warm water body. From all that is currently known about the Earth, these theories even seem logical. For example, this one: When the sun shines down on the sea for 24 hours in the north polar summer, no ice can form at all. Or this one: The ocean currents keep the water moving in such a way that ice formation is impossible. Another: Such a large amount of salt water can not freeze at all. Common to all theories is the assumption that the open Arctic Ocean is merely surrounded by a circumpolar ring of ice, as a transition zone, so to speak. Thus, if one wants to get to the North Pole, one only has to break through this ice belt and afterwards, one has free route by ship. The expedition of Captain DeLong and the “Jeannette” is particularly inspired by another theory of the open sea: the teachings of Kuroshio.
Warm ocean current
Kuroshio is the name of an extensive warm water current in the Pacific Ocean. It forms near the Philippines, flows along the east coast of Japan and from there on between eastern Russia and Alaska through the Bering Sea and under the ice ring towards the Arctic Ocean. The point is that the warm Kuroshio water is melting the ice belt of the Chukchi Sea, or at least making the ice soft and brittle. This current is the counterpart to the equally warm Gulf Stream on the other side of the globe. And because the two currents flow together in the Arctic Ocean, we have another reason why the Arctic Ocean cannot be ice-covered. So, if one catches the right time, it is easy to get through the ice ring and from there to the North Pole. One of the greatest proponents of the Kuroshio theory is also one of the most respected cartographers in the world: the German August Petermann.
He even goes one step further by publishing freely invented maps on which he draws Greenland and the quasi-opposite Wrangel Land as a uniform landmass running across the North Pole. Petermann claims: Whoever has broken through the ice ring in the Bering Sea can then easily walk to the North Pole. Therefore, it is also quite possible that people live at the North Pole. Proving all these theories is the job of Captain George DeLong. He is to break through the ice ring in the Chukchi Sea and sail to the North Pole. DeLong’s expedition is also seen as an alternative to previous North Pole expeditions, which all started on the European side over Greenland – and failed.
DeLong’s ship is well prepared for this trip. Under the name “Pandora” it has already been used in the search for Sir John Franklin, who disappeared in the Northwest Passage, and is therefore Arctic-tested. The originally English ship was additionally upgraded in San Francisco for DeLong’s expedition and renamed “Jeannette”, named after the sister of the man who financed the whole enterprise: the American Gordon Bennett junior (even though the American Congress specially passed a law making DeLong’s venture an official state expedition).
Gordon’s father, Gordon Bennett Senior, was the founder of the New York Herald newspaper and is considered the inventor of tabloid journalism. Sex and crime, that was new, but it’s been selling well ever since, as has sensation and adventure. In times like these, when there are still many white spots on the maps and industrialisation has only just begun, readers are hungry for spectacular stories, and that is exactly what Junior has been providing them with since he took over the newspaper. The success of the “New York Herald” made both father and son two of the richest men in the world.
That’s why Junior had an open ear when, in the winter of 1874, George DeLong breezed into his white marble-lined New York office and wetly explained that he wanted to conquer the North Pole and needed financial backing. DeLong could afford this appearance because he was quite famous at the time. Six months earlier, as first officer of the ship “Juanita”, he had distinguished himself by his extraordinary intrepidity: during a search operation for the missing expedition ship “Polaris” off Greenland, he volunteered for a life-threatening search trip through the pack ice in a small dinghy of the “Juanita”. DeLong was hailed as a hero in the newspapers for this. The red-haired, blue-eyed, stocky moustache-wearer with the warm look and the angular chin, married and father of a daughter, was considered to be extremely determined and ambitious at the age of 28. His motto in life: Do it now! In the eyes of Gordon Bennett, DeLong was just the man to conquer the North Pole and bring sensational stories or new circulation records to the “New York Herald”. Bennett visited the cartographer August Petermann in Germany and had him explain his theories. In addition, he took over all the costs of the “Jeannette” expedition and left Captain DeLong free to do as he pleased. So on July 8, 1879, after five years of preparation and extensive accompanying articles in the “New York Herald,” the adventure finally gets underway. On board the captain and 32 seasoned men, including two Inuit dog sledders and two Chinese cooks. The “Jeannette”, 44.5 meters long and 7.6 meters wide, is loaded with 135 tons of coal and equipped, among other things, with a darkroom, a portable observatory, a well-stocked library, an organ and chemicals in which newly discovered plants and animals are to be preserved. Plus garlands of arc lamps against the arctic night from the studio of inventor Thomas Alva Edison (who is wrongly credited with inventing the incandescent lamp), which then failed to work in the freezing cold.
