In 1881 First Lieutenant Adolphus Washington Greely of the U.S. Army's 5th Cavalry Regiment joined an elite fraternity: that of the Arctic explorer. Like others before him, from Martin Frobisher in 1576 to the members of Captain Sir John Franklin's ill-fated 1845 expedition, Greely set his sights northward with the best-laid plans, only to suffer the cold sting of reality. When Greely was found, barely alive, in 1884—after two failed resupply missions and an agonizing, ten-month retreat toward rescue—only he and six of his men had survived; 18 had perished. But even those fortunate few might not have made it out alive had not the U.S. Navy been summoned to intervene.
Roots of an Adventurous Undertaking
The inspiration for what became the Greely Expedition (also known as the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition) came from a veteran of the Austro-Hungarian North Pole Expedition of 1872-74, Lieutenant Karl Weyprecht of the Austrian Navy, who in 1875 floated a proposal for a cooperative, international effort to collect scientific data in the Arctic. Weyprecht's brainchild grew into a constellation of 14 camps ringing the Arctic and supporting a population of more than 700 men. Greely's was the farthest north of the stations-and the only one visited by tragedy.
Despite substantial skepticism in Washington, most notably on the part of President James A. Garfield's (and later President Chester A. Arthur's) Secretary of War, Robert Todd Lincoln, Congress agreed that the United States should join the ten European participants in Weyprecht's endeavor, which by then was dignified by the endorsement of the Hamburg Polar Conference of 1879. On 3 March 1881, Congress funded the establishment and operation of two American scientific stations. One was to be at Point Barrow, Alaska; the second "on or near the shores of Lady Franklin Bay," north of Greenland on Canada's Nares Strait.
The project fell to the U.S. Army Signal Corps, perhaps because of its 20 years of experience collecting meteorological data in the United States, or perhaps because no other Washington agency craved the mission as much, or lobbied for it as hard, as did the corps' new chief signal officer, Brigadier General William Hazen. Hazen selected Lieutenant Adolphus Greely, 37, a career Army officer, model anal-retentive personality, and enthusiastic volunteer, to command the eastern American station. Neither Greely nor any of his men had ever been in the Arctic.
The Lady Franklin Bay Expedition was an exercise in austerity. Greely later reported that after paying $19,000 to charter a transport, barely $6,000 remained of the first year's appropriation for the procurement of everything else needed for 25 men to work and survive for a year in the Arctic: clothing, camp gear, medicine, scientific instruments, weaponry. Two subsequent annual appropriations were only slightly more generous, but nothing procured after that first year actually ever got to Greely's camp anyway, and very little was offloaded where it did Greely and company any good.
Racing against the coming winter weather, preparations to go north were completed in a ten-week frenzy. The expedition embarked in the SS Proteus, a small steam-powered Arctic sealer that sailed fully loaded from St. John's, Newfoundland, on 7 July 1881. Boosted by a last leg through water that was, unexpectedly, relatively ice-free, she arrived in Lady Franklin Bay, offloaded the party in mid-August, and was back in port at St. John's by mid-September after an easy round trip. Greely's camp was conveniently close to a surface coal seam. Headquarters was a prefabricated, single-story, three-room hut as austere as a prison barracks. It was augmented by several adjacent lean-to tents and a few small sheds housing scientific equipment. Together, these modest structures constituted Fort Conger.
During their almost 23 months in camp, the men's scientific efforts included conducting regular and frequent weather, tidal, and magnetic observations. Greely calculated that each day's data collection amounted to 526 separate 'round-the-clock observations. On two days every month, 1,000 extra magnetometer readings were added to the data stream being inscribed in the expedition's journals. Making astronomical observations; collecting animal, plant, and mineral specimens as well as native artifacts; taking photographs; and tending the sled dogs and their pups were also part of the work to be done-to say nothing of simply surviving nine months or so of shattering cold and nearly five months of continuous darkness every year. Through it all, Greely and his men also conducted an extensive campaign of exploration by dogsled.
Resupply Gone Awry
Greely's encampment was to be visited by a resupply vessel in 1882 and again in 1883. If ice prevented the first ship from reaching Lady Franklin Bay, she was to unload her stocks at the most northerly point reached on the east coast of Grinnell Land (now Ellesmere Island) and to establish a small cache of supplies across Smith's Sound at Littleton Island in Life-boat Cove. If the 1883 ship also failed to reach Fort Conger, then she too was to land her load at Littleton Island, with a small party fully prepared to winter over.
Unless a steamer visited by early summer 1883, Greely was to withdraw his men down along the coast of Grinnell Land in their small boats in September, carrying with them the amassed scientific records for which they had traded two years of their lives. Fort Conger's evacuees were to sustain themselves en route by drawing on caches of food, fuel, and other survival stores emplaced by the two resupply vessels and left behind by earlier explorations. At the entrance to Smith's Sound the expedition would meet up with the party from the second resupply ship, and then, somehow, all would proceed home.
