A Stout Ship’s Heartbreaking Ordeal by Ice

Heading north for the pole, the Jeannette was frozen fast for 21 months, then sank; for captain and crew, that was the easy part

The Jeannette in Le Havre, France, 1878
The Jeannette in Le Havre, France, 1878 Wikimedia Commons

"Think of all you've gone through," the captain told them. For months their ship had been squeezed, jammed, tumbled by a surging ice pack that thundered and cracked around them with a sound like exploding artillery. But they could still hope to "do something worthy of themselves" and someday exclaim with pride, "I, too, was a member of the American Arctic Expedition of 1879."

The captain was a U.S. Navy lieutenant named George Washington De Long. The ship was square-rigged but fitted for steam, and heavily reinforced. The 32 crewmen were volunteers, chosen for hardihood — and cheerful dispositions. Their aim was to reach the North Pole by heading north through the ice pack. Instead they got stuck. And waited. And waited for 21 months, foraging on the surrounding ice for seals to shoot so they and their dogs could eat. When their ship was finally crushed and sank, they headed out across the jagged ice pack with dogs and supplies, dragging three small, open boats in which they finally set out across an icy, gale-swept stretch of the Siberian Sea. Tragically separated, they froze and starved and drowned and died.

Their comradeship, discipline and herculean effort is stirring, shocking and heartbreaking — even when measured against the kind of courage and hardship that marked so many polar explorations all through the 19th century. Only 13 men survived. Captain De Long was not among them, though he kept a precise journal till the day before he died.

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