New York Times bestselling author Hampton Sides returns with a white-knuckle tale of polar exploration and survival in the Gilded Age
In the late nineteenth century, people were obsessed by one of the last unmapped areas of the globe: the North Pole. No one knew what existed beyond the fortress of ice rimming the northern oceans, although theories abounded. The foremost cartographer in the world, a German named August Petermann, believed that warm currents sustained a verdant island at the top of the world. National glory would fall to whoever could plant his flag upon its shores.
James Gordon Bennett, the eccentric and stupendously wealthy owner of The New York Herald, had recently captured the world's attention by dispatching Stanley to Africa to find Dr. Livingstone. Now he was keen to re-create that sensation on an even more epic scale. So he funded an official U.S. naval expedition to reach the Pole, choosing as its captain a young officer named George Washington De Long, who had gained fame for a rescue operation off the coast of Greenland. De Long led a team of 32 men deep into uncharted Arctic waters, carrying the aspirations of a young country burning to become a world power. On July 8, 1879, the USS Jeannette set sail from San Francisco to cheering crowds in the grip of "Arctic Fever."
The ship sailed into uncharted seas, but soon was trapped in pack ice. Two years into the harrowing voyage, the hull was breached. Amid the rush of water and the shrieks of breaking wooden boards, the crew abandoned the ship. Less than an hour later, the Jeannette sank to the bottom,and the men found themselves marooned a thousand miles north of Siberia with only the barest supplies. Thus began their long march across the endless ice—a frozen hell in the most lonesome corner of the world. Facing everything from snow blindness and polar bears to ferocious storms and frosty labyrinths, the expedition battled madness and starvation as they desperately strove for survival.
With twists and turns worthy of a thriller, In The Kingdom of Ice is a spellbinding tale of heroism and determination in the most unforgiving territory on Earth.
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About the Author
HAMPTON SIDES is an award-winning editor of Outside and the author of the bestselling histories Hellhound on his Trail, Blood and Thunder and Ghost Soldiers.
Read an Excerpt
Prologue : Baptism by Ice
On a misty morning in late April 1873, the Tigress, a steam barkentine out of Conception Bay, Newfoundland, was pushing through the loose floes and bergs off the coast of Labrador, heading for the seasonal seal-hunting grounds. Late in the morning, the Tigress encountered something strange: A lone Inuit in a kayak was hailing the ship, waving his arms and screaming at the top of his lungs. The native man was clearly in some kind of trouble. He had ventured much farther out into the perilous open waters of the North Atlantic than any Eskimo ordinarily would. When the Tigress pulled closer to him, he yelled, in accented English, “American steamer! American steamer!”
The crew of the Tigress leaned over the railings and tried to decipher what the Inuit was talking about. Just then, the fog parted enough to reveal, in the middle distance, a jagged floe piece, on which more than a dozen men and women, plus several children, appeared to be trapped. Seeing the ship, the marooned party erupted in cheers and fired guns into the air.
The Tigress’s captain, Isaac Bartlett, ordered rescue boats put in the water. When the stranded people—nineteen in all—were brought aboard, it was immediately apparent that they had suffered a horrific ordeal. Emaciated, filthy, and frostbitten, they had haunted looks in their eyes. Their lips and teeth were greasy from a just-finished break- fast of seal intestine.
“How long have you been on the ice?” Captain Bartlett asked them.
The senior member of the group, an American named George Tyson, stepped forward. “Since the fifteenth of October,” he replied.
Bartlett tried to understand what Tyson was saying. October
15 was 196 days earlier. These people, whoever they were, had been stranded on this ice slab for nearly seven months. Their precarious floe had been, Tyson said, a “God-made raft.”
Bartlett questioned Tyson further and learned, to his astonish- ment, that these pitiful castaways had been aboard the Polaris, a ship famous around the world. (This was the “American steamer!” the Inuit had been screaming about.) The Polaris, an unprepossessing steam tug that had been reinforced for the ice, was the exploring ves- sel of an American polar expedition, partly funded by Congress and supported by the U.S. Navy, that had left New London, Connecticut, two years earlier and, after a few stops along the way to Greenland, had not been heard from since.
A FTER PENETR ATING JUST beyond the 82nd parallel, a nautical latitude record at the time, the Polaris had become trapped in the ice high along the west coast of Greenland. Then, in November 1871, the expedition commander, a brooding, eccentric visionary from Cincin- nati named Charles Francis Hall, had died under mysterious circum- stances after drinking a cup of coffee that, he suspected, had been laced with poison. Following Hall’s death, the leaderless expedition had completely unraveled.
On the night of October 15, 1872, a large piece of ice on which Tyson and eighteen other expedition members were temporarily encamped had suddenly broken away from the vicinity of the ship and started drifting into Baffin Bay. The party of castaways, which included several Inuit families and a newborn infant, was never able to rejoin the Polaris, and they resigned themselves to their slab of ice. They helplessly floated toward the south, through the winter and spring, sleeping in igloos and living on seals, narwhals, seabirds, and the occasional polar bear. Not having any fuel with which to cook, they ate only raw meat, organs, and blood, when they were lucky enough to have it, for the duration of their drift.
Tyson said they had been “fools of fortune.” Huddled miserably on their ever-shrinking slab, they were batted around “like a shuttle-cock,” he said, by heaving seas, crashing icebergs, and powerful gales. Amazingly, though, no one in the stranded party had died. In all, they had drifted eighteen hundred miles.