The first annual resupply mission, led by William Beebe, left St. John's in the steamship Neptune on 8 July 1882. Because of ice beyond Littleton Island, the Neptune fell short of Fort Conger by more than 150 miles. Stymied by the ice, Beebe had a small stock of rations and a boat unloaded at Littleton Island and Cape Sabine and then, inexplicably, he hauled all the remaining expedition stores back to St. John's.
In a 10 October 1882 letter to Secretary of War Lincoln, Hazen wrote: "I am satisfied . . . that all possible efforts were made to reach Lieut. Greely, which were defeated only by the unusual ice . . . which formed an impenetrable barrier to further progress. This was a contingency not unforeseen when the original expedition started." Hazen went on reassuringly, "There is not the slightest reason to suppose that Lieut. Greely's party is suffering. . . . He . . . has his party comfortably and warmly housed and is well supplied."
Hazen next sought a commander for the 1883 summer expedition who possessed "manly qualities of the first order. Sobriety, high intelligence, unflagging energy and zeal, and with faculty to command." Someone who could, figuratively if not literally, part the ice. This paragon was to leave Newfoundland in late spring with a medical doctor, ten Army enlisted men, and 18,000 man-days of rations. If the Greely party proved unreachable, a camp would be established on Littleton Island, from which a relief party would be dispatched to help Greely and company withdraw overland to the south.
On 29 June 1883, the now all-important second resupply mission sailed from St. John's in the Proteus, with volunteers under the command of First Lieutenant Ernest Garlington, U.S. 7th Cavalry. Additional rations for Greely were loaded in the Proteus' escort, the 19-year-old steam gunboat USS Yantic, fresh from a cruise in the Caribbean.
In the wake of the first resupply mission's failure, Hazen had finally succumbed to Secretary Lincoln's importuning for at least some Navy participation in Arctic exploration (traditionally a Navy mission anyway and something that interested the Secretary of War not at all). In May Hazen reluctantly asked for a Navy presence in what had until then had been almost exclusively an Army exercise. The Yantic, with 144 officers and men on board, was deployed for the mission. In preparation for her unusual cruise, the veteran Civil War gunboat was almost completely disarmed in Brooklyn to lighten ship, and her hull was strengthened against puncture by the addition of a seven-foot belt of 2.5-inch-thick oak planking. Additional exterior reinforcement was clapped on in Newfoundland.
Even so, the Yantic was still too thin-skinned to challenge any ice, and her captain, Commander Frank Wildes, was ordered to steer well clear of any danger to his ship. The Yantic, moreover, would sail, not steam, much of the time to conserve coal. That alone guaranteed that the Navy vessel and her consort would be separated much of the time. Not unreasonably, her wardroom's consensus was that theirs was a largely worthless assignment. "When we left New York," Ensign Henry Mayo wrote his wife on 4 August, "none of us could see what possible use Yantic could be on this expedition."
The Navy's biggest contribution to this second mission turned out to be not the Yantic but one of her four lieutenants, Lieutenant (junior grade) John Colwell. The 27-year-old Colwell volunteered in St. John's to join Garlington in the Proteus for the duration. The Proteus was crushed in the ice pack and sank in late July. Colwell led seven others, for 39 days, across 930 miles of Arctic waters in an open boat, in a successful search for the Yantic. The lieutenant then diverted the gunboat to rocky Upernavik Island, where the rest of Garlington's men and the Proteus' crew were holed up. Colwell's heroic exertions saved everyone off the Proteus from the trials of a winter campout in the tiny Danish settlement on Upernavik.
"It is my painful duty to report," Garlington wrote to Hazen on 13 September 1883, "the total failure of the expedition. The Proteus was crushed in pack . . . and sunk on the afternoon of the 23rd July. My party and crew of ship all saved . . . all well." Garlington's blithe "all well" encompassed only his ten soldiers and the 22 former members of the Proteus' crew; the 24 men with Greely on the ice at Lady Franklin Bay had not been heard from since the Proteus had left them on the beach two years before.
From Fort Conger to Camp Clay
Roughly two weeks after the Proteus sank, Greely, ignorant of everything beyond the horizon, left Fort Conger with his men in the expedition's small boats as planned, carrying 40 days' rations, their scientific instruments, and the precious records. Fort Conger had been claustrophobic but reasonably well-supplied, so all of them were still hale when they moved out on 9 August. Morale, however, was by then abysmal and military discipline seriously eroded. Greely's nominal second-in-command, Second Lieutenant Frederick Kislingbury, 11th Infantry, had quit his post even before the Proteus sailed out of sight in September 1881. The expedition's doctor and naturalist, Octav Pavey, did the same in July two years later, refusing to renew his contract with the Army. With no way to leave, both men in effect resigned from the expedition in place, although Kislingbury occasionally hunted for food for the group and Pavey still did emergency medicine. The others in Greely's party barely managed to conceal their contempt for his leadership.
