Modern history



The 1,219 men, women, and children of the fleet now faced an open-boat journey through the harshest of arctic conditions. The distance to Icy Cape and where the waiting ships lay, on Blossom Shoals just off the cape, was forty to sixty miles, depending on the positions of the abandoned ships.

It was fifty miles for the party from the Monticello, a grueling trip in an exposed open boat. With Eliza, Willie, his ten-year-old daughter Mary, and himself, all crammed into a whaleboat with gear, provisions, and five or six other men at the oars, Thomas Williams decided to make the trip over two nights and two days. Willie remembered it all well:

I doubt if I can adequately describe the leave-taking of our ship. It was depressing enough to me, and you know a boy can always see possibilities of something novel or interesting in most any change, but to my father and mother it must have been a sad parting, and I think what made it still more so was the fact that only a short distance from our bark lay the ship Florida, of which my father had been master eight years and on which three of his children had been born.7 The usual abandonment of a ship is the result of some irreparable injury and is executed in great haste [e.g., Williams’s previous command, the Hibernia]; but here we were leaving a ship that was absolutely sound, that had been our home for nearly ten months and had taken us safely through many a trying time.

The colors were set and everything below and on deck was left just as though we were intending to return the next day. All liquor was destroyed, so that the natives would not get to carousing and wantonly destroy the ship. . . . Our boat contained in addition to its regular crew, my mother, sister and me, and all our clothing, bedding and provisions, so that we were loaded nearly to the gunwales.

Willie’s nineteen-year-old brother, Stancel, Thomas and Eliza’s first-born son, who was one of the Monticello’s officers on this voyage, was in another boat. (Their second son, Henry, had died of scarlet fever at the age of nine, in 1864.)

They left the Monticello on the afternoon of September 13 and rowed and sailed twenty miles to the stranded Victoria, where they spent the night as guests of its Captain Redfield, who was still aboard with some of his men. They started south again early the next morning, rowing and sailing along the channel between the ice and the land, where, despite strong winds, the water was still reasonably smooth. Williams landed the boat on the beach just as darkness was falling on the second night. Tents, fashioned from sails, were erected to shelter Eliza and the Williams children, together with several other captains’ wives and children; great fires were built on the beach, and meals prepared. During the night it rained heavily and the wind increased.

In the morning, “a good fresh breeze” was blowing. The boats set out for the ships, which lay several miles outside the sheltering ice pack in the open ocean. “It was a hair raising experience,” remembered Willie.

My father had decided to go aboard the Progress. She was still at anchor and pitching into the heavy seas, that were then running in a way that would have made you wonder how we would ever get the men aboard, let alone a woman and two children; but it was all accomplished without accident, or even the wetting of a foot. As fast as the boats were unloaded they were cast adrift, to be destroyed against the ice pack a short distance under our lee where the waves were breaking masthead high.

It was no easier for others to leave their ships. Men imbue the vessels that carry them, womblike within their hulls, protecting them from the cold, hostile environment outside, with a kind of maternal love. “She,” they invariably call these mother ships, feeling them to be immeasurably more than the sum of their planks and bolts, ropes and canvas. They know this from watching a ship make its way across tens of thousands of miles of ocean, shouldering aside storm swells and rogue waves with a solid, unshakable, seemingly instinctive devotion to plowing ahead, all the while protecting them—just as they might, for the most part, remember their mothers. “With sad heart ordered all the men into the boats and with a last look over the decks abandoned the ship to the mercy of the elements,” wrote Earle, first mate of the Emily Morgan, about their leave-taking on the afternoon of the fourteenth.

Earle decided to keep his group of four whaleboats from the Morgan going through the night (three more of the ship’s boats had left earlier). With icy waves slopping into the open boats, breaking over the men (whose canvas or wool coats were perpetually soaked and freezing), dodging visible and submerged clumps of ice—while it was light—and trying to row and sail through a short, steep chop thrown up by the shallow depths beneath them, it was as desperate as a small-boat journey could be, and it only got worse, as Earle recorded:

As night approached the wind increased and heavy banks of cumuli came swelling up from the SE and soon enveloped us in a mantle of the blackest darkness. We were now in constant danger of coming in contact with the many fragments of ice floating between the land and the main pack.

