There are many versions of Resolute’s story cropping up on the internet these days, many of which contain significant errors. Therefore, I’m offering her concise story here, which is based on my original research, conducted in both America and Britain, using primary sources.
IN 1845, Sir John Franklin departed Britain with two ships, HMS Erebus and Terror. His remit was to find the elusive Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic. By 1848, when the Admiralty hadn’t heard from or about Franklin for 3 years, Beaufort began looking for him and his men. Eventually many others, from both Britain and the United States, joined the search. (These searches, for both the Franklin Expedition and the Northwest Passage, have been covered many times by excellent maritime historians. Therefore, there’s little need for me to rehash this part of Resolute’s story. Sources for this will be on my bibliography page.)
One of the first officers sent to look for the Franklin men was Henry Kellett, on HMS Herald. He’d been surveying in the Pacific Ocean when the Hydrographer to the Navy, Francis Beaufort, pulled him off this work and sent him up into the Bering Strait to look for any signs that the Franklin Expedition had made it through Canada. At the same time, Beaufort sent two ships, Enterprise and Investigator, into the Eastern Arctic under the command of James Clark Ross. This was Beaufort’s first two-pronged approach to searching for the Franklin Expedition, a technique he would use again. When these first attempts to find the Franklin men were unsuccessful, Beaufort began organising a second, two-armed search. This time, planning to send Enterprise and Investigator into the Canadian Arctic from the West, he needed to buy more ships. In quick succession the Admiralty bought two sailing vessels: Ptarmigan (renamed Resolute) and Baboo (renamed Assistance). Being an advocate of steam, Beaufort rounded out the Admiralty’s buying spree with two steam tenders: Eider (renamed Intrepid) and FreeTrade (renamed Pioneer). The combination of sail and steam proved so beneficial that two years later, after again having no success finding the Franklin men, Beaufort sent the same four ships into the Arctic again. He added the North Star as a depot ship, and placed the new expedition under Edward Belcher.
The officers in command of the Belcher Expedition’s five ships were:
Captain Sir Edward Belcher, squadron leader
Commander George Richards, HMS Assistance (Belcher’s flagship)
Captain Henry Kellett, HMS Resolute
Commander William Pullen, HMS North Star
Lieutenant Sherard Osborn, HMS Pioneer
(promoted, Lieutenant Commander, October 1852)
Lieutenant Commander Francis Leopold McClintock, HMS Intrepid
(McClintock was the man who eventually found the definitive proof of Franklin’s death when he was later the captain of the Fox.)
Admiralty records show Belcher to have been a sadistic man, earning his nickname “Hell Afloat” many times over, because he made every ship he commanded a living hell. The diametric opposite was, by contrast, Henry Kellett, who was kind and respected. He made his men feel integral members of a team, showing them he trusted their judgement and experience. His steady and extremely competent second in command (on steam tender HMS Intrepid) was Lieutenant Commander Leopold McClintock.
Originally meant to search the eastern reaches of the Canadian Arctic together, the Belcher Expedition split to incorporate searching for, and resupplying if necessary, the Enterprise (Collinson) and Investigator (McClure) Neither ship had been heard from since entering the Arctic from the west in 1850.
The North Star stayed at Beechey Island and the rest of the squadron split in two: Assistance and Pioneer traveled north up the Wellington Channel under Belcher’s command. Kellett took Resolute and Intrepid west, to make for Winter Harbour, Melville Island, where Parry had camped in 1822. But Resolute and Intrepid, although able to get close, couldn’t quite make it into Winter Harbour, so they stopped at Dealy Island.
There they setup their winter camp. They cut a dock in the land ice to protect the ships from the floe ice, and built the snow and ice up around the sides of the vessels for insulation. The yards and masts were taken down, except for the lowest sections of the masts. The men used these to make a tent over the deck, so that they would have a protected place to exercise when the weather was so bad that they could not go out on the ice.
While these preparations were ongoing, Resolute’s autumn sledging parties spread out over Melville Island, creating cairns of supplies, so that when the spring came, they would be able to search as far as those cairns, and then that much farther again. It was during this autumn activity that a cairn was discovered containing information from Captain Robert McClure, (HMS Investigator) giving their location and that they had been frozen in the ice for 2 years. When the news of McClure’s whereabouts were made known onboard Resolute, all the Resolutes and Intrepids vied to be chosen to go to them right away. But Kellett knew it was simply too late in the season to go, and he could not responsibly send his men out when the darkness and winter storms were likely to make such a trip fatal. So he ordered the men to stay, and made helping McClure the highest priority of the traveling parties in the spring.
The men came prepared for the long, dark winters: bringing with them their books, musical instruments, and sailors’ sense of fun and adventure. McDougall, Resolute‘s Master, was central in setting up Resolute’s Arctic Theatre Royal, which gave 2 performances during the first winter. Kellett, in keeping with his being a kind captain interested in the welfare of his men, was in charge of the theatre committee. Meanwhile others organised a lecture series.
In the spring of 1853 the sledging parties fanned out, with Lt. Pim setting off for McClure and his Investigators. Once found, Kellett determined through medical examination that there weren’t enough Investigators in a fit state to stay another year on Investigator, and ordered McClure to abandon his ship. All the Investigators then joined the Resolutes and Intrepids for the remainder of the time they spent in the Arctic searching for Franklin.
