Modern history


“Our Dreadful Situation”

On August 29, 1871, the wind blowing over the arctic fleet, though still light, changed direction 180 degrees and swung into the southwest. Immediately, because of the Coriolis effect, the loosened pack ice began drifting east, shoreward again.

Early in the afternoon, both the Monticello and the Elizabeth Swift, dodging ice, ran aground. With a tidal range of only six inches in the vicinity of Point Barrow, the ships would not soon float off. The Swift, in fifteen feet of water, was stuck for nine hours before a large cake of ice pushed the stern of the ship free to a depth of twenty-four feet at ten in the evening.

Thomas Williams also managed to sail the Monticello into deeper water that afternoon, but while the Swift stayed anchored where she was, Williams—warier than ever of ice after the loss of the Hibernia the year before—now turned his ship around and started beating southwest against wind and tide in an attempt to get clear of both the ice and the shoals. “The sea room, however, was narrow,” remembered Willie, “requiring short tacks and the taking of chances in the shoal water along the shore.”

We had only made a few miles to the south when one of those peculiar incidents happened which make sailors believe in luck, good and bad, only in this case it was bad. We were on the “in-shore tack” trying to make every inch possible, the order was given for tacking ship, all hands were on deck. . . . The ship was almost in the wind and coming [about] beautifully, another minute and she would be safe on the other tack. The calls of the leadsmen in the fore chains showed that we still had water under our keel, when of a sudden out of the gloom of the snow there loomed a floe of ice right under our weather bow. There was a bare possibility that the ship would swing enough to strike it on the other bow, in which event we were all right, but as the sailors said “luck was against us” she struck on her weather bow, hung “in irons” for a few moments, then slowly swung off and stopped; we were aground.

The sails were quickly furled and a boat lowered to carry an anchor out to windward and deeper water, to try to stop the ship dragging farther into the shallows. There was no physical sense of emergency: the night was quiet, the wind light, and the water in the lee of the ice was almost calm.

Willie remembered the next day, August 30, as “clear and fair,” but Nathaniel Ransom, aboard the John Wells, anchored ten miles to the north, wrote in his ship’s log: “A thick snow storm all day.” It was probably on the following day, August 31, that the weather improved. “Good weather,”recorded Ransom on that day, and though there was “lots of ice all around,” Aaron Dean, the Wells’s captain, still ordered two boats lowered to cruise for whales.

When the snowstorm cleared on August 31, the ships anchored near the Monticello now saw that she was stranded and sent boats full of men to help her. Their captains, always ready to drop everything to come to another’s aid, sat in their sternsheets. To Willie, these other captains, all of whom he knew from many gams aboard his own and their ships, were heroes in the mold of his father. “The American whaling captain of that day was a plain, rather reticent, serious minded man utterly devoid of show or swagger. He held no commission and wore no uniform, but he could say with John Paul Jones, ‘By God sir I am captain of this ship because I am the best man in her.’ ” Twelve years old, unmindful of the seriousness of the situation, Willie was only thrilled by the gathering of such men. “To me it was a gala day, the decks fairly swarmed with men, orders were executed with a snap and vigor that only a sailor can put into his work when he is pleased to.” More anchors were rowed out and dropped in deeper water, their lines and chains hove up tight on the ship’s windlass. The Monticello’s bow was aground, her stern afloat, so barrels of oil were lifted out of her hold and rolled aft to redistribute weight. Finally she floated free and was towed out to where the other ships lay clustered together between the ice and the shallows, and there dropped her anchor. Though Williams was still determined to sail away as soon as possible, no escape yet revealed itself, so he waited, with the other ships.

The trapped fleet was now strung out along a curving fifty-mile-long sweep of the coast from a little south of Wainwright Inlet to Point Franklin in the north. While boats were still sent out to look for whales—there was little else to be done—some of the captains, like Thomas Williams, were no longer determined to reach Point Barrow, but hoped only to get their ships and crews safely away to the south. “Oh how many of this ship’s company will live to see the last day of next August?” wrote the Henry Taber’s captain, Timothy Packard, with vivid foreboding on August 31.

ON FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 1, the wind strengthened again until it was a “fresh breeze,” still from the southwest. The current, though running strongly to the northeast beneath the wind, was in fact pushing directly onto the coast with the Coriolis effect, piling ice upon more ice. Captains sent men to the mastheads to look for leads to open water, but they saw only miles of jumbled, densely packed floes stretching away to seaward without a break, pressing toward the land, jammed up against the shoals, driving over them, forcing the ships ever closer to the beach.