Dumbfounded by Tyson’s story, Captain Bartlett welcomed the unfortunates to his ship, fed them a warm meal of codfish, potatoes, and coffee, and in due course delivered them to St. John’s, Newfound- land, where they were met by a U.S. Navy vessel and taken straight to Washington. A hasty interrogation of Tyson and other survivors revealed, among other things, that the Polaris, though damaged, was likely still intact and that the balance of the expedition—fourteen members—might yet be alive, trapped on their leaky ship somewhere high in the Greenland ice. Naval authorities, after cross-examining the survivors, learned that the Polaris had suffered a crisis of leader- ship nearly from the start, that mutiny had been discussed, and that Charles Hall may indeed have been poisoned. (Nearly a century later, forensic experts exhumed his corpse and detected toxic quantities of arsenic in tissue samples.) Tyson, though refusing to name names, cried foul. “Those who have baffled and spoiled this expedition,” he roared, “cannot escape their God!”
The American public, stunned by this woeful tale of a national voyage gone spectacularly wrong, clamored for a relief expedition to return to the Arctic to hunt for survivors. And so, with President Ulysses S. Grant’s approval, the Navy promptly dispatched a ship, the USS Juniata, to Greenland to commence a search for the hobbled Polaris.
The Juniata, under the command of Daniel L. Braine, was a battle-scabbed sloop of war that had seen much action in the Atlantic blockade during the Civil War. Newspapers across America celebrated her departure from New York on June 23. The Juniata’s mission to Greenland had all the elements: Here was a thrilling rescue story of national import—and also a detective story, with a whiff of intrigue and possible murder. A correspondent from the New York Herald would be joining the Juniata at St. John’s to report on the search. In large part because of the Herald ’s presence, the hunt for the Polaris would become the sensation of the late summer of 1873.
THE SECOND-IN-COMMAND A BOARD the Juniata was a young lieutenant from New York City named George De Long. Twenty- eight years old, his keen blue-gray eyes framed by pince-nez glasses, De Long was a man in a hurry to do great things. He was large and broad-shouldered and weighed 195 pounds. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, ginger-haired and fair-skinned, he had a shaggy mustache that drooped prodigiously over the corner creases of his mouth. Whenever he had a moment to sit, he could usually be found smoking a meerschaum pipe, his head buried in a book. The warmth of his smile and the softness of his fleshy face were offset by a certain truculence in his jawline, a feature observers often remarked upon. De Long was a determined, straight-ahead sort of man, efficient and thorough, and he burned with ambition. One of his expressions, a motto of sorts, was “Do it now.”
De Long had sailed over much of the world—Europe, the Carib- bean, South America, and all along the Eastern Seaboard—but he had never been to the Arctic before, and he was not especially look- ing forward to the journey. De Long was far more accustomed to the tropics. He had never paid attention to the great quest for the North Pole, which had so ferociously preoccupied explorers like Hall and thrilled the public. To De Long, the Juniata’s cruise to Greenland was just another assignment.
He did not seem to think much of St. John’s, where the Juniata stopped to take on stores and where shipbuilders sheathed her bow in iron for the coming encounters with the ice. When the Juniata reached the half-frozen hamlet of Sukkertoppen, on Greenland’s southwestern coast, De Long wrote to his wife, “I never in my life saw such a dreary land of desolation and I hope I may never find myself cast away in such a perfectly God-forsaken place . . . The ‘town,’ such as it is, consists of two houses and about a dozen huts made of mud and wood. I went into one and have been scratching ever since.”
De Long was positively smitten with his wife, Emma, a young French-American woman from Le Havre. He hated being so far away from her. He and Emma had been married for more than two years but had scarcely seen each other, for De Long’s Navy assignments had kept him almost constantly at sea. Sylvie, their baby girl, was nearly a stranger to him. The De Longs had a little apartment on Twenty-second Street in Manhattan, yet he was never there. Emma said her husband was a man “destined always to be separated from the ones he loved.” There was not much he could do about his prolonged absences—this was the life of a career naval officer.
At times, though, De Long dreamed of taking a leave and liv- ing another kind of existence with Emma and Sylvie, somewhere in the American West, or in the countryside in the south of France. From Greenland, he wrote to Emma about his fantasy. “I cannot help thinking how much happier we should be if we were together,” he said. “When we are apart I devise so many schemes . . . How nice it would be to go to some quiet place in Europe and pass a year by ourselves, where the Navy Department would not bother me with its orders, or any troubles come to make us uneasy. I think, darling, when I finish this cruise I might be able to get a year’s absence and we might spend it together where it would not be expensive and have a little home of our own. Don’t you think we could do that?”
De Long’s disdain for the polar landscape soon wore off. As the Juniata crossed the Arctic Circle and pressed ever farther up the ragged west coast of the world’s largest island, something began to take hold of him. He became more and more intrigued by the Arc- tic, by its lonely grandeur, by its mirages and strange tricks of light, its mock moons and blood-red halos, its thick, misty atmospheres, which altered and magnified sounds, leaving the impression that one was living under a dome. He felt as though he were breathing rarefied air. He became intrigued by the phenomenon of the “ice blink,” the spectral glow in the low sky that indicated the presence of a large frozen pack ahead. The scenery grew more impressive: ice-gouged fjords, towering bergs calved fresh from glaciers, the crisp sound of cold surf lapping against the pack, ringed seals peeking through gaps in the ice, bowhead whales spouting in the deep gray channel. This was the purest wilderness De Long had ever seen, and he began to fall in love with it.