During the winter of 1853-4 Resolute and Intrepid weren’t able to make camp in the stationary land ice because a sudden drop of temperature froze the water around the ships, but they did manage to cut docks into a large piece of the floe ice, which moved very slowly towards the east throughout the winter. But things went from bad to worse for the Assistances and Pioneers. Details of just how bad things got are in the new manuscript.
In the spring of 1854, Belcher wrote a private letter to Kellett suggesting he abandon his ships. Kellett refused. Twice. Even though he had 3 ships companies on 2 ships, he had plenty of food because he’d encouraged his men to hunt whenever possible. Additionally, his men were in good health (even most of the Investigators), and the ships in good shape, so he didn’t feel justified in abandoning them. Finally, Belcher sent a public letter (not marked as private) containing a written order which Kellett could not refuse. However, he only abandoned his two ships under protest. All the Resolutes, Intrepids, and Investigators sledged back to Beechey Island, where North Star was stationed. Luckily, two additional supply ships arrived in August just as they were all preparing to leave on North Star. The Assistances, Resolutes, Pioneers, Intrepids, and Investigators all made it back to Britain.
There is not enough room in this summary to go into the courts martial that took place (as a matter of routine when a ship is lost) when the men returned to Britain, suffice it to say, all were acquitted by the Admiralty for abandoning their ships: Kellett with an accompanying commendation, and Belcher with the shame of being given back his sword in cutting silence. (Finally, after a naval career marked by its sadism and cruelty, the Admiralty never gave Belcher another active commission.)
Nor can I go into the complex political situation which existed between America and Britain in 1855-56. Too much hard-won research involved! But I can say things were very tense for a number of reasons. In September 1855 Captain Buddington, from the New London Connecticut whaling firm Perkins and Smith, was whaling in Baffin Bay onboard George Henry. When his lookout saw a ship in the distance Buddington hailed it, but got no response. Subsequently he sent several George Henries across to investigate. They discovered the deserted ship was Resolute. She was 1,200 nautical miles from the place of her abandonment, but still sea-worthy!
An abandoned vessel was worth quite a bit of money as salvage, much more than Buddington would have had if he had a full hold of whale bone and oil. This was something he most decidedly did not have thus far on this trip. It took the George Henries a week to pump the 7 feet of water from Resolute’s hold, and find enough good sail to rig the courses. Buddington split his crew, taking 13 men with him to sail Resolute back to New London. To steer homeward, Buddington had a faulty compass, his watch, and an outline he had drawn on foolscap of the North American Coast. The ships got separated after being released form the ice, though they had hoped to sail home together. Storms forced Buddington almost all the way down to Bermuda before he could head north again towards New London. The George Henry got home first. Resolute arrived at Groton, Connecticut on Little Christmas Eve (23rd) and crossed the Thames River to New London on Christmas Eve. By the time she anchored, the dock was full of folks carrying torches to welcome Resolute to their hometown.
The relationship between Britain and America was truly at the breaking point; but, early in 1856, Her Majesty’s Government waived their rights to Resolute. Buddington and the George Henries suddenly found themselves owners of a Royal Navy exploration vessel…but not for long!
That summer Virginia’s Senator Mason presented a joint bill to Congress, proposing the government buy Resolute from the whaling firm, refit her like she was brand new, and sail her back to Britain as a present. Mason had been one of the most vocal warmongers in the Senate, but he clearly had a change of heart. During recent research my husband (and excellent research assistant) found substantive proof of how this change of heart came about. All I am willing to say here is that it was not above board by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, no stretching is required at all. But you will have to buy the new book to find out what this proof consists of! Both houses of Congress approved the resolution. Resolute when to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where she was refitted to the highest standard. The United States Navy’s southern officer, Captain Henry Julius Hartstene, sailed her back to Britain. After Queen Victoria graciously accepted the gift, all talk of war began to recede.
In 1879, when Resolute went to the breaker’s dock at Chatham, several desks were made from her timbers. The most famous one is in the Oval Office. Queen Victoria asked for a small writing table to be made for her private yacht, and I was fortunate enough to use it for my lecture and book signing at the Royal Navy Museum, Portsmouth in February 2008.
Needless to say, several accounts about the desks on the internet are incorrect. Surprisingly, even the White House has the designer and maker wrong in their brochures about the president’s desk! The designers and makers of the other desks are incorrect throughout as well, which are amongst the facts in the Resolute story that I correct in my non-fiction manuscript.
The nutshell about the White House’s Resolute Desk is this: After it arrived at the White House it lived in various rooms. President Kennedy was the first president to use it in the Oval Office, and Presidents Carter, Reagan, Clinton, G W Bush, Obama, and now Trump have also used it in the Oval Office. A smaller desk made for Henry Grinnell’s widow is in the New Bedford Whaling Museum, New Bedford, MA.
This story is significant for several reasons. Absolutely uniquely in maritime history Resolute is the only ship abandoned in the Arctic to survive, not to mention then travelling around 1,200 miles through the ice, without getting crushed. This part of her story is interesting enough. But Resolute went on to become a gesture of goodwill and peace when one was desperately needed to avoid war. Britain and the United States have settled their differences ever since through diplomacy, not war. Eventually, after becoming firm allies, their relationship most definitively changed the course of 20th century history.