Nate Galt | United States
The De Long Islands is a group of small, rocky islands in the middle of the East Siberian Sea, off the coast of Russia. During Soviet times, the islands were used as weather stations to better understand the Arctic climate. After the fall of the USSR in 1991, the weather stations were abandoned. Even though the archipelago may be desolate and uninhabited, its discovery has quite an interesting backstory. The island group is named after George W. De Long, a largely forgotten American explorer who risked life and limb to find a warm water route to the North Pole.
On July 8, 1879, De Long’s ship, the U.S.S. Jeannette, departed with 33 crew members from the harbor of San Francisco. They were searching for an “open polar route” to the North Pole, which had been a popular theory for centuries. The naval commander had experience in far northern waters and knew that winter would be coming when he would pass through the Bering Strait. Although his ship had a reinforced hull to prevent the Arctic ice from cracking it, he was not sure if it would last throughout the whole winter. In September 1879, the Jeannette was trapped in the ice in the middle of the East Siberian Sea, near the 75th parallel north. The ship’s commander and crew still did not lose hope, even in these dangerous conditions. The current would push the trapped ship towards an island in May of the next year, which would be the first time the crew saw dry land for an entire year. The sighting of the island was a relief for many crew members and boosted their morale. The crew hoped that the onset of the Arctic summer would free their ship from the thick pack ice, allowing them to continue their expedition. They would journey northwest, following their plan to find the “open polar route” to the North Pole.
Unfortunately for them, the U.S.S. Jeannette would still be trapped inside the ice, which was starting to crack its hull. On the evening of June 12, 1880, the ship would sink just north of the 77th parallel. Desperate and running out of options, the crew took three lifeboats and followed the orders of their commander, De Long, to head over to the Lena River delta. He predicted that there would be numerous native Yakut villages which would provide his men with food and shelter. In order to keep their slim hope of survival alive, they needed to brave the harsh winds and march over the frozen East Siberian Sea, all while hauling their boats. They displayed a strong sense of camaraderie, knowing that they needed to support each other if they wanted to have a sliver of a chance at life.
In July, the party spotted small uninhabited islands with cliffs and named them after their ship and after De Long’s family. De Long claimed these newly discovered islands for the United States and planted an American flag on the largest one. Following a brief rest, they set out on foot again. Since the ice was melting, the men had to use their boats in order to get to the Russian coast. Melville, the group’s engineer, was placed in command of one lifeboat, while Lieutenant Chipp, a naval officer, was made the captain of the smallest boat. The third lifeboat was piloted by De Long himself. Everyone was ordered to stay together, no matter how terrible the conditions became. Unfortunately, on September 12, strong gale-force winds tore the group apart. Hope was quickly dwindling for all three parties. The De Long party tried to maintain their path towards the Lena delta and proceeded to land at its northernmost extremity.
De Long kept meticulous records of his experience, from the unique wildlife to the frigid climate of the region. He noted that food was running out, writing in his journal that “there was nothing to eat but a spoonful of glycerine.” The men were in poor physical condition, with many barely walking a mile per day. Even though their decreasing food rations were replenished by shooting the occasional reindeer or bird, morale was low. One by one, De Long’s men were falling, either due to frostbite or starvation. The first casualty of the expedition came on October 6. As the harsh, biting Siberian winter set in, more men died. The last three men desperately tried to set up camp on higher ground. De Long was among them, and on the last day of October 1880, he passed away. Chipp’s party was never found, and it is assumed that the crew disappeared in the frigid waters of the East Siberian Sea due to their boat capsizing. Melville’s vessel landed at the southeastern part of the enormous river delta. He soon found a sizable native Yakut village and rested there. He ordered that everyone in his party except for two of the fittest crewmen should go to the large city of Yakutsk, which was upstream. Melville wanted to search for De Long but had to wait for the biting cold to ease. He began his search in mid- to late March, when the river ice would have melted, bringing along two of his men and two natives. In a village, a group of natives brought Melville several notes written by expedition members. When he discovered De Long’s body, he found several artifacts as well as his commander’s diary. This journal would be invaluable as there were detailed descriptions of everything that his commander’s party had encountered. All but one body of the group would be recovered and buried on top of a hill in the middle of the river delta. Melville heaped some rocks over the men’s graves and planted a large wooden cross over them to mark their resting place. For one more month, he unsuccessfully tried to find any news about Chipp and his men. He returned to Yakutsk in May and began his long journey back to the United States.
Only 13 of the 33 men that originally sailed from the U.S. survived the perilous expedition. Their return was celebrated by the American public, as their ordeals were not at all in vain. Public interest in the expedition had been high since the crew’s departure. Besides discovering new islands and sailing through uncharted waters, the crew of the USS Jeannette dismantled the theory of an “open polar sea” and the absence of currents in the Arctic Ocean. Early cartographers mapping the Arctic believed that there were no currents in this ocean. As a result of the crew of the Jeannette being trapped in ice that was floating with a current, this myth was debunked. This would change far northern exploration forever, as following explorers learned from the mistakes of De Long and used his journal entries to plan future voyages. The party’s treacherous journey in the high north was commemorated with a memorial cross in the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. Their exploration would be the first of its kind, as no one had made so many discoveries about the North Pole and the waters around it up to this point. De Long’s contribution was great, but if it weren’t for Melville’s determination and commitment to find his shipmates, we would not have learned all we know today. Melville had given the scientific world so much by recovering artifacts, especially the notes of his comrades and De Long’s diary. The men risked life and limb solely to prove a theory and ended up doing much more. Significant stories like these frequently fall through the cracks of history and should never be forgotten.
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