The provisions are enough for three years, that’s how long the journey should last at most. Among other things, 700 kilos of butter, 750 kilos of beans, 50 kilos of tobacco for smoking and 900 kilos of tobacco for chewing. Plus 25 tons of pemmican: the bland-tasting, greasy mixture of crushed dried meat, berries and fat becomes essential for survival in the course of the expedition. The team is in good spirits.
The message comes too late
But alas! The “Jeannette” has not even reached the pack ice north of the Aleutian Islands when the US Coast and Geodetic Survey publishes its latest groundbreaking research results: One of its crews has studied the sea in and around the Bering Strait over several years for currents, temperature, depth and much more, with a particular focus on the Kuroshio Current. The result: Yes, the Kuroshio exists. But its power dissipates shortly after Japan, and further north it dissipates altogether. In plain language, there is no warm water in the Chukchi Sea. And consequently, no open Arctic Ocean. The North Pole must be covered in ice. One of the researchers sums it up: “The Bering Strait is a dead end.” And DeLong’s mission is obsolete. Except DeLong’s already on his way. He doesn’t learn that he can basically stop his journey now.
On September 2, the “Jeannette” first strikes drift ice, then two metres of thick pack ice. Only five days later, on September 7, a Sunday with snowfall and thick fog, an ice floe pushes the ship into an inclined position, and within minutes the ice around it freezes as hard as a pimple. The “Jeannette” is stuck. There is nowhere on the ship to stand or sit up straight.
DeLong did expect to be trapped in the pack ice at some point, but not this early, not at 72 degrees latitude. And he asks himself anxiously: Where is the warm water of the Kuroshio current? At least it’s comforting that the ship is trapped within sight of Wrangel-(Is)land. DeLong is keeping calm. After two months, at the end of October, the ship is still stuck, and that will not change during the winter months. DeLong orders the ship to be winterized.
And of course the extensive research continues: temperature measurements in the air and in the water, weather and animal observations and much more. Based on the water temperature measurements, DeLong is coming more and more to the sobering view and what the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey at home had announced weeks ago: The Kuroshio Current does not flow through the ice ring.
Ice ring? It gets even worse for DeLong: although the ship is stuck in the pack ice, the ice cover itself is always in motion. It’s called drift, and it’s familiar to sailors. The crew meticulously observes how the frozen “Jeannette” is always a bit criss-crossed, but all in all continuously transported from the ice to the west. Thus it comes about that within a year the “Jeannette” has definitely drifted north of Wrangel-Land past the same. But if that is possible, De-Long concludes, it means that Wrangel is not a mainland connected to Greenland, but an island. Wrangel Island. With this, August Petermann’s theory of the mainland at the North Pole is finally disproved. From this knowledge and from the current situation of the “Jeannette” in the pack ice, DeLong in turn concludes that from here to the North Pole there is only one thing: a thick, solid, impenetrable sheet of ice that rotates clockwise around the North Pole. In plain language: Even the assumption of a warm Arctic Ocean is nothing more than a false theory.
Boredom and discipline
And finally: It is very unlikely that the “Jeannette” will reach the North Pole under its own power. Nonetheless, DeLong maintains discipline on board. Squad reporting at 7 a.m., breakfast at 8 a.m. Subsequent work on board and scientific measurements. After noon, two hours of sports on the ice and moving the 40 dogs that were with them, lunch at 3 pm. A light supper at 7 p.m., bedtime at ten.
On Sundays, DeLong reads articles from the Law of War to his crew, followed by a mass, DeLong compares his crew to the biblical Job and invokes the will to persevere. On the first day of each month, the ship’s doctor performs a thorough health check on the entire crew.
So the days, weeks and months go by. After 16 months of imprisonment in the ice, it is the last day of the year 1880, the captain takes stock: the ship has moved a total of 2000 kilometres in the drift, but as the crow flies it has only covered 500 kilometres in a north-westerly direction.
Several times the pressure of the ice on the ship is so great that the men fear their last hour has struck. On January 19 the ship had indeed sprung a leak, but the hole was repaired. Nevertheless, the crew holds its own, they go hunting and stage plays.
