Sea Stories

Captain Ross's Expedition

In the year 1818 the British Government fitted out two expeditions to the North Pole. Captain Buchan, commanding the Trent and the Dorothy was directed to attempt a passage between Spitzbergen and Nova Zembla, over the Pole, into the Pacific, and Captain Ross,

commanding the Isabella and the Alexander, to attempt the north-west passage from Davis' Straits and Baffin's Bay, into the Frozen Ocean, and thence into the Pacific. Ross reached 77 deg. 40 min. latitude, and more accurately determined the situation of Baffin's Bay, which until then was believed to extend 10 deg. further to the east than it actually does. Although he sailed up Lancaster Sound, he did not advance far enough to ascertain if it was open, not having arrived there until October 1st, when danger from the ice obliged him to quit the coast. Lieutenant Parry, who had accompanied Captain Ross, was sent, in conjunction with Captain Lyon, in the year 1819, on a second voyage into Baffin's Bay, and having penetrated as far as to gain the first prize offered by Parliament (L5000) and having made the most western point ever reached in the Polar seas, he was entrusted with the direction of the Hecla and Fury, on a similar expedition in 1821. These ships returned in October 1823, without achieving the principal object for which they were dispatched. In 1824 Parry and Lyon were again sent out for the discovery of a north-west passage, in the Hecla and Fury. After wintering in Prince Regent's Bay, the ships sailed southwardly, and, in consequence of storms and icebergs, it became necessary to abandon the Fury, and with her crew on board the Hecla, Captain Parry returned to England in October 1825. The Admiralty sent Parry, in the Hecla, in 1827, to reach, if possible, the North Pole. Having journeyed thirty-five days over the ice, beginning at 81 deg. 12 min. 15 sec. he was compelled to retrace his course. So far the exertions of the British Government. Piqued by the real, or supposed neglect of government, Captain Ross, in the spring of 1829, undertook an expedition on his own resources, with the view of effecting a passage into the Polar Sea, and to reach Behring's Straits along the northern coast of the American continent. The ship--the Victory--was lost in the first year out, and Ross and his crew had worn through the remaining time on board the wreck of the Fury. When picked up in Lancaster Sound, they were in four of the Fury's boats, which they had "found uninjured, and in the same condition in which they had been left." The following letter, addressed by the gallant Navigator to the Admiralty, puts us in possession of all the adventures and discoveries of this memorable expedition. On board the Isabella, of Hull, } Baffin's Bay, Sept. 1833. } Sir,--Knowing how deeply my Lords Commissioners, of the Admiralty are interested in the advancement of nautical knowledge, and particularly in the improvement of geography, I have to acquaint you, for the information of their Lordships, that the expedition, the main object of which is to solve, if possible, the question of a north-west passage from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean, particularly by Prince Regent's Inlet, and which sailed from England in May, 1829, notwithstanding the loss of the fore-mast and other untoward circumstances, which obliged the vessel to refit in Greenland, reached the beach on which his Majesty's late ship Fury's stores were landed, on the 13th of August. We found the boats, provisions, &c. in excellent condition, but no vestige of the wreck. After completing in fuel and other necessaries, we sailed on the 14th, and on the following morning rounded Cape Garry, where our new discoveries commenced, and, keeping the western shore close on board, ran down the coast in a S. W. and W. course, in from 10 to 20 fathoms, until we had passed the latitude of 72 north in longitude 94 west; here we found a considerable inlet leading to the westward, the examination of which occupied two days; at this place we were first seriously obstructed by ice, which was now seen to extend from the south cape of the inlet, in a solid mass, round by E. to E. N. E.; owing to this circumstance, the shallowness of the water, the rapidity of the tides, the tempestuous weather, the irregularity of the coast and the numerous inlets and rocks for which it is remarkable, our progress was no less dangerous than tedious, yet we succeeded in penetrating below the latitude of 70 north, in longitude 92 west, where the land, after having carried us as far east as 90, took a decidedly westerly direction, while land at the distance of 40 miles to southward, was seen extending east and west. At this extreme point our progress was arrested on the 1st of October by an impenetrable barrier of ice. We, however, found an excellent wintering port, which we named Felix Harbor. Early in January, 1830, we had the good fortune to establish a friendly intercourse with a most interesting consociation of natives, who, being insulated by nature, had never before communicated with strangers; from them we gradually obtained the important information that we had already seen the continent of America, that about 40 miles to the