BY L ATE JU LY, when the Juniata arrived at Disko Island, a wind- swept place of bubbling hot springs and Viking legends far up the coast of Greenland, De Long’s baptism by ice was nearly complete. Dressed head to toe in furs and wearing sealskin boots, he had gotten into the swing of things. “We have taken on board twelve dogs for sleds,” he wrote, “and we are now really worth looking at. The ship is black with dirt and coal dust, dogs packed away among the coal, sheep tied up forward and beef hanging around right and left with fish here and there. We are really in a good state to go anywhere.”
As he continued northward, De Long found himself absorbed by the question of what had happened to Charles Francis Hall and his expedition. Where had it gone wrong? What decisions had led to its demise? Where was the Polaris now, and were there any survivors? As a Navy officer, he was intrigued by matters of hierarchy, disci- pline, and motivation—how an operation was organized, and how that organization might fall apart. De Long felt himself being pulled deeper into a mystery infinitely more interesting than the dreary duties of his ordinary life at sea.
On July 31, the Juniata arrived at the tiny ice-clogged village of Upernavik, four hundred miles above the Arctic Circle, and here the plot of this polar detective story began to thicken. De Long and Cap- tain Braine went ashore to meet with a Danish official named Krarup Smith, the inspector royal of North Greenland. Inspector Smith had some interesting things to say about Charles Hall, who had stopped here with his entire expedition two years earlier, before disappearing in the High Arctic. Smith did not know where the Polaris was now, or whether there were any survivors, but he did offer one intriguing detail: Hall, he said, had had a presentiment of his own death.
When he arrived in Upernavik, Hall hinted that there was dissen- sion in the ranks, that some of the men were plotting to remove him from command. He sensed that he would never make it home, that he would die in the Arctic. Hall felt so sure of this that, for safekeeping, he left a bundle of valuable papers and other artifacts with Inspector Smith.
The reporter for the New York Herald, Martin Maher, noted that Smith “narrated with considerable minuteness the details of a quar- rel” in which certain members of the expedition “endeavored to preju- dice the crew of the ship against” Hall.
To hear Smith tell it now, the Hall expedition had been doomed before it even ventured into the ice. “The officers and crew of the Polaris were utterly demoralized,” Maher reported, and “Captain Hall evidently had some kind of misgiving or premonition of death.”
UPERNAVIK WAS AS far north as Captain Braine felt comfortable taking the Juniata. Despite her iron sheathing, she was not really designed or equipped to handle significant quantities of ice. The ship did, however, have a smaller boat, dubbed the Little Juniata, that was more agile, capable of navigating through the confusion of bergs and floes. Rigged as a sloop, the twenty-eight-foot launch carried a small steam engine, which powered a three-bladed screw propeller. Braine wanted a half dozen of his men to take the Little Juniata and continue the search for another four hundred miles along the fjord-riddled coast, up to a place called Cape York.
This secondary probe, which Braine estimated would take several weeks, was a dubious undertaking at best. The Little Juniata seemed a frightfully vulnerable craft, not much more than an open boat. Ice fields like these had crushed entire whaling fleets. Braine knew he could not order anyone to undertake this risky assignment; he had to rely on volunteers.
De Long was the first to raise his hand, and it was soon decided that he would captain the little vessel. De Long’s second-in-command would be a quiet, reliable fellow Naval Academy graduate from upstate New York named Charles Winans Chipp. Seven others cast their lot with De Long, including an Eskimo interpreter, an ice pilot, and Martin Maher from the Herald. Braine bid them farewell, not- ing in his written instructions to De Long, “I shall await with great interest your return to this ship from the hazardous duty for which you have volunteered.”
They nosed away from the Juniata on August 2, carrying provi- sions for sixty days and towing a dinghy loaded with twelve hundred pounds of coal. The little steam engine clanked away as De Long threaded through a series of fog-shrouded islands and thousands of small icebergs called growlers. They stopped at a few remote Inuit settlements—Kingitok, Tessi-Ussak—and then headed into a void, dodging massive bergs that dwarfed the boat.
Maher said he had “never witnessed a more glorious scene . . . Looking abroad on the immense fields of ice, glittering in the rays of the sun, and the thousands of huge, craggy icebergs as they sulkily floated out into Baffin’s Bay, one became awed by the dreadful maj- esty of the elements, and wondered how it would be possible to avoid being crushed to atoms.”
Eventually the Little Juniata was brought to a standstill in fields of unbroken pack, and De Long was forced repeatedly to ram the ice in order to break free, splintering the greenheart planks that reinforced the hull. They were enveloped in a dense freezing fog, and all the rig- ging became rimed in ice. “Absolutely hemmed in, we were now in a most perilous position, and sudden destruction threatened us,” wrote Maher. “We forced a passage westward at length, and after a terrific struggle of twelve hours, found open water again.”
De Long could not have been happier. He and Lieutenant Chipp were enjoying the cruise—and rising to its challenges. “Our boat is a beauty, doing everything but talking,” he wrote in a letter later mailed to Emma. “Now do not be alarmed if you do not hear from me for some time. If by any accident we should be frozen up all winter you will not hear from me again till spring. But be of good cheer. I expect to be back to the ship in fifteen days.”
Forty miles south of Cape York, De Long anchored to a large berg in order to hack away chunks of ice for the Little Juniata’s freshwater stores. A large fracture suddenly developed in an overhanging arm of the berg. Sensing danger, De Long pulled away only moments before a huge block of ice fell, smashing into the sea. This, in turn, caused the entire berg to wobble, then to upend. If De Long had been only a few feet closer, the Little Juniata would have been destroyed.