On 21 October, after abandoning their boats and drifting about Smith Sound atop an ice floe, the party managed to make camp on Cape Sabine (not actually a cape, but a small island), some 200-plus hard miles below their former base. Had the original plan worked, a well-stocked wintering-over party at Littleton Island would have observed their arrival and linked up accordingly. Instead, Greely and his men were alone, facing the northern winter dreadfully ill-equipped and unprotected. Camp Clay, their makeshift stone enclosure with an inverted whaleboat for a roof, provided scant protection from Arctic weather. Their remaining rations, augmented by three small caches found about the island, proved miserably inadequate. The next eight months at Camp Clay saw predictable horrors.
Final Rescue Attempt
More than 50,000 rations had been shipped north by the Army in three resupply vessels between July 1882 and August 1883; fewer than 1,000 had actually been put ashore. All the rest, an 1883 court of inquiry would establish, had been carried back in the Neptune or Yantic to St. John's, or lay on the bottom with the Proteus. Nevertheless, those responsible for the lapses expressed confidence in the expedition's happy state, perhaps picturing its members snacking on game and waiting out winter by finishing the last of the canned blueberries and slabs of Mr. Cobb's chocolate they had taken north with them in 1881. Up in Camp Clay, trapped in the reality of the situation, Greely calculated that with strict rationing they had food enough to last only into March, long months before local waters would reopen for navigation to Cape Sabine.
On 16 October, Commander Wildes wrote Secretary of the Navy William E. Chandler: "I had no fears for Lieutenant Greely, who, living in a region reportedly well stocked with game, had economized on his provisions . . . the rocks and waters . . . abound in walrus. . . . On the neighboring mainland reindeer are reported numerous." Greely's men did manage to shoot and eat a bear, but they never saw a walrus or reindeer.
Hazen was equally confident about the expedition's well-being, stating to the court of inquiry in November that he believed Greely and his men had enough, between dropped-off supplies and "native food," to sustain them comfortably through the winter.
In comfort or not, it was clear that Greely had to be recovered as soon as shipping could move next year through Baffin Bay into Smith Sound and, with luck, up the Kane Sea if necessary. On 17 December, President Arthur established a joint Army-Navy board to make rescue-expedition recommendations to secretaries Lincoln and Chandler. Finally, for the first time since Greely had left the capital, explorers with actual Arctic experience were consulted while the board considered several alternative plans.
The board's recommendations, delivered on 22 January 1884, proposed the purchase and dispatch of two specially outfitted Scottish whalers or Newfoundland sealers on the mission, to be accompanied by a Navy ship. Not until 13 February did a fractious Congress approve a resolution funding the rescue, finally freeing the executive departments to proceed. Secretary Chandler assigned Commander Winfield Schley to take command of the Greely Relief Expedition of 1884. Commander Schley's orders gave him great discretion in outfitting the ships and selecting the crews. When Schley's squadron left port, its total complement was 110 Navy officers and Sailors, all volunteers from the Atlantic Fleet but most from the USS Powhatan; not a single Army man was on board. Recruiting was probably aided by the incentive of $10 per month extra pay and a promise of a two months' bonus if the mission was successful.
Ship selection and procurement had begun before the enabling legislation was passed and even before Schley was appointed. The steamer Bear, out of Greenock, Scotland, a ten-year-old sister ship of the Proteus, was purchased by the Navy for $100,000. She was soon joined by the Thetis, of Dundee, purchased for £28,000 (about $40,000 more than the first acquisition). The last of the three selected was HMS Alert, a loan from the British Admiralty in appreciation for earlier American assistance in the Arctic recovery of HMS Resolute. Unlike the delicate Yantic, all three were specially hardened for Arctic service. The Bear and Thetis were substantially reconfigured at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and the Alert was prepared for deployment at an English yard on the Thames before crossing the Atlantic. A collier, the Loch Garry, was chartered to provide a coal depot afloat.
Schley's plan was that all ships would sail in the spring individually when ready for sea, head for St. John's to coal, join up at Upernavik, sail in convoy to Littleton Island, and begin the search. Neither the Alert nor the collier was expected to go north of the island, and once the Alert had established an emergency wintering-over camp on the island during the summer, she was to return to St. John's. It fell to the two former Dundee whalers to challenge the ice during the search for Greely. Impelled by powerful pushes from Secretary Chandler, all the ships left to go north early, fully loaded and handsomely stocked.