Northernmost of the fleet on that day, the New Bedford ship Roman was anchored in the lee of the ice off Point Franklin. A studio photograph of her captain, Jared Jernegan, shows a Mount Rushmore visage of encircling beard, jutting, prognathic jaw, clean-shaven mouth clamped in a grim arc of implacable stubbornness; the large, deep-socketed, hooded eyes hold all the terrible, soul-etching memories of a lifetime at sea, every kind of maritime disaster, of whales, icebergs, and death. Though he is properly attired in frock coat, waistcoat, high collar, and tie, Jernegan’s hairstyle is an arrangement of errant, flyaway quiffs, as if he had stepped directly out of a typhoon into the photographer’s studio. No Civil War general’s portrait showed a face sterner or more commanding. (All whaleship captains looked like this in photographs: manifestly stamped by weather and peril, hair barely restrained; perhaps it was a look they acquired by unspoken conformity to a desired type, the way twentieth-century American astronauts all looked like happy, corn-fed farm boys.)

The Roman’s boats had found a “stinker,” a floating dead whale, probably one of the hundreds that had been harpooned farther south but had escaped beneath the ice. The whale was being towed alongside the ship and the crew were busy cutting it in, while the Roman lay tethered by “ice anchors” (probably large blubber hooks) to an acre or so of ice. Late in the morning of September 1, that slab of ice suddenly broke apart.

When I came on deck [Jernegan wrote] I saw the heavy drift ice had cracked the heavy point of ice that held our ship. I felt quite sure we was going to have trouble if this point of ice broke adrift. Shure enough, the whole of this broke adrift and swung around. I sung out, “Let go the lines to the ice anchors,” but it was too late as the ship was drove astern, the rudder fetching up against the ice, carrying away all the pindles. Then the ship’s stern was all stove in the heavy drift.

Ice worked right under the ship, raised the whole ship almost out on to the ice then her whole broad [starboard] side was stove in.

The Roman began to sink immediately. Jernegan ordered the three boats on the port side to be lowered onto the ice, while other crewmen jumped over the rail onto the ice to haul the boats clear as the heavy masts fell around them. Jernegan ran below to his cabin to save his two chronometers and a pistol, and with these in his hands he jumped down onto the ice. In what appeared to be the direst of circumstances, some of his crew began to panic, but Jernegan maintained order. He set his thirty-eight-man crew to dragging the three boats across the heaving floes, over pressure ridges, around gaping cracks that opened and closed, ready to crush the boats, toward open water.

Dangerously overloaded, with more than twice as many men in the boats as they were designed to carry, Jernegan and the Roman’s crew rowed twenty miles southwest, against wind and current, to where the nearest ships—the Comet, of Honolulu; the Howlands’ Concordia; and the Gay Head, also of New Bedford—still floated free.

But at one a.m. the following morning, September 2, ice closed around the Comet, snapping her massive timbers between two large floes. She didn’t sink right away; the ship was forced upward out of the water, as her crew jumped over the side onto the ice. The ship was slowly ground to pieces and the wreckage remained visible on the ice for days. Captain Packard, of the Henry Taber, and the captains of other ships anchored nearby, sent their boats to take off the Comet’s crew. Captain James Knowles of the George Howland purchased salvage rights to the ship’s wreckage and whatever could be recovered of her stores and barrels of oil for $13—a reflection of how poor the Comet ’s season had been, but perhaps there was a fitting or two aboard her that might have been worth a few dollars and the trouble to remove it.

The sight of the Comet’s toppled masts and wreckage strewn across the ice, and of the ignominious plunder of her cargo, was a grim spec ter of what now threatened every ship along the coast. With the coming and going of boats transferring the crewmen of both the Roman and the Cometto other ships, while others still rowed and sailed along the narrowing channel, looking for whales, news of what had happened traveled through the fleet within hours. It was dolefully recorded on the same day in logbooks of ships separated by many miles.

There was little change for the next five days. The wind remained light, from the south and southwest. Ships swung to their anchors in the current or moved as necessary to avoid ice—always, reluctantly, closer to the shore—while still sending boats off to look for whales.

On September 7, the second mate’s boat of the Emily Morgan had the good luck to harpoon a whale. Moments later, that same second mate, Antonio Oliver, accidentally shot himself through the head with a bomb gun and was instantly killed. Many of the ships’ logbooks noted this accident in identical words, leaving the impression of a boat rowing from ship to ship passing on this gruesome news.

