Ordeal In The Arctic


On Friday, September 14, 1883, black headlines filled the morning editions of American newspapers. The sturdy sealing ship Proteus, veteran of the Arctic seas, had been crushed in the pack ice of the Far North and sunk.

These headlines carried a message of impending tragedy, not for the crew of the Proteus—they had been saved, the papers noted—but for a brave army officer, Lieutenant Adolphus W. Greely, and a twenty-five-man team of American Arctic observers. The Proteus had gone down in Kane Basin, between Greenland and Ellesmere Island, with her cargo of winter stores for Greely and his men; the public, aware that a similar relief mission had failed to get through the previous summer, knew that with the destruction of the Proteus the Greely party would be in desperate trouble.

Two years earlier, in the summer of 1881, Greely had left the United States with two other commissioned officers, a contract surgeon, nineteen enlisted men, and two Eskimo sledge drivers. In August they had reached their destination on Lady Franklin Bay, Ellesmere Island (then commonly termed Grinnell Land), a few miles from the coast of northern Greenland and five hundred miles from the North Pole, which no man had yet reached. The base, which Greely named Fort Conger, was the farthest north of a ring of observation stations to be maintained by eleven governments participating in the International Polar Year (actually two years) of 1881–83. The object: to gather and pool all kinds of knowledge of the Arctic as an aid to systematic exploration of the unknown top of the world.

Greely and his men built solid wooden barracks at the fort, and they had brought along supplies for an extended stay. But it had been agreed that in the event no relief appeared by September 1, 1883, the party was to start southward from Lady Franklin Bay, traveling in a small motor launch and three longboats brought along for the purpose. Supplies would be left for them at prearranged points on both the Greenland and Ellesmere shores of Smith Sound, three hundred miles to the south.

No supplementary provisions reached them in the summer of 1882. The drifting ice formed such a thick blockade between Greenland and Ellesmere Island that the supply ship Neptune was unable to make her way through Smith Sound and had to return with her mail and stores undelivered. The Proteus was therefore dispatched the following summer with fresh supplies and an Army party under the command of Lieutenant Ernest A. Garlington. Garlington had been instructed that if ice should halt the Proteus, he was to cache a winter’s supply of stores at the designated points on Smith Sound and then sledge northward to find Greely. Instead, he and his men had lost nearly all the supplies when the Proteus went down, and then fled the Arctic alter reaching their escort vessel, the Yantic.

Greely, of course, knew nothing of all this. Early in August, 1883, with food running low and no ship in sight, he loaded his men, their scientific equipment and records, and their few remaining provisions into the boats, tied the boats together in a string, and set off for Smith Sound.

This was a season of intermittent gales, which drove the party for weeks now east, now west, amid freezing rains and snowstorms. Frequently the men had to draw their frail craft up on the ice floe to escape being crushed. In fact, on September 14, the day the Proteus disaster became known in the United States, they had been adrift for nineteen consecutive days on a floe in the Kane Sea. They were at a latitude of close to eighty degrees north; autumn fog hid the shore; the roaring, grinding pack ice made any attempt to launch the small boats a suicide gamble. And they were heading for a desperately needed cache of stores that wasn’t there.

From Washington, meanwhile, the New York Tribune reported that the news of the Proteus “caused great and general uneasiness among officials of the War and Navy departments today, and some of them appeared to have lost all hope for the rescue of Lieutenant Greely.” A Washington dispatch noted: “Lieutenant Greely’s friends all describe him as a man whose energy and ambition exceed his powers of physical endurance, and this naturally deepens their solicitude for his safety.” In other words, he just might imperil himself and the party he led by foolishly trying to travel too far with inadequate supplies. From Newburyport, Massachusetts, Greely’s boyhood home, where his mother still lived, the press reported that the Proteus disaster “creates the most intense feeling here.”