Friday, May 26, 2023

A Stubborn Arctic Survival

Engineering schematic with hand-drawn image and manuscript textGeorge Melville, a Navy engineer in the second half of the 19th century, was a man who just kept getting involved in Arctic disasters. in 1873, he served on board the USS Tigress during its rescue of nineteen survivors of the Polaris expedition, an embarrassingly messy attempt on the North Pole. In 1879, he volunteered for special duty on the USS Jeannette, which was making its own try for the Pole. His fellows regarded him as a stubborn, foul-mouthed genius who was crucial in keeping the ship afloat for as long as possible after it became stuck in the ice.

The Jeannette could not survive forever and, after she sank, the crew spent several months marching across sea ice and then sailing in their remaining small boats in an attempt to get back to civilization before the elements and their low rations could catch up with them. Melville commanded one of the three boats, which held ten other men, during a crucial point: a storm. Despite doing their best to stay together, Melville and his men were unable to double-back when, through the rain, they saw one of the other boats capsize. They soon became separated from the third boat, whose party included the expedition's commander.

Melville's boat made land almost two weeks later, with the good fortune to be in reach of a small Siberian fishing village. The men, all in pitiful shape, were fed and warmed, and began to recover from their ordeal.

George Melville was not one for giving up where there might still be hope. He soon struck back out to search the Siberian coastline for other survivors, encouraged by the discovery of two men from the commander's party who said that they had left their compatriots behind in order to seek help. In their poor condition, they were unable to give much direction. After a months-long search, Melville found the bodies of that group. He retrieved their expedition records, built a temporary memorial, and continued to search for signs of the men who had capsized. He did not find them.

During Melville's search, he wrote and received letters from the Russian officials whom he courted for aid. He copied these letters into a notebook alongside other correspondence, his own record of the trip, and a series of engineering notes; the notebook is now held by Rauner Special Collections Library. Despite his troubles, Melville didn't stay away from the Arctic for long after returning home in 1882. He immediately campaigned for more aggressive attempts to reach the latest endangered Arctic expedition -- that of Lady Franklin Bay. In 1884, he returned to the Far North once more as part of the crew that would succeed in bringing that expedition's survivors home.

To see Melville's letters and other records, ask for Stefansson Mss-188.