This high-level support was one of the reasons for the success that followed. Secretary Lincoln had despised and neglected the Greely mission; Secretary Chandler was determined to use its relief as the vehicle for restoring the Navy to favorable congressional and public regard. He insisted that all his subordinates in the department vigorously support this high-risk commitment and drew from the entire officer corps for its leadership. The second reason flowed naturally from the first. Chandler's Navy spent money on the relief mission as if the U.S. Treasury drained into his office. The purchase price of the Bear alone exceeded all the money spent in the prior three years on the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition. Nothing was too good or too much for Schley et al.
The ships of the relief squadron proceeded generally as planned. On 22 June 1884 the Thetis and Bear joined up at Littleton Island and sailed across Smith's Sound toward Cape Sabine, now certain that Greely had not made it to Life-boat Cove. Later the same day, a shore search party from the Thetis found a cairn on Brevoort Island containing letters from Greely. The last, dated the previous October, revealed that his expedition was on Cape Sabine, two miles to the north, with 40 days of rations. On a neighboring islet another cache was found containing the original records of the expedition. Now all that remained was to find the men. Fortune left that triumph to Lieutenant John Colwell, back in the Arctic as the second lieutenant in the Bear.
The Greely Expedition had left Fort Conger in full strength in late August 1883 after nearly two years in camp. The survivors were rescued by Commander Schley's squadron almost exactly ten months later at Camp Clay. Seven men were still alive when Colwell found them beneath a collapsed tent, but one died almost immediately afterward. Seventeen others had died of starvation and exposure since January. An 18th man, Private Charles Henry, had been executed for stealing food, although the survivors' accounts reveal that others had committed the same crime.
There was evidence that seven of the dead had been cannibalized. The obvious signs of butchery of their bodies were first explained away as the survivors' effort to get fishing bait. Presumably being turned into fish food by your fellows was less ghastly than being eaten by them.
On 17 July 1884, Commander Schley sent Secretary Chandler a telegram from St. John's: "Thetis, Bear, and Loch Garry arrived to-day from West Greenland, all well. . . . Thetis and Bear rescued . . . the only survivors of the Lady Franklin Bay expedition."
And with that, the waiting world knew the ordeal was finally over.
The Proceedings of the "Proteus" Court of Inquiry on the Greely Relief Expedition of 1883, Senate Ex. Doc. 100, 48th Cong, 1st Sess. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1884), includes the court's verbatim proceedings examining the failure of Lieutenant Garlington's mission and a compendium of relevant official correspondence from early 1881 through the end of 1883.
The essence of Commander Winfield Schley's official report on the relief mission and much else about the story was published in Schley, W. S., and Prof. J. R. Soley [Assistant Secretary of the Navy], The Rescue of Greely (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1885).
Lieutenant Adolphus Greely's own description of the expedition he led is in Three Years of Arctic Service: An Account of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition of 1881-1884 and the Attainment of Farthest North, 2 vols. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1886).
Quotations from Ensign Henry Mayo's letters are from his correspondence with his wife during the summer of 1883, held in the private collection of his grandson, Major General George T. Mayo Jr., U.S. Army (Retired), and provided by a kinsman, Charles S. Chase, of Clarke County, Virginia. They are cited here with the latter's permission.
Letters from on Board the Yantic
Lieutenant Colwell's relief on the USS Yantic's watch bill was Ensign Henry Mayo, 26. Mayo's eight long, handwritten letters to his wife, penned from June to September 1883, offer a unique insight into the Yantic's Arctic cruise. He reported to her on his loneliness and boredom, his reading and sleeping habits, his living conditions and card-playing, and very occasionally on the progress of their cruise. No storyteller he. "Doesn't a description of our daily ship life seem meager and uninteresting?" Mayo wrote her on 18 July from Disko, and a day later, still in port, "There's the history of another day, doesn't it seem tame and monotonous?"
Finally, on 31 August, he had something to write about. "Good news . . . part of the Garlington party are now on board this ship. . . . They look pretty well fagged out, but are in pretty good health. . . . It must have been a terrible time, drifting about in an open boat in such a seas, a gale blowing, snowing, the sea running high and ice-bergs crashing all around them." The rest of his good news came dated 2 September: "Homeward bound . . . we have the entire Greely relief expedition on board-Proteus crew and all. We can go back to the U.S. now feeling that we have left nothing undone that the Yantic could do. This has been a joyful day for all hands. I can hardly believe that I am not dreaming."
The dream ended for the Yantic's commanding officer on arrival in port, when he had to answer the criticisms of the Secretary of the Navy and to absorb the skepticism of the Army's court of inquiry about his decision to leave the north for home with four months of rations still on board.
Mayo (1856-1937) had graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1876 and served in three ships of the Asiatic Squadron, as well as the Coast Guard survey schooner Earnest, before joining the Yantic in 1882. Despite frequent suggestions that he would leave the Navy after the Yantic returned to Brooklyn, he remained on active duty for the next 39 years, including eight as a flag officer. Eventually, Mayo rose to be commander in chief of the Atlantic Fleet.