At 10.30 [p.m.] landed and gathering driftwood built a fire and made some strong coffee, this warmed us up a little. The wind increasing, we double-reefed our sails and shoved off at 11.30 into the darkness and rain; the navigation was difficult, and, as far as the boats were concerned, dangerous from the drift ice. The water did not exceed six feet in depth anywhere and in some places we went thumping over shoals. We kept the land well aboard—it is very low and we could see nothing of it at times.

At one a.m. on the fifteenth, one of the Morgan’s boats hit a solid piece of ice, staving in its planks. The boat, and the others with it, were quickly run ashore, and in near-total darkness, occasionally using roman candle flares, the crew (well practiced from walrusing) nailed canvas over the smashed wood. They set out again an hour later. At eight in the morning, still ten miles north of Icy Cape, they landed for coffee and breakfast. They reached the cape at 10:30 a.m., where they found twenty-five or thirty other whaleboats, among them the Morgan’s remaining three, waiting out the wind, which by now had become a strong southwest gale. But Earle was anxious to reach the waiting ships before the wind grew even stronger, so, under his command, the Emily Morgan’s seven boats set out once more, rowing and beating under sail directly into the wind, first inside the ice, and later outside its protective barrier, plunging through what one whaling captain described as “the full force of a tremendous southwest gale and a sea that would have made the stoutest ship tremble.” The seven stout ships waiting for the boats were indeed trembling; they had remained at anchor off a now highly dangerous lee shore in conditions that would ordinarily have long before sent them beating out to sea or running for shelter, but they held on. Two of them, the Lagoda and the Arctic, parted their chain anchor cables as they lay pitching into the storm waves. Both managed to reset their anchors. All through the fifteenth and sixteenth of September, tiny bobbing, storm-tossed whaleboats, singly and in ragged, strung-out groups, crabbing to windward under sail and oar, their passengers soaked and raw with cold, made their perilous way out to the ships. Earle and his boats reached the ships late in the afternoon of the fifteenth and were all taken aboard the Europa.

William Earle’s account of his passage down the coast in the Emily Morgan’s whaleboats describes every other journey of this massive evacuation. Almost miraculously, between 150 and 200 whaleboats (each ship carried five on davits, and usually at least three others on deck) ferried 1,219 men, women, and children from the trapped fleet to the seven vessels waiting for them off Icy Cape. Not a single person was lost or badly injured, a testament not so much to luck but to the extraordinary seamanship and skill shown by every captain and every man.

The Progress took aboard a total of 221 people, including the Williams family, and two other captains and their wives and two children, one of them “a baby in arms.” These last two families were probably Captain Edmund Kelley, wife, and child, from the Seneca, and Captain Robert Jones, wife, and child, who had been enjoying the plush accommodations aboard the Howlands’ still-sparkling Concordia. The Progress’s captain, James Dowden, gave up his cabins to these three families. Aboard the Europa, Captain and Mrs. Benjamin Dexter, of the Emily Morgan, and Captain and Mrs. John Heppingstone, of the Julian, were taken in along with 276 other men. The remaining men were packed aboard the other five ships, like so many Irish immigrants, noted one whaleman.

Nathaniel Ransom and the John Wells’s boats also made it to the Europa. Like many others, Ransom had taken with him in his boat what he could of his personal belongings, including some prized reindeer coats he had obtained by trading with the Eskimos, but whether because these became soaked on the journey or because there was simply no room for them on the crowded ships, they were jettisoned at some point:


Strong breeze from S.W. I’ve just [come] aboard of Ship Europa Captain Mellen after being out in a hale & rainstorm pulling & sailing for last 24 hours I had to throw my bomb gun a box of bomb lances with a musked [musket] & lots of ammunition with several other things overboard my boat & all Cote[s] of Esquimaux garments.

Thirty-two whaleships had been abandoned. Many were old, and not all were in good condition, but the fleet’s replacement value would have been in excess of $3 million. No meaningful modern equivalent can be calculated. The replacement value today of a fleet of thirty-two factory fishing vessels would be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The loss of so many ships today, in a single event, would be reckoned a national disaster.

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