Meanwhile, people at home are beginning to worry about the whereabouts of the “Jeannette”. The government sends out three ships during the spring of 1881 to search for the “Jeannette” – they all return unsuccessfully. Further rescue expeditions, one of them in England, are in preparation. The interest of newspaper readers as to the whereabouts of DeLong and his men is immense.
The ship is sinking
On June 11, 1881, disaster finally strikes: The pack ice crushes the “Jeannette”. Icy water floods the lower decks. Captain DeLong orders immediate evacuation to the ice. Two days later, the ship sinks into the depths of the sea. Goodbye, “Jeannette”! After 21 months in the drift, the 33 men and the dogs are now on the ice without a ship. Their position is 77°15′ north 155° east. The North Pole is 1000 kilometres away.
The men are left with only one hope: that they can save themselves to the coast of central Siberia. But this means that they are facing a 1500-kilometre march across the ice – and the maps August Petermann brought with him are extremely inaccurate in the area of northern Russia. And time is of the essence. Because if they don’t reach the coast before the harsh Siberian winter sets in, their chances of survival are definitely zero. They leave on June 18. The plan: On foot to the New Siberian Islands and from there by boat to the mainland.
Nevertheless, because the team has been prepared for this eventuality for months, the men are relatively well equipped with clothing, food, tents and instruments. Including the logbooks carried, that’s eight tons of material, neatly packed on sleds. Plus three dinghies, which now also have to be towed across the ice. The second odyssey begins.
The long march
The march across the ice is pure torture. The ice is knee-deep slushy because of the summer sun and broken up again and again in places. In a zigzag course the men toil. Which didn’t help at first, because the drift threw a wrench in their plans: after eight days, the men had marched 30 kilometers south, but drifted 45 kilometers north. Still, morale remains good, at least for now. And so far, not a single member of the expedition has died. DeLong issues the motto “Nil desperandum” – loosely translated: We will never give up.
Day after day, the men, divided into three groups, toil through mud and ice and over open water, always heading south. Temperatures fluctuate wildly, clothes are permanently wet, food is scarce, the men are tired and increasingly worn out. Squabbles arise. The first dogs go limp and are fed to their fitter peers.
After eleven days, the crew reaches a previously unknown island. DeLong christens her Bennett Island, the name of his sponsor, and prescribes eight days of rest.
After another three weeks of strenuous marching, on August 30, the men reach Faddeevsky Peninsula, a spur of Kotelny Island, the largest of the New Siberian Islands. For the first time in two years and a month, the exhausted men can feel moss and lichen under their battered feet and hunt birds again. They struggle on for another ten days on foot and in boats to Semyonovsky Island. From here it is only 150 kilometres to the rescuing mainland – but crossing the open sea.
At half past seven on Monday morning, it is September 12, 1881, the men set out on the final leg across the Laptev Sea. The 33 men are divided into the three boats towed along. There’s not a handful of the dogs left. But so far there has not been a single human casualty. And the weather is as glorious as the men’s new-found courage. The great crossing begins.
Solid ground at last
But already in the night a storm comes up. The boats are separated from each other in the high waves, the groups lose visual contact. From now on, each group is on its own.
The storm is hard. In the boat that DeLong leads, no one gets to sleep for over 36 hours. But the weather calms down again. And after four days, the boat finally touches bottom. Nevertheless, the crew has to struggle through silt and mud for another 24 hours until they finally reach the safe mainland. 95 days after the sinking of the “Jeannette”, at least the crew of DeLong’s boat is back on solid ground. Joy reigns!
But the men are still far from being saved: the delta of the river Lena, where they have landed, is incredibly large and deserted. There is no sign of the other two boats. The 14 exhausted men and one dog are on their own. The maps are very unreliable. And the outlook is depressing: Siberian winter is just around the corner. The third odyssey begins.
Not knowing how their comrades in the other boats fared, the 14 men of the DeLong group abandon their boat and head inland in the hope of meeting native Yakuts. It’s almost cynical: if the storm had moved DeLong’s group only 15 kilometres further west, the men could have taken the boat up a branch of the Lena and would have come across a Yakut village within a day.
But so the men wander south through the wilderness. They are so exhausted that they have little hunting success, the last pemmican reserves must be strictly rationed. The dog is slaughtered. At night it gets as cold as low as minus 50 degrees. Many instruments and especially the logbooks are buried on the way to save ballast.