So far, De Long had not seen any sign of the Polaris, or any evi- dence of survivors; it was perhaps quixotic to think they would, given the scale of this fogbound wilderness. But as the commander inched into higher latitudes, approaching the 75th parallel, he found himself pulled into an ever-larger mystery. The complexity of the High Arctic spread before him like a riddle. He had never felt so alive, so engaged in the moment. He realized that he was becoming what the Arctic scientists liked to call a “pagophile”—a creature that is happiest in the ice.
ON AUGUST 8, the Little Juniata became enveloped in thick fog. The seas grew restive, and within a few hours she was in a full-on gale, the tiny vessel pitching in ice-chunked swells. “At every one of the fearful plunges,” De Long later wrote, “solid seas came aboard and showers of spray were thrown over, deluging everything in the boat. Our bailing made little impression.”
The storm had turned the existing ice fields into a dangerous roil, while also breaking off new slabs from surrounding icebergs and hurling them into the heaving sea. The Little Juniata was in constant peril of being ground to pieces. “Looking back at it now makes me tremble,” De Long wrote, “and I can only say that it was a miracle of Divine Providence that we were saved.” Said Martin Maher in the Herald: “The waves, lashed to a fury, burst against these mountains of ice, breaking off ponderous-looking, solid masses, which fell into the sea with a deafening sound. The destruction of the boat and all on board now seemed imminent. We were bound up in this terrible place, the appalling precipices of ice casting off their missiles of death.”
The gale raged for thirty-six hours. Somehow the Little Juniata held together, and when the storm abated, De Long was determined to resume his dash for Cape York despite the ominous fields of ice spread before him. “I was not disposed to quit without a fight,” he wrote. But he was running dangerously low on coal, and his men were miserable—freezing, hungry, soaked to the bone. He couldn’t get the boiler lit, as the kindling and tinder were thoroughly saturated. One of his men, after holding a friction match against his body for several hours, finally succeeded in lighting a candle, and soon the spluttery steam engine was coaxed back to life.
De Long smashed through the ice for a day, but he could see that continuing the journey would be beyond foolhardy. He had to consider “how far the lives of our little party were to be jeopardized,” he wrote, noting that he felt a responsibility that “I do not desire to have again.” De Long conferred with Lieutenant Chipp, whom he had come to admire for his calm sense of judgment. On August 10, Lieutenant George De Long did something he rarely ever did: He gave up. “Prosecuting the search for the Polaris people any longer was out of the question,” he said. They had ventured more than four hundred miles and had crossed the 75th parallel. But now, only eight miles from Cape York, the Little Juniata was turning around.
(Unbeknownst to De Long, all the remaining survivors of the Polaris—fourteen in total—had been picked up in June by a Scottish whaling vessel. They would eventually be taken to Dundee, Scotland, and would not return home to the United States until the fall.)
De Long steered the Little Juniata through intermittent ice fields toward the south. Running out of coal to fuel the steam engine, he was forced to improvise, burning slabs of pork in the furnace.
After a round-trip journey of more than eight hundred miles, the Little Juniata reunited with her mother ship in mid-August. Captain Braine had all but given up on the little steam launch, but now De Long was welcomed aboard the Juniata as a lost hero. “The ship was wild with excitement,” De Long wrote, “the men manning the rig- ging and cheering us. When I stepped over the side, so buried in furs as to be almost invisible, they made as much fuss over me as if I had risen from the dead, and when the Captain shook hands with me he was trembling from head to foot.”
THE JUNIATA RETURNED to St. John’s, then made its way for New York, where it arrived with much fanfare in mid-September. At the docks, De Long dodged reporters and slipped quietly away to his wife and baby daughter.
When he reunited with Emma, however, she instantly noticed a change. George had turned twenty-nine while in Greenland, but that was not it. Something was fundamentally different about him, something new in his eyes, in his demeanor. It was as though he had contracted a fever. He was already talking about returning to the Arctic. He became absorbed in Arctic literature and Arctic maps. He submitted his name for the next Navy expedition that might head for the High North.
“The adventure had affected him deeply and would not let him rest,” Emma wrote. She began to suspect that their sabbatical in the French countryside, the one he had dreamed about while in Green- land, would never come to pass. “The polar virus was in George’s blood to stay.”
The essential question, the one that had animated Charles Hall and other explorers before him, had begun to pull at De Long: How would man reach the North Pole? And once there, what would it be like? Were there open sea routes? Unknown species of fish and ani- mals? Monsters that lived on the ice? Lost civilizations, even? Were there whirlpools, as many people believed, that led to the bowels of the earth? Were woolly mammoths and other prehistoric creatures still wandering the Arctic solitudes? What other natural wonders might be found along the way? Or was the pole something else altogether—a verdant land warmed by vast ocean currents?
The more he pondered the problem of the North Pole, said Emma, “the greater became his desire to give that answer which alone would satisfy the world. The Arctic had cast its spell over him and from the moment of his return to New York its great mystery fascinated him.”
