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Medal marks heroic arctic voyage

 Front and back of the Jeanette medal.

Front and back of the Jeanette medal.

In the 19th century, there were great hopes that a way could be found for ships to sail north of Russia and Canada and thus forge new routes for cargo vessels between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans.

The idea for the Arctic expedition covered in this article began in the 1870s with the explorations into uncharted areas of Africa. One such search, for missionary David Livingstone, was undertaken by Henry M. Stanley at the expense of James Gordon Bennett, a well-known American newspaper publisher. Stanley was successful (“Dr. Livingston, I presume?”), which encouraged others to undertake responsible travels.

Bennett himself was soon thinking of other such projects. The circulation of his newspapers had increased dramatically as a result of the Livingston search and he wished to continue this trend with another spectacular success.

In 1878 Bennett decided on an Arctic voyage from Alaska to Denmark, along the northern coast of Russia, and persuaded the U.S. government to give its official backing. He purchased the English ship Pandora, which he renamed the Jeannette after one of his sisters. American diplomats were enlisted to get the permission of the various governments; the necessary authority to sail in territorial waters was easily obtained.

Bennett’s next task was to find a man of superior ability and experience to lead the expedition and he chose Lt. George W. DeLong from among numerous applicants. He was one of the most qualified men of his time, having served with distinction in the Arctic.

As leader of the expedition, DeLong was given a certain amount of freedom in choosing those who would accompany him. In all DeLong picked 32 men, including several seamen who had served in the Arctic.

The Jeannette was refitted at the French port of La Havre; several days were spent in sailing the ship on the open seas near that city in order to make certain that it was fully seaworthy and suited for the brutal Arctic pack ice.

From France the ship sailed, via Cape Horn, to San Francisco where the hull was further strengthened, making the Jeannette one of the strongest wooden ships afloat. DeLong then sailed through the Golden Gate and in early August reached the Aleutian Islands.

In late August the ship rounded East Cape, the extreme eastern point of Siberia, and was soon trapped by the ice. The ship was now at the mercy of the Arctic and the pack ice. In mid-January 1880 the ice pressure grew increasingly worse and a dangerous split developed in the hull; a skilled carpenter was able to make the necessary repairs, however.

The ship continued to drift westward at a slow pace. In May 1881 the first island was sighted but the crew was unable to reach it to leave a message for future explorers. Another island was sighted a few days later, but with the same results.

In June 1881 they came much closer to another island and were able to land and leave a stone cairn. That island was named Henrietta in honor of a another Bennett sister. (An earlier island passed by without a landing had been named Jeannette.)

A few days after Henrietta Island, the ice pressure became so great that the vessel started to break into pieces, forcing the crew to abandon ship in three longboats. DeLong knew, however, that he was near the Lena River on the northern coast of Siberia.

On the way to the Lena River delta DeLong encountered another dot in that broad sea of ice and named it Bennett Island after the trip sponsor. All of the island names given by DeLong are still in place, as even the Soviets recognized the bravery of this expedition.

The group now headed toward Faddeyevsky Island, where they rested for two weeks in preparation for the difficult trip to the Lena delta.

At first the group was able to stay in close contact though in three different boats. The first boat contained DeLong and 13 others. The second and third boats contained a total of 24 men. One of the latter boats was soon lost but the remaining 25 men made it to the Lena Delta. DeLong’s boat landed in a remote area, however, and nearly all died from starvation. The last boat was lucky and all on board survived.

There was great public interest in the extraordinary difficulties undergone by the Jeannette and her crew. In September 1890 Congress passed an act awarding special medals to the survivors or next-of-kin of those who had died. Little was then done for several months though Navy Secretary B.F. Tracy was assigned to handle the details.

By early April 1892 the required drawings had been completed and approved by Tracy. The drawings were sent to chief engraver Charles Barber at the Philadelphia Mint and the dies were soon prepared by Barber and the assistant engraver, George Morgan.

The obverse design shows the ship being abandoned to the pack ice. The reverse carries the legend “JEANNETTE ARCTIC EXPEDITION 1879-1882” around the words “IN COMMEMORATION OF PERILS ENCOUNTERED AND AS AN EXPRESSION OF THE HIGH ESTEEM IN WHICH CONGRESS HOLDS HIS SERVICES, ACT APPROVED SEPT. 30, 1890.”

Eight gold and 25 silver medals were soon struck and distributed to the appropriate persons. Today such medals are a great rarity and few medal collectors have even seen one of them.

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine. >> Subscribe today.

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