- Historic Sites
The Strange Saga Of The President’s Desk
From the End of the Earth to the Oval Office
October/november 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 6
“To be President of the United States,” wrote Harry Truman, “is to be lonely, very lonely. …” Perhaps it is fitting, then, that when the President works in the Oval Office, his elbows are resting on a unique memento of drama and endurance in the loneliest place on earth.
In the fall of 1855 the whaling bark George Henry out of New London, Connecticut, was lying to in the ice pack off the coast of Baffin Island, several hundred miles west of Greenland, when a heavy gale blew up from the northeast. When the weather cleared three days later, the George Henry found herself caught in a large, drifting floe. The crew could see land far across the mountains of ice but “could not say to what continent it belonged.” They would get few whales this season.
On the tenth of September, 1855, the George Henry ’s captain, James Buddington, sighted a large ship ten miles to the southwest. He climbed the rigging, trained a glass on the vessel, and said it looked abandoned. For several days the stranger was in sight, coming closer and closer to the George Henry . Some of the crew members said that at times it seemed the vessel was under full sail and working through the ice toward them.
Six days after the first sighting, when the ship lay within seven miles, Captain Buddington sent two mates and two crewmen to investigate. The four men started out across the ice early in the morning, but it was almost dark by the time they came near the ship. One of them, George Tyson, wrote: “As we approached within sight we looked in vain for any signs of life. Could it be that all on board were sick or dead? What could it mean? Surely, if there were any living soul on board, a party of four men traveling toward her across that hummocky ice would naturally excite their curiosity. But no one appeared. As we got nearer we saw, by indubitable signs, that she was abandoned.”
Once aboard, they found the cabin door locked. Tyson kicked it in. “This was no whaler,” he said, “that was plain. … Every thing presented a mouldy appearance. The decanters of wine, with which the late officers had last regaled themselves, were still sitting on the table, some of the wine still remaining in the glasses , and in the rack around the mizen-mast were a number of other glasses and decanters. It was a strange scene to come upon in that desolate place.”
A true sailor, Tyson promptly helped himself to a glass of wine. “Seeing it did not kill me,” the others “went for the wine with a will; and there and then we all drank a bumper to the late officers and crew of the Resolute .”
The Resolute was one of five vessels that had sailed from England in April of 1852, in hopes of finding a trace of the explorer Sir John Franklin, who, with 128 men, had disappeared in the Arctic in the late 1840’s. Built in “the strongest manner,” the six-hundred-ton Resolute was as safe a home as a man could have in the ice pack. With her bows iron-sheathed and her entire frame coppered, she could smash through a sheet of ice eight feet thick at six knots. But no sailing ship was free from the danger of the moving ice.
At one point when the Resolute and her fellows were “nipped” by the ice, her master, George McDougall, wrote in his private journal that the vessels were “… in a state of utter helplessness, careening and fouling each other in every possible direction, whilst their crews, standing beside their boats and clothes on the ice, smoked their pipes like perfect philosophers, as all men who frequent Baffin’s Bay should be.”
For two futile years they sought Franklin and then, in the spring of 1854, Sir Edward Belcher, the expedition’s leader, dreading a third winter in the Arctic, ordered all but one of his ships abandoned. Before they left the Resolute , the officers raised her flags so that “… she might sink beneath the wave, as many a gallant predecessor had done, with colours flying.” They stowed away all the gear they could not carry and burned the signal books. The captain drank a glass of wine to his ship, and the decks were sealed: the Resolute was ready for her watery grave.
A year and a half later, and one thousand miles to the southeast, the thirsty men of the George Henry drank several more glasses of wine to a ship that would not die. The other three abandoned ships had long since gone to the bottom, but the Resolute , as though protesting her inglorious abandonment, had set her own course through the ice for sixteen months. Captain Buddington decided that the fine, sound ship was the best catch he would ever make, so taking ten men with him from his whaler, he made the very few repairs necessary, and sailed the abandoned vessel for home. The voyage took two months. Fighting the weather all the way, Buddington was driven as far south as Bermuda, but finally he arrived back in Connecticut shortly before Christmas.
The United States government purchased the Resolute from the owners of the George Henry for forty thousand dollars and, as a gesture of friendship, refitted the ship and gave her back to England in 1856.
When the Resolute was finally broken up more than twenty years later, Queen Victoria remembered the gesture. She ordered an oak desk, six feet long and four feet wide, to be made from the ship’s timbers, and in 1880 she gave it to President Rutherford B. Hayes “as a memorial of the courtesy and loving kindness which dictated the offer of the gift of the ‘Resolute.’”
The desk has been used by every President from Hayes to Kennedy, and President Carter asked that it be returned to the Oval Office in January of 1977. It has stayed there ever since.