Table of Contents
The Company of the USS Jeannette xiv
Prologue: Baptism by Ice 1
Part 1 A Great Blank Space
1 A Shocking Sabbath Carnival of Death 21
2 Ne Plus Ultra 32
3 The Lord of Creation 45
4 For You I Will Dare Anything 55
5 Gateways to the Pole 71
Part 2 The National Genius
6 The Engine of the World 91
7 Satisfaction 106
8 The Sage of Gotha 125
9 Pandora 142
10 Three Years, or Eternity 151
11 A Benediction 162
12 Second Chances 168
13 The U.S. Arctic Expedition 175
14 All That Man Can Do 198
15 The New Invader 212
Part 3 A Glorious Country to Learn Patience in
16 A Cul-de-Sac 235
17 Nipped 239
18 Among the Swells 258
19 If by Any Mischance 261
20 A Delusion and a Snare 268
21 Forever, Almost 286
22 Invisible Hands 288
Part 4 We Are Not Yet Daunted
23 On the Lone Icebound Sea 306
24 The Discovered Country 324
25 Tidings 346
26 Death Strokes 366
Part 5 The End of Creation
27 All Mucky 385
28 Nil Desperandum 401
29 The Phantom Continent 420
30 A Second Promised Land 435
31 Eight Precious Days 457
32 The Known World 471
33 Seas High and Spiteful 495
Part 6 The Whisper of the Stars
34 Lucky Fourteen 512
35 Remember Me in New York 530
36 If It Takes My Last Dollar 555
37 Frantic Pantomimes 562
38 Incubus of Horrors 575
39 White Gloom 597
40 The Russian Nation at Your Back 617
41 They That Watch for the Morning 629
42 A Wild Dirge Through Time 647
Epilogue: As Long as I Have Ice to Stand On 653
Selected Bibliography 739
Photo Credits 759
Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Hampton Sides
In July 1879, the U.S. Navy vessel Jeannette set out on an ill- starred voyage of polar exploration via the Bering Strait. In an age in which the Arctic and Antarctic poles represented the last elements of the unknown, voyages like the one helmed by George Washington DeLong represented the last proving ground for heroism and discovery. The Jeannette's voyage was backed by newspaper publisher James Gordon Bennett, who had previously sent the journalist Henry Stanley into Africa in search of the missionary David Livingstone. Seeking to reproduce the sensational press triumph of that story, Bennett hoped that the Jeannette would discover a new route into a fabled "open polar sea." Instead, the crew met with a series of calamities impassable ice, shipwreck, and a perilous journey to landfall on a desolate Siberian coast.
Captivated by the little-known history of DeLong's expedition, journalist and author Hampton Sides whose 2001 book, Ghost Soldiers, a gripping account of the liberation of WWII POWs in the Philippines, became a national bestseller set out to bring the story of the Jeannette, and its era, to new life. The author sat down with the Barnes & Noble Review to talk about the Jeannette, Gilded Age fascination with the Arctic, and the surprising relevance its discoveries have for scientists today. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation Bill Tipper
The Barnes & Noble Review: In the Kingdom of Ice tells the story of an Arctic exploration in the 1870s by a ship called the Jeannette. It's a real-life epic, a tale of disaster, endurance, survival, and of the obsession that America and Europe had with the Arctic. Can you start by talking a bit about how you came to discover this story and decide to write on it?
Hampton Sides: Yes. For years and years, I was an editor at Outside magazine, and I also write fairly often for National Geographic, so I'm already kind of in this world of exploration and expeditions, and there's something about the Gilded Age that fascinates me as a period. After the Civil War, the nation is healing its wounds and trying to emerge from that conflict and do something big on the world stage, and it's competing in a quasi-military way with the European powers. It seems like one of the great stages for competition is Arctic exploration. The nationalism that drove it fascinated me.
So when I found out about the Jeannette story, it seemed perfect for me. I actually found out about it a number of years ago when I was doing a story for National Geographic about another explorer, a Norwegian whose name was Fridtjof Nansen, who tried to duplicate the Jeannette voyage. As horrible as the Jeannette expedition went, he tried to duplicate it, but in a ship designed in a different way.
BNR: Why? Because he thought that route up through the Bering Strait was the right way to go?
HS: And because the prevailing currents clearly indicated that they were heading in the right direction. They were going toward the Pole. The Jeannette crew thought they would reach open water. By the time Nansen came along, they realized it's not going to be water, it's going to be ice, but if we just hang in there and have a lot of food and a really well designed ship that won't get crushed, we will eventually reach the Pole or get very close.
Nansen did not make it to the Pole, though he almost did. But he survived, and he went on to become a national hero in Norway. In fact, there's a museum devoted to his ship, the Fram. He mentioned, "I was trying to duplicate the Jeannette, of course." This was actually because three or four years after the Jeannette voyage, a number of relics washed up onshore in Greenland, and these relics, which said "George Washington DeLong," were clearly from the Jeannette.
BNR: DeLong was the captain of the Jeannette. HS: It seemed to indicate to Nansen, well, the prevailing currents not only are heading towards the Pole but if you just stick with it, they'll eventually pop out on the other side, to Greenland, on the Atlantic side.
BNR: So you have a route of egress as well as a route of getting there. You have a natural path back to someplace you can get around from.
HS: Right. So I thought, Wait a minute. What was the Jeannette? I'd never heard of it. I've edited and written a lot of stuff about exploration, and I'd just never even heard of it. I started digging into it and found these extraordinary characters. And there were a lot of primary documents, because there were survivors, which is really important. In a way, as a writer you want things to go wrong, because that's when things get interesting, but unfortunately, these tales when no one survives are difficult because there are no documents. In this case there were thirteen survivors, and they gave a huge number of interviews. Stories were written about them, they gave testimony before the Navy inquiry, before Congress, and some of them wrote books.
BNR: One of them, George Melville, went on to become chief engineer of the Navy.
HS: A very prominent man. So that's the second thing, after the great characters, I'm looking for great primary documents. And it also seemed to me, just in terms of the zeitgeist, an interesting time to be writing about both the Arctic, with everything that's going on with climate change, and also writing about Russia. I think there's a great interest in Russia right now, and this era was an interesting time in our relationship with Russia. It was tsarist Russia still. We were very curious about the country and Americans considered themselves friends with Russia. But it was also considered a very exotic, strange place. The story of the Jeannette ends up very much being a Russian story in the last third.