S. W. there were two great seas, one to the west, which was divided from that to the east by a narrow strait or neck of land. The verification of this intelligence either way, on which our future operations so materially depended, devolved on Commander Ross, who volunteered this service early in April, and accompanied by one of the mates, and guided by two of the natives, proceeded to the spot, and found that the north land was connected to the south by two ridges of high land, 15 miles in breadth, but, taking into account a chain of fresh water lakes, which occupied the valleys between, the dry land which actually separates the two oceans is only five miles. This extraordinary isthmus was subsequently visited by myself, when Commander Ross proceeded minutely to survey the sea coast to the southward of the isthmus leading to the westward, which he succeeded in tracing to the 99th degree, or to 150 miles of Cape Turnagain of Franklin, to which point the land, after leading him into the 70th degree of north latitude, ended directly; during the same journey he also surveyed 30 miles of the adjacent coast, or that to the north of the isthmus, which, by also taking a westerly direction, forming the termination of the western sea into a gulf. The rest of this season was employed in tracing the sea coast south of the isthmus leading to the eastward, which was done so as to leave no doubt that it joined, as the natives had previously informed us, to Ockullee, and the land forming Repulse Bay. It was also determined that there was no passage to the westward for 30 miles to the northward of our position. This summer, like that of 1818, was beautifully fine, but extremely unfavorable for navigation, and our object being now to try a more northern latitude, we waited with anxiety for the disruption of the ice, but in vain, and our utmost endeavors did not succeed in retracing our steps more than four miles, and it was not until the middle of November that we succeeded in cutting the vessel into a place of security, which we named "Sheriff's Harbor." I may here mention that we named the newly discovered continent to the southward "Boothia," as also the isthmus, the peninsula to the north, and the eastern sea, after my worthy friend, Felix Booth, Esq., the truly patriotic citizen of London, who, in the most disinterested manner, enabled me to equip this expedition in superior style. The last winter was in temperature nearly equal to the mean of what had been experienced on the four preceding voyages, but the winters of 1830 and 1831 set in with a degree of violence hitherto beyond record--the thermometer sunk to 92 degrees below the freezing point, and the average of the year was 10 degrees below the preceding; but notwithstanding the severity of the summer, we travelled across the country to the west sea by a chain of lakes, 30 miles north of the isthmus, when Commander Ross succeeded in surveying 50 miles more of the coast leading to the north-west, and by tracing the shore to the northward of our position, it was also fully proved that there could be no passage below the 71st degree. This autumn we succeeded in getting the vessel only 14 miles to the northward, as we had not doubled the Eastern Cape, all hope of saving the ship was at an end, and put quite beyond possibility by another very severe winter; and having only provisions to last us to the 1st of June, 1833, dispositions were accordingly made to leave the ship in present port, which (after her) was named Victory Harbor. Provisions and fuel being carried forward in the spring, we left the ship on the 28th of May, 1832, for Fury Beach, being the only chance left for saving our lives; owing to the very rugged nature of the ice, we were obliged to keep either upon or close to the land, making the circuit of every bay, thus increasing our distance of 200 miles by nearly one half; and it was not until the 1st of July that we reached the beach, completely exhausted by hunger and fatigue. A hut was speedily constructed, and the boats three of which had been washed off the beach, but providentially driven on shore again, were repaired during this month; and the unusual heavy appearance of the ice afforded us no cheering prospect until the 1st of August, when in three boats we reached the ill-fated spot where the Fury was first driven on shore, and it was not until the 1st of September we reached Leopold South Island, now established to be the N. E. point of America in latitude 73 56, and longitude 90 west. From the summit of the lofty mountain on the promontory we could see Prince Regent's Inlet, Barrow's Strait and Lancaster Sound, which presented one impenetrable mass of ice, just as I had seen it in 1818. Here we remained in a state of anxiety and suspense, which may be easier imagined than described. All our attempts to push through were vain; at length being forced by want of provisions and the approach of a very severe winter, to return to Fury Beach, where alone there remained wherewith to support life, there we arrived on the 7th of October, after a most fatiguing and laborious march, having been obliged to leave our boats at Batty Bay. Our habitation, which consisted of a frame of spars, 32 feet by 16, covered with