On September 8, the wind strengthened. “Strong” and “fresh” were the words used in several logbooks, indicating gale force. It was still blowing from the southwest, and this stronger wind pushed ice grounded on the shoals farther into the waterway, forcing ships ever closer to the beach. Up and down the coast, this latest advance by the ice had an immediate effect on the fleet. The Elizabeth Swift was forced aground at three p.m.; her crew got her off four hours later. The bark Awashonks was crushed and sank. Although she was twenty miles to the south, the news of the Awashonks’s sinking reached the Swift at nearly telegraph speed.

With nothing to do but watch the advancing ice, go to the assistance of ships in trouble, and still send their men out whaling, the captains of most vessels were rowing to and fro, gamming with their colleagues, swapping news, and talking about what was to be done—but there was nothing to do except wait for a change of wind, and, finally, to decide what to do if it did not change. These captains were all champion stoics, well used to waiting out bad weather, but though they were courageous odds-players, they were not dreamers, hopers against unrealistic hope. They were men who recognized and seized the main chance when it came along, and now one was looming, one they all abhorred, but which looked increasingly necessary and urgent: abandonment of their ships. It might well be possible to continue dodging the encroaching ice for a few weeks more, but as September advanced, the weather would only grow colder, the ice thicker. If a route to the open sea couldn’t be found soon, all the ships would be crushed, forcing their abandonment.

This, they knew, could be executed with a high degree of control and safety: each ship carried a minimum of five whaleboats, more than adequate as lifeboats capacious enough to carry her complement of men—and a number of women and children—and some provisions. Getting from ship to shore, at most half a mile away, would not be difficult. Once there, however, a severer trial would begin. The experiences of Captain Barker and the men of the Japan, related and discussed aboard every ship earlier that summer, had made this prospect vividly real. And the crew of the Japanhad been a handful of men; here were more than 1,200 people aboard the trapped whaleships. The fleet carried food for no more than a season’s cruise, and this season was almost over. The outcome for this large population ashore was plain: death by starvation and cold.

“Ice boun on wone side and land on the other,” lamented Captain Valentine Lewis, of the Thomas Dickason, describing the whaling captain’s worst definition of lying between a rock and a hard place. Lewis also usually sailed with his wife, Ethelinda, but this summer he had, like Jared Jernegan with his wife, left her safely ashore, in Honolulu. “God have Mercy on this Whaling Fleet and deliver us from the cold and Icy shores.”

There was one possible alternative to this grimmest scenario: it was believed that a few ships had not been caught by the ice but still cruised in open water to the south. If the whaleboats, carrying 1,200 people, could reach these ships, they might all get away before the onset of winter. But the decision to abandon the fleet—while most of it still floated intact—had to be made soon, before any ships to the south, discouraged by the ice and unaware of the plight of those to the north, turned and sailed for home.

On September 9, a group of captains met and agreed they could wait no longer. They decided to try to lighten one of the smallest vessels in the fleet, the 270-ton Kohola, of Honolulu, by transferring its barrels of oil, water, and other provisions to another ship, hoping thus to reduce its draft sufficiently to allow it to sail through the shallow water inside the ice at the south of the waterway. Once free, it was to try to contact any vessels still cruising in the open sea beyond. The Kohola sailed only a few miles before grounding in six feet of water off Wainwright Inlet. Captains Thomas Williams and William Kelley (of the Gay Head) then tried to lighten the even smaller 149-ton Victoria, of San Francisco, but she, too, soon grounded on shoals inside the ice, unable to get clear.

On the morning of September 10, the open water in the channel around the ships was found to have frozen during the night to the thickness of an inch—a stark indicator, with the failure of the Kohola and the Victoria to get clear, of what lay ahead. “Off this ship,” is what every man was thinking, and some of them voicing. Captains and crews throughout the fleet now began packing whaleboats with food, gear, and sails (to use as tents if necessary). Unsure if they would find any ships beyond the ice, they knew now that no one could help them but themselves. A number of whaleboats departed for the south right away, hoping to row or sail clear of the ice and contact what ships might still be cruising there.

From the Elizabeth Swift’s logbook:


... No change in the ice. The ships are all makeing preperations for sending provisions south thinking they will have to leave their ships soon. New ice made last night quite thick so that it was dificult to get a boat through it.