BNR: The survivors come back through Siberia. And after the ocean, the storms, the ice closing in, boats being crushed, and a familiar story of desolation and survival in that environment, and then as they're landing on this river delta region in Siberia it becomes a different kind of survival story. The survivors of the ship were trying to find help in a vast, strange territory. The native peoples of that region were Christianized, but they'd been largely untouched by cosmopolitan Russian civilization or by other Western cultures.
HS: Yes. The main tribal group were the Yakuts. They speak a language that's closely related to Turkish, and they look like Mongols. They are in the most remote part of Russia, and have barely been touched by Russian authority and Russian culture. These were the folks who ended up saving the last survivors of the Jeannette. They were barely eking out a survival-based existence themselves. The threat of cold, hunger and disease scurvy and the like was just as problematic for them getting through a winter there as for the sailors. And here come these guys who appear to be emerging from the ice, and they didn't know if they were from another planet or from inside the planet or what country. They'd never heard of America. All they saw was these bedraggled men who come in from the ice, and they have to save them.
BNR: Now, one of the survivors had some language in common with some of the Yakuts. Is that right? Am I misremembering?
HS: No. But there was one guy who spoke some Russian, and two guys on the expedition were Inuits from Alaska. Their language wasn't similar, but they looked . . .
BNR: Their background was similar.
HS: Yes, and they ended up having a sweetheart, and fitting in a little better than the others.
So I had stumbled on this Gilded Age story that I had never heard about, and I just jumped right in. I spent three and a half years on this book. I went to Siberia. I went to a lot of these places in the Russian High Arctic, where the story unfolds. I had a ball doing it.
BNR: What was surprising when you went to Siberia, when you went to some of those environments? Did you experience what you expected, or was it very different?
HS: I think the first thing is, I was unprepared for the truly gargantuan immensity of the terrain. Some people wonder, What was wrong with these American explorers? They finally reach land. Why didn't they all live? Well, it's this unbelievably remote and sparsely populated, mature Pleistocene wilderness. You fly over it for hours and hours and hours, and you see no marking of man. It's like a desert of ice.
BNR: Was there plant life? Was there game for them to hunt at all?
HS: Very little. There are some reindeer. It's way above the Arctic Circle permafrost. Almost nothing grows there. There's no timber except for driftwood, so it's difficult to keep warm. And they came ashore in this river delta called the Lena River. It's one of the largest deltas in the world. It has many tens of thousands of islands, and oxbow lakes, and tributaries that peter out. So you can't really imagine a more complicated labyrinth for men to come ashore and try to find themselves. Of course, they got lost.
BNR: They had no reliable map of the region.
HS: There were no reliable maps at that time. To the extent that there had been any maps made, they were wrong. The survivors were expecting to find these villages, and there were no villages. What was marked as a village would be a hut that was abandoned.
It's sort of an amphibious survival tale. It goes from being an ice story to being a sailing story, because they do eventually reach open water in these small boats. Then, after they get separated in this horrible gale, they make landfall, and it becomes this land-based story as they make their way toward civilization.
BNR: I think George Melville himself in his writings suggested that at least a major part of the reason why his party survived was they had an extremely strong cohesion. They really worked together and cared for one another, and they didn't have the sort of dissensions you see in some groups. Do you agree? HS: I really think that it's mostly a matter of luck. They encounter this gale, and they get separated, and the three boats have three very different fates. DeLong comes ashore on the western side of the delta that is very sparsely populated, and by sheer chance Melville comes to shore on the eastern side, where there are some larger villages. And they encounter, almost the first day they're in the delta, villagers who save their lives.
BNR: Although they have to kind of chase them down and say, "No, really, we need to see you," and the villagers are rowing away, saying, "I don't know . . . "
HS: They're scared of them. Who are these bedraggled, furry, sour-smelling and very, at this point, emaciated, starving guys? They're running away from them, thinking they might be criminals to the extent that the regions are populated at all with Russians, it's exiles sent from Moscow all the way to be in this prison without bars that is Siberia.
That's just the travel narrative, the survival narrative. But I wanted to cut back to what's happening in the United States with some of the primary characters. The life of the explorer and the man, James Gordon Bennett, who paid for and sponsored this expedition. It was a Navy expedition, but it was paid for by an eccentric millionaire, a playboy, a publisher, James Gordon Bennett.
BNR: He really is a remarkable figure. He has that kind of classic drive to compete in so many things. One of my favorite scenes is the race-walking bet that he undertook with the former champion speed walker of New York. They race-walked ten miles from Manhattan to the Bronx, with all these people sort of surrounding them and all these other bets being laid on their performance, and Bennett beats the other fellow.
HS: Well, Bennett was one of these great characters who believe in sport. He believed in spectacle. Not only did it sell newspapers, but it was something that he personally did in his own life. He was the youngest commodore of the New York Yacht Club. He brought competitive polo to the United States. He brought tennis to the United States. He brought, in terms of funding, various cups. There's an international balloon race that still exists to this day called the Gordon Bennett Cup.
He was really into the spectacle of sport, and I think he viewed this Arctic expedition that he funded, the Jeannette, as just another sport, in a sense. I don't think he really thought a whole lot about the human lives that were at stake or all the risks that were involved. He had sent Stanley to Africa to find Livingstone, but his newspaper, the New York Herald-Tribune, had enjoyed so much success with those dispatches that Stanley sent back from Africa, that he was looking for kind of another international sensation story, an encore to sell newspapers. So in a sense, it was a stunt to sell newspapers. But along the way, the Jeannette expedition, as with Stanley, was actually a fairly important exploration as well. The writing that came out of it, the descriptions, some of the mapmaking improvements in terms of our understanding of Africa or the Arctic that emerged were actually quite significant.
