Elisha Kent Kane Historical Society
the expeditions that have been sponsored by the United States Government the
Greely expedition ranks with the Lewis and Clark Expedition in importance.
Both opened new frontiers and added to man's knowledge of the unknown.
Whereas Lewis and Clark suffered one fatality, Greely lost nineteen out
of twenty five men.
Washington Greely was well versed in Arctic exploration literature and
frequently wrote on the subject. His Expedition carried a library of more than
a thousand volumes, more than a hundred of which dealt with the Arctic. This
included the writings of Elisha Kent Kane who had pioneered during the 1850's
what became known as the "American Route to the Pole".
This route was followed by Admiral Robert Edwin Peary.
But for the experiences of Kane and Greely, it is questionable if Peary
could have planned so well his early explorations.
publicity and distortion of the facts portrayed survivors of the Greely
Expedition as cannibals. Greely
knew what people thought, but beyond his testimony at Congressional and
departmental hearings, where he presented sworn affadavits from the survivors
that they had not practised cannibalism, he made no effort to defend his
is paradoxical to note that it was not until Greely was 95 that he was awarded
official United States Government recognition for his exploits@ i:n) 193 5, he
was presented with the United States Congressional Medal of Honor, the fourth
so honored for peacetime contributions, following Charles Augustus Lindbergh,
Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd, and Floyd Bennett, Byrd's pilot over the North
commendation accompanying the Medal to Greely reads:
his life of splendid public service, begun 27 March 1844, having enlisted as a
private in the United States Army on 26 July 186 1, and, by successive
promotions was commissioned a Major General IO February 1906, and retired by
the operation of law on his sixty-fourth birthday".
Washington Greely was born in Newburyport, Massachusetts, on 27 March 1844,
descended from a family that had resided in New England for two hundred years.
After graduating from high school at 16, he joined the Union Army,
where he served with distinction for four years, becoming a Brevet Major.
remained in the Army, after the Civil War, taking the reduced rank of second
lieutenant. His service in the
Signal Corps led to a wide variety of assignments, in themselves providing a
lifetime of excitement and adventure, where he developed a marked ability to
get things done. At the same time
he had a compelling curiosity about meteorology.
Working as he did for several years in the Southwest and the Northwest
laying telegraph lines, he wished for what we now take for granted: a weather
forecast. Greely felt that if
preconditions for storms wre known, forecasts would be of great economic
value. Thus he became interested
in the Arctic as a place to study the preconditions of storms.
the 1870's, Greely had two goals: one to study the weather and the other to
get ahead in the Signal Corps. He
was not a West Pointer and realized the necessity of doing something so
outstanding that promotion would be assured.
we call the Greely Expedition (1881-1884) was properly known as the Lady
Franklin Bay Expedition, which was one of two groups sent by the US Government
to the Arctic as part of the International Polar Year.
The other expedition went north of Point Barrow, Alaska.
The Hayes Administration voted $25,000 for the Lady Franklin Bay
Expedition. Neither newly elected
President Garfield nor Robert Todd Lincoln, Secretary of War, had any interest
in the polar program and the signing of the necessary authorization was
delayed until Greely called on Lincoln and forced him to do so.
Lincoln never forgave Greely for being so brash and what should have
been automatic promotions were not forthcoming while Lincoln was in office.
a result of long anticipation, Greely was able to sail from St. John's
Newfoundland, 7 July 1 8 8 1, and arrived at Fort Conger, Lady Franklin Bay,
26 August 188 1, where he remained (as planned) for two years.
The supply ship scheduled to visit Fort Conger in 1882 was unable to
penetrate the ice. Pathetically,
the master of the ship, an Army man, did not deposit supplies at obvious
points that might have benefited Greely, or other explorers in need.
This was the first among many savage disappointments for the Greely
had ample supplies for the second year at Fort Conger, during which period the
men lived comfortably but not entirely happily.
There were three malcontents, one of whom, a lieutenant, resigned from
the service and did not perform any duties for more than two years.
In any event, the party carried out the purpose of the expedition.
Many trips were to Grinnell Land, Greenland, etc, ranging over 2,500
miles. One group went farther
north than man had ever gone before, which surpassed the record held by Great
Britain for more than three hundred years.