The Emily Morgan, of New Bedford, was another “lady ship.” At four a.m. on September 12, Captain Benjamin Dexter left the Morgan with his wife, Almira, in a whaleboat, “to take his wife to a place of safety in the south,” recorded his first mate, William Earle. What that safe place could be, unless aboard a ship clear of the ice, no one knew. Dexter left first mate Earle aboard the Emily Morgan with instructions to “act according to circumstances . . . if the other ships are to be abandoned to abandon ours at the same time.” Earle also recorded his doubts and the limit to what he would do:

For my part, I will not cross the Arctic Ocean in an open whale-boat laden with men and provisions in the latter part of the month of September and October. As far as Icy Cape, there is no danger, but beyond that, (if all ships’ companies have to take to boats to Behring’s Strait) the sea is dangerous at this season of the year. Out of the 1,400 men not 100 will survive. I will return from Icy Cape if ships cannot be found.

On September 11, Captain D. R. Frazer, of the Florida, who had earlier set out to the south in command of three whaleboats, found the whaleship Lagoda in clear water ten miles off Icy Cape. Until that day, the Lagoda and six other whaleships had also been locked in the ice and trying to sail free. On the eleventh, the ice broke up sufficiently to allow them to work their way out into open water. If they had not been frozen until then, or if Captain Frazer’s boats had not encountered them that day, the seven ships would have sailed south. Boats from the Lagoda were dispatched to other ships, which lay within a few miles of each other off Icy Cape. All agreed to wait until the boats from the fleet, with their 1,200 passengers, reached them.

Captain James Dowden, of the Progress, not far from the Lagoda, gave Captain Frazer this message to take back to the other captains: “Tell them all I will wait for them as long as I have an anchor left or a spar to carry a sail.”

Frazer returned to the fleet with this message the next day, September 12. On that day all the captains met aboard his ship, the Florida, where they signed the following statement:

Point Belcher, Arctic Ocean, Sept. 12, 1871

Know all men by these presents, that we, the undersigned, masters of whale-ships now lying at Point Belcher, after holding a meeting concerning our dreadful situation, have all come to the conclusion that our ships cannot be got out this year, and there being no harbor that we can get our vessels into, and not having provisions enough to feed our crews to exceed three months, and being in a barren country, where there is neither food nor fuel to be obtained, we feel ourselves under the painful necessity of abandoning our vessels, and trying to work our way south with our boats, and, if possible, get on board of ships that are south of the ice. We think it would not be prudent to leave a single soul to look after our vessels, as the first westerly gale will crowd the ice ashore, and either crush the ships or drive them high upon the beach. Three of the fleet have already been crushed, and two are now lying hove out, which have been crushed by the ice, and are leaking badly. We have now five wrecked crews distributed among us. We have barely room to swing at anchor between the pack of ice and the beach, and we are lying in three fathoms of water. Should we be cast upon the beach it would be at least eleven months before we could look for assistance, and in all probability nine out of ten would die of starvation or scurvy before the opening of spring.

Therefore, we have arrived at these conclusions [after] the return of our expedition under command of Capt. D. R. Frazer, of the Florida, he having with whale-boats worked to the southward as far as Blossom Shoals, and found that the ice pressed ashore the entire distance from our position to the shoals, leaving in several places only sufficient water for our boats to pass through, and this liable at any moment to be frozen over during the twenty-four hours, which would cut off our retreat, even by the boats, as Captain Frazer had to work through a considerable quantity of young ice during his expedition, which cut up his boats badly.

It was awkwardly written, in part because it was painstakingly specific, and rang with a defensive solidarity. To abandon a ship and its cargo, together worth perhaps $50,000, in some cases much more—particularly those ships still floating sound and unwrecked in the channel—was, for these upstanding men, who were always mindful of their responsibility to their ship’s owners (and many of them were themselves part owners of their ships), a terrible act that would carry a long shadow down through the remainder of their careers. For a seaman, the loss of a ship is always tainted with shame, no matter what the circumstances; and it is always subject to speculation, by those who weren’t there, of what else might have been done. To abandon a vessel that, like most of the fleet, still floated sound and in good condition, was almost unheard of. Few of these captains would have left their ships unless all of them had agreed upon the necessity to do so, and then formalized that agreement in what amounted to a shared oath swearing to the extremity of their situation. They knew that other men, at home or in other ships, would question their decision. They had to affirm, to one another and the world, that there was no alternative.

They did so: every captain, except those, like Benjamin Dexter, who had already set out with his wife in a whaleboat heading south, signed this letter. They agreed to abandon their ships on September 14. But by then many boats and ships’ crews had already left.


The Abandonment of the Whaling Fleet, 1871. From Harper’s Weekly.

(Courtesy New Bedford Whaling Museum)

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