But Bennett is just one of those larger-than-life Gilded Age characters. He was the third-richest man in New York. From a narrative point of view, he's like a gift that keeps on giving. He's always doing something outrageous. He urinates in a grand piano at a high society salon, and . . .
BNR: He kidnaps the cast of a play. This is my favorite one of his stunts.
HS: In Amsterdam. He was smitten with this star, and so he kidnapped the entire cast of this play, took them out on his yacht, and didn't tell them that he was leaving . . .
BNR: Presumably because he was hoping to make time with the lead actress, I take it.
H: Right! One of the dangers of this character was that he could upstage the entire Arctic narrative if I wasn't careful. But once the expedition gets going, leaves San Francisco in the summer of 1879, it becomes more really about the explorers and what happens to them as they make their way north toward the Bering Strait.
BNR: I want to talk a little bit more about the fascination in this period with the Arctic. There's a wonderful line. You quote the San Francisco Examiner talking about how DeLong, when the expedition set off, would "force the Northern Sphinx to give up its secrets," and the notion of the Arctic as this unknown region brooded over the top of the glow and tormented the imaginations of all these people. "What's up there?" This was a real feeling that people had. What do you think drove that obsessive quality?
HS: This was at a point in the history of the world where there were just a few places left that had never been touched by man. The North Pole, the South Pole, a couple of places in the interior of Africa, and certainly some mountains in the Himalayas, for example. It drove people crazy that there was this part of the world that we don't know what's up there, we don't know what it looks like, we don't know if it's an island, if it's warm or cold or populated, civilized in any way. There were a lot of theories that there were people up there, or that there were holes at the poles that led down into the earth. This idea of an open polar sea was an ancient notion that goes back to the Greeks and the Vikings.
BNR: The hope was that eventually you get to this place where there's an open sea, and maybe new trade routes would be established. It would be an easier way to cross over from different parts of the world.
HS: Yeah. The idea of an open polar sea is one of those great myths that would not die. It goes way back, and people wanted to believe it with a kind of religious fervor. I don't fully understand why. I think it has to do with some of the early maps that depicted it. When you put something on a map, it's very hard to dislodge that idea from the imagination until you prove something else. The early Mercator maps and other maps going way back to the 1500s show this open polar sea.
BNR: The mind just wanted to believe that it was there, even if all the evidence indicated that anybody who had gone far enough north kept running into more and more pack ice.
HS: Right. And it took men dying in the Arctic to prove that it wasn't true, and really, the Jeannette expedition was the last expedition that was deliberately launched into the Arctic looking for this open polar sea concept. From then on, people resigned themselves to the idea that it's probably just ice up there. But it's really hard for us to understand why people were so fascinated and obsessed with knowing what was up there. Now we know that it's just an icecap, and it's shifting endlessly, and there are no civilizations up there, are no holes that lead into the earth. It's cold and dreary and desolate. So now we're thinking, What's the big deal? But back then it was like . . . I quote someone in the book saying that it's like a man has to know every room of his house, and if there's a room in the attic that you can't get to, it will drive him mad. That's what this was like. "It's like: there's a room in the attic; there might be a monster in that room; we don't know; but we have to be there."
Of course personal glory figures into it. And science, to a real degree; this wanting to find out the answer to this scientific question, really an exploration what's there? And national glory figures into it. There's no question that there's a quasi-military aspect to this kind of exploration. Number one, it's mounted by the Navy, and all the officers are Navy officers.
BNR: It was a pretty bedraggled Navy at that time.
HS: Yes, it's not a strong Navy at this point. But it took some kind of level of organization to make this thing happen, and it happened to be a Navy expedition. Not only that, but we were competing against the British. Primarily the Brits had done all the kind of cutting-edge exploration, but the Russians were doing things, the Swedes were doing things, the other Scandinavian nations, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the French had talked about mounting expeditions as well. So there was an element of just pure competition here.
BNR: Was the idea to stake an outright claim?
HS: Maybe claim it. Certainly just prove ourselves on the international stage for doing something great. Because we had emerged from the Civil War. This would not have been possible during the war, obviously. It took a number of years before we were a wealthy enough nation to even contemplate something like this. We had a little bit of a chip on our shoulder. We were a young nation, itching to prove our power.
BNR: It's a very proto-Rooseveltian sort of thing.
HS: Yes. Another aspect of it is that Manifest Destiny and the push west had more or less come to an end. We were occupying the West and filling it in. But the exploration west had sort of stopped and taken a right turn and gone north, because we had bought Alaska from the Russians. People wanted to know what was up there. People were very excited by the fact that this expedition was the very first expedition to go by way of Alaska.
BNR: So it was a way of almost justifying Seward's Folly? Maybe it's the stepping-off point to a real great new frontier.
HS: Right. Going through the Bering Strait and using Alaska as a launching pad for an exploration was a new idea. In fact, DeLong did discover new islands and claim them for the United States, and some of the expeditions that were sent after DeLong, to look for him, landed on some islands that were claimed for the United States. Now there are various sort of jingoistic groups, right-wing groups that say that we've given these islands away to the Russians and we need to claim them back. Wrangel Island . . .
BNR: Wrangel Island is a fascinating place, especially biologically.