The fact that they come across empty hunting huts three times along the way is a small consolation, but in the end it doesn’t help: on October 6, after 49 days of walking through the tundra of the Lena Delta, the sailor Hans Erichsen dies of frostbite and exhaustion and he is buried on the spot.
DeLong knows that Erichsen won’t be the last dead unless help arrives very quickly. He therefore sends the two men who are still in best shape ahead as the advance party: the mate William Nindemann and the sailor Louis Noros. DeLong guesses that the Yakut village of Kumakh-Surt is four days’ march from their position.
With a will of steel, Nindemann and Noros drag themselves through the snow – for ten days, 200 kilometres, until they are finally found by a group of hunting Yakuts and brought to Kumakh-Surt despite massive communication problems.
Seeing again gives pleasure
The two are so deliriously weak that they have to be fed up by the Yakuts for the time being. And how do you explain in sign language that far away there are eleven men waiting to be rescued?
After ten days in the sick bay, the “Jeannette” engineer George Melville unexpectedly enters the cabin of Nindemann and Noros: he was the chief of the second group, respectively of one of the other two boats. His group had also survived the crossing and after a month in the wilderness were rescued by indigenous Evenks to the village of Bulun. All eleven men of his group are well, according to the circumstances. But Melville also has no idea what has become of the third group led by Charles Chipp. In the meantime, 70 days have passed since the crossing.
On November 5, Melville sets out with some Yakuts to search for DeLong and his ten men. Although he zigzags more than 2000 kilometres in 23 days, he only finds the boxes with the log books that DeLong had buried: thanks to this find, the world now knows every last detail about the voyage of the “Jeannette”.
On December 21, Melville sends a telegram from Irkutsk to London: at last the world learns what has become of the “Jeannette” expedition. Gordon Bennett immediately provides unrestricted money to save the team. The Russian government is using its army to support the search for DeLong. Hope that the men in DeLong’s group are still alive is fading. The third group, led by Charles Chipp, remains missing.
On January 16, 1882, Melville sets out again in search of DeLong, this time with Nindemann as his quasi-local guide. But the paths are long and arduous, again and again the search party gets stuck in storms.
On March 23, seven months after the crew of the “Jeannette” had rescued themselves to the mainland, the search party finally finds DeLong’s last camp. All eleven men froze and starved to death months ago. The last entry in DeLong’s ice diary is dated October 30, 140 days after the sinking of the “Jeannette”: “Boyd and Goertz died in the night. Mr. Collins is dying.”
The bodies are buried in a rock tomb, Melville christens the place Monument Point. The search party returns to Yakutsk, where Melville sends a telegram to Irkutsk on May 5, which is immediately forwarded to London: “Found Lieutenant DeLong and companions, all dead. All logs and records secured. Continue search for Lieutenant Chipp and party.”
But the eight men of Chipp’s group remain lost forever.
What happened next
– George Melville arrives in New York on September 13, 1882. He is hailed internationally as a hero. Two years later, he travels to the Arctic again and later becomes a rear admiral. He dies on 17 March 1912.
– DeLong also achieves posthumous military honors.
– In 1883, the remains of DeLong and his ten companions are transferred to America. DeLong is buried with full honors in New York.
– In 1884, wreckage from the “Jeannette” is found on the east coast of Greenland, almost 3000 kilometres from the site of the accident. Fridtjof Nansen sets out on the Fram expedition (1893-1896) on the basis of these findings and thus proves the circumpolar ice drift in the Arctic Ocean.
– That same year, 1884, Emma DeLong published her late husband’s log and diaries. In 1938 she published her own memoirs. She died at the age of 89 on November 25, 1940, and was buried alongside George in Woodlawn Cemetery in New York, where five other members of the expedition were also laid to rest.
– Gordon Bennett junior remains publisher of the highly successful “New York Herald” throughout his life. He died in France on May 14, 1918.
– Since the “Jeannette” expedition, no attempt has been made to conquer the North Pole from the Bering Strait. All further attempts lead across Greenland – on foot over the ice.
– According to their own, unproven statements, both Robert Peary and Frederick Cook claimed in 1908 to have been the first humans to reach the North Pole.
– An archipelago of five islands in the Arctic Ocean is named after DeLong.
– Herbert Leach dies in 1933 as the last of the 12 survivors of the “Jeannette” expedition.
– For one month in autumn 2017, a Russian expedition searched for the wreck of the “Jeannette” with underwater sonar. The search remains unsuccessful.
Text: Christian Hug