All the while records were kept of the weather, tides, etc.
the ship that was to pick up the party in August 1883 did not arrive, Greely
put into operation the preconceived plan for moving his men and equipment
that ship had sunk due to the actions of a stubborn Army man who refused to
follow suggestions of the civilian crew of Newfoundlanders who were
experienced in Arctic sailing. This
was in July 1883. A few days
before the sinking the lieutenant had cached about ten days' food supplies at
a prominent point; this was later found by Greely.
A supply of lemons wrapped in pages of the Louisville Courier Journal
told of the inability of the 1882 supply ship to reach Greely.
As the ship was sinking the lieutenant could have put ashore a large
supply of food for Greely, but he didn't think it necessary.
It was not until mid September that the survivors reached St. John's,
where a message was sent to Washington, DC.
reports were submitted to the authorities and few people had concern for the
well being of Greely. President
Arthur and Secretary of War Lincoln did nothing.
working their way south, the party suffered the loss of several boats, food
supplies and personal equipment. An
entire month on an ice floe took them nowhere.
Eventually, they reached land with all of their scientific equipment
and two years' accumulation of raw data which they had diligently insisted be
winter camp was established but soon moved to where there should have been a
cache of supplies. The lemons
were found, and from newspapers more than a year old, it was it learned why
they had not been re-supplied in 1882. How
they managed to survive is still a mystery.
Sabine Point is one of the most desolate places in the Arctic.
No big game and few small animals go there.
When spring came, shrimp were plentiful but tiny: 1500 filled a gill
and a gill is only one-quarter of a pint!
in Washington, after it was too late to send a search party in the Fall of
1883, public opinion demanded that plans be made for an early spring departure
of a search party. Greely's wife
wrote to everyone of import: newspaper editors, Congressman, etc., demanding
action. Some of the most
acrimonious debates in the history of Congress took place over this issue.
Many bills were defeated, but one finally passed.
Unlimited funds were provided, plus a bounty of $25,000 for any sealer
or other civilian who might locate Greely.
Secretary of the Navy decided (since Lincoln was not interested and the Army
had twice failed) that the relief party would be a Navy affair.
Four days after the bill had passed a relief ship arrived in New York
from St. John's. This was mid
February 1884, so there was time to outfit the ship, select a crew, etc.
This ship was commanded by Captain Schley who, three years earlier had
jokingly prophesied "some day the Navy will have to rescue that
Schley had no Arctic experience but he knew how to handle a ship.
After a difficult passage, the Greely party was found at Cape Sabine on
22 June 1884. At this time there
were seven survivors (out of twenty five in the original party) but another
died some days later. Most of the
eighteen had starved to death. Greely
and four others were so weak they had to be carried to the ship on stretchers.
Once aboard, the six made a quick recovery and by the time they reached
St. John's on 17 July, they walked ashore on their own to heros' welcomes.
the ship reached Portsmouth, NH on 2 August it was strictly a Navy show,
headed by Secretary Chandler. Secretary
of War Lincoln did not send a message to Greely, then or later.
In any event the men enjoyed several days of celebration at Portsmouth
European scientific societies considered the Greely men heroes and struck
medals in their honor.
Arthur was pleased that any of the party had been rescued but was quick to say
that he never favored the exploration, doubted its results and made other sour
comments. Politicians demanded
there be an end put to such folly and it was said that Congress would never
again support an Arctic expedition. Thus
Admirals Peary and Byrd depended on public subscriptions for their early
was made a Captain soon after returning and, in 1877, over the opposition of
Lincoln's friends, became a Brigadier General, the first soldier to reach
general officer rank having started as a volunteer private, after which he
became a Major General. Greely's
trusted non-com, Sgt. Brainard,
remained in the Army to become a Brigadier General and a member of Kane Lodge
F&AM, New York City, along with Greely.
continued as the communications expert for the Army, installing telegraphic
equipment in Alaska, the Philippine Islands, Cuba and Puerto Rico.
He established the first commercial wireless station in the world in
Alaska. He was a successful
mediator in preventing Indian uprisings and directed relief following the San
Francisco earthquake. Greely was
an early exponent of Army aviation and mentor of Billy Mitchell.
He was co-founder of the National Geographic Magazine.