HS: Yes. It's the last place where a woolly mammoth lived. The largest breeding ground in the world for polar bears.
BNR: The Russians maintain it as a preserve.
HS: Yes. I went there and did a story for National Geographic about it. Wrangel Island is an extraordinary place. They call it the Galápagos of the High Arctic. It's a refuge for animals. Humans have gone there, and generally not done so well, but animals seem to do quite well.
This always happens with these Arctic stories. We send one boat, and it gets lost, and then we have to send waves of people to search for the lost vessel. On one of these ships was a young journalist, a future conservationist, John Muir, who just wrote this unbelievably vivid account of this search for the Jeannette. And they made landfall on Wrangel Island and claimed it for the United States.
BNR: With that mention of Muir: Was it ever in your mind, or do you think that understanding more about the history of our exploration of the Arctic will help people have more consciousness about or understanding of what's at stake in climate change, and how much that environment is changing and its effects on the rest of the globe?
HS: Yes and no. It's a pure historical narrative. There's no polemical embedded message. But nonetheless, there is a fascination and a very legitimate interest now in what's happening in the polar regions. This was one of the few expeditions that went that way. Usually they were looking for, like the Northwest Passage or something like this. In this case, they got trapped in the ice and drifted for two years deep into the polar cap. What's interesting is, every single day, the members of the expedition took meticulous measurements: the thickness of the icecap, wind velocities, temperature, salinity, specific gravity. All these very specific scientific logs that were taken. Then these logbooks were dragged, at great hardship, across the icecap to civilization, and were ultimately preserved. These logbooks are in the National Archives, and there they are. Now NOAA knows about them, and has digitized them all, and these people are studying the Jeannette logbooks because they offer the most pure data about what was the condition of the icecap in the 1880s.
BNR: So we could potentially get a baseline for understanding the condition of that environment that goes back before anything else that we had measured.
HS: Yes. When I was in the National Archives looking at these logbooks, I was thinking, What a shame, what a waste that all this data was collected and it's never going to be used. Well, it is being used, it turns out, and it is actually terrifying how much the thickness, the quality and the condition of the ice has changed, and the breadth of the icepack since the 1880s. It's remarkable. I guess the final irony here is that this was an expedition that was trying to find the open polar sea, and in another generation there probably will be an open polar sea. DeLong wasn't crazy. He was just off by 140 years.
August 25, 2014
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Story of courage ,determination. suffering and leadersh in an area of the world that in its day was akin to voyaging to outer space, the artic ocean and coastal siberia in the 1880's
This book takes you along on a voyage to the arctic that few people have even known occurred. Mr. Side's use of words was, for me, a reason in itself, to enjoy this fascinating tale. I was prompted into memories of various historical people living at the time and learned many new facts. I felt I had been with those unbelievably, determined men. I loved the book!
So beautifully, seemingly without effort and is so good blending stories together. What a rare and wonderful book. Hated to see it end. It became a part of me as I was reading it. No author could hope for more. As a reader, you will laugh, you will cry, and you will wander tributaries of the tundra while fighting frostbite. This fabulous book takes you there. What a glorious book.
Very well written with much research devoted to finding out the truth to this ill begotten mission. I could not put it down!!
Absolutely fabulous book. Best book this year.
Superbly written, extremely informative, hard to put down. For those aficionados of Arctic lore this book is on a par with Fergus Fleming's "Barrow's Boys" and Pierre Burton's "The Arctic Grail"
I liked this book a great deal. The research that had to have gone into this book was pretty impressive. I found myself drawn in, trying to imagine what they went through during and after this voyage. I would recommend this book.
Having read two other books about DeLong's polar exploration, this book far surpasses them in breadth, research, the human reach for the unknown. With every endeavor, there are influences both personal and of the times, and this book explores them, exposes them and makes real of this epic tale.
This is a great story by a great story teller. Gripping details of an incredible journey - I can't imagine living through these events.
Haven't read it yet, but my husband, who has read all of Hampton Sides' books, proclaims this the best yet. It's next on my pile.
Reading it now; off the chart great! Also try Hector's Juice!
A gripping, amazing story. Proves again fact is more gripping than fiction. An excellent read
Very hard to put down,and I'm ranking this one of the best reads I haver ever read.
This proves yet again that well written non fiction captivates one entirely. Hampton Sides once again enlarged my world through learning about a little known, but important time and event. I enjoyed this thoroughly.
The history of this voyage was fascinating and had me engrossed to the end.
Amazing story and well written
This forgotten but fantastic episode of American history and Arctic exploration is brilliantly reconstructed and engagingly told by author Hampton Sides. Starting with the backgrounds of the wealthy but eccentric backer, James Gordon Bennett Jr., and the almost obsessively focused captain of the USS Jeannette, George Washington De Long, the story proceeds chronologically through their research into approaches to the Arctic based on the prevailing theories of the late 1800s, acquisition and preparation of ship and crew, and the cruise to Arctic waters. Once they become trapped in the ice, where they'd spend many subsequent months, we gain insight into not only how they staved off boredom and maintained discipline, but also how various crew members dealt, successfully and not, with the privations of their situation. When the icepack crushes the Jeannette and they begin their journey back south to try to find safe haven, the heroism of both individuals, and the crew as a whole, becomes evident. The passion of the worldwide public fascination with the undertaking is counterbalanced by the pathos of De Long's patiently waiting wife. While he did not bring back all of his crew alive, the parallels to Shackleton and Antarctic exploration put this story on par with such classic tales of exploration and adventure.
Facinating tale of early polar exploration, overwhelming hardship and perseverance.