canvas, was, during the month of November enclosed, and the roof covered with snow, from 4 to 7 feet thick, which being saturated with water when the temperature was fifteen degrees below zero, immediately took the consistency of ice, and thus we actually became the inhabitants of an iceberg during one of the most severe winters hitherto recorded; our sufferings aggravated by want of bedding, clothing and animal food, need not be dwelt upon. Mr. C. Thomas, the carpenter, was the only man who perished at this beach, but three others, besides one who had lost his foot, were reduced to the last stage of debility, and only thirteen of our number were able to carry provisions in seven journies of 62 miles each to Batty Bay. We left Fury Beach on the 8th of July, carrying with us three sick men, who were unable to walk, and in six days we reached the boats, where the sick daily recovered. Although the spring was mild, it was not until the 15th of August that we had any cheering prospect. A gale from the westward having suddenly opened a lane of water along shore, in two days we reached our former position, and from the mountain we had the satisfaction of seeing clear water across Prince Regent's Inlet, which we crossed on the 17th, and took shelter from a storm twelve miles to the eastward of Cape York. The next day, when the gale abated we crossed Admiralty Inlet, and were detained six days on the coast by a strong N. E. wind. On the 25th we crossed Navy Board Inlet, and on the following morning, to our inexpressible joy, we descried a ship in the offing, becalmed, which proved to be the Isabella of Hull, the same ship which I commanded in 1818. At noon we reached her, when her enterprising commander, who had in vain searched for us in Prince Regent's Inlet, after giving us three cheers, received us with every demonstration of kindness and hospitality, which humanity could dictate. I ought to mention also that Mr. Humphreys, by landing me at Possession Bay, and subsequently on the west coast of Baffin's Bay, afforded me an excellent opportunity of concluding my survey, and of verifying my former chart of that coast. I have now the pleasing duty of calling the attention of their lordships to the merit of Commander Ross, who was second in the direction of this expedition. The labors of this officer, who had the departments of astronomy, natural history and surveying, will speak for themselves in language beyond the ability of my pen; but they will be duly appreciated by their lordships and the learned bodies of which he is a member, and who are already well acquainted with his acquirements. My steady and faithful friend, Mr. William Thom of the royal navy, who was formerly with me in the Isabella, besides his duty as third in command, took charge of the meteorological journal, the distribution and economy of provisions, and to his judicious plans and suggestions must be attributed the uncommon degree of health which our crew enjoyed; and as two out of three who died in the four years and a half were cut off early in the voyage, by diseases not peculiar to the climate, only one man can be said to have perished. Mr. M'Diarmid the surgeon, who had been several voyages to these regions, did justice to the high recommendation I received of him; he was useful in every amputation and operation which he performed, and wonderfully so in his treatment of the sick; and I have no hesitation in adding, that he would be an ornament to his Majesty's service. Commander Ross, Mr. Thom and myself, have, indeed, been serving without pay; but in common with the crew have lost our all, which I regret the more, because it puts it out of my power adequately to remunerate my fellow sufferers, whose case I cannot but recommend for their lordships' consideration. We have, however, the consolation, that results of this expedition have been conclusive, and to science highly important, and may be briefly comprehended in the following words: The discovery of the Gulf of Boothia, the continent and isthmus of Boothia Felix, and a vast number of islands, rivers and lakes; the undeniable establishment that the north-east point of America extends to the 74th degree of north latitude; valuable observations of every kind, but particularly on the magnet; and to crown all, have had the honor of placing the illustrious name of our Most Gracious Sovereign William IV, on the true position of the magnetic pole. I cannot conclude this letter, sir, without acknowledging the important advantages we obtained from the valuable publications of Sir Edward Parry and Sir John Franklin, and the communications kindly made to us by those distinguished officers before our departure from England. But the glory of this enterprise is entirely due to Him, whose divine favor has been most especially manifested towards us, who guided and directed all our steps, who mercifully provided, in what we had deemed a calamity, His effectual means of our preservation; and who even after the devices and inventions of man had utterly failed, crowned our humble endeavors with complete success. I have, &c. JOHN ROSS, Captain, R. N. To Captain the Hon. George Elliot, &c. } Secretary Admiralty. }

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