Time to Eat the Dogs

A Podcast About Science, History, and Exploration

The Greely Expedition

Front page of the London Illustrated News, 23 Aug 1884

On Monday 31 January, PBS will air a documentary called “The Greely Expedition” on American Experience. I served as an advisor on the project. Organized in conjunction with the first International Polar Year, the Greely Expedition was supposed to represent a new kind of Arctic exploration, one focused on international, collaborative science rather than pell mell dashes to the North Pole. In the end, however, the expedition signaled the end of serious collaboration between Arctic explorers and scientists for decades. Here’s an excerpt from my Greely chapter in The Coldest Crucible: Arctic Exploration and American Culture.

In June 1884, Commander Winfield Scott Schley cruised the waters of Smith Sound searching for Adolphus Greely and his missing party of American explorers. Greely had been in the Arctic for three years, establishing a scientific station at Lady Franklin Bay as a part of the International Polar Year. Two attempts to relieve Greely, in 1882 and 1883, had failed and Schley’s expedition represented the last reasonable chance of finding the Greely party alive. When one of Schley’s men discovered a note from Greely giving his location at Cape Sabine, Schley sent John Colwell and a small party to find him. Arriving at the site, Colwell found Greely along with six other emaciated men, survivors of the original party of twenty-five. In his narrative of the rescue, Schley described the scene:

Colwell crawled in [the tent] and took him by the hand, saying to him, “Greely, is this you?” “Yes,” said Greely in a faint, broken voice, hesitating and shuffling with his words, “Yes – seven of us left – here we are – dying –  like men. Did what I came to do – beat the best record.” Then he fell back exhausted.[i]

Rescuing Greely at Cape Sabine, Albert Operti

"Rescuing Greely and His Comrades at Cape Sabine" by Albert Operti

Schley was not on the beach himself and relied upon the reports of his men to piece together events. Yet his narrative, published almost a year after the return of the survivors, soon gained authority as a true-life account of the dramatic rescue. The New York Herald excerpted it liberally in its reports about the expedition. Later reminiscences, such as Munsey’s Magazine’s 1895 account of the expedition, presented the scene exactly as it had appeared in Schley’s narrative. Even David L. Brainard, one of the seven survivors of the Greely party, used Schley’s dialogue word for word in his 1929 account of the expedition, as well as in a more candid narrative that he published in 1940. Yet others on the beach recalled the meeting differently. One member of the rescue party reported that Greely first asked him “if we were Englishmen.” Another remembers Greely chastising them. “If we’ve got to starve . . . we can starve without your help . . . we were dying peacefully until you came.” Maurice Connell, one of Greely’s men, was unconscious at the time of the rescue. Yet for him the published account of Greely’s words did not ring true. In the margins of Schley’s book he wrote: “‘Give us something to eat!’ more probably.”[ii]

Whether or not Greely, delirious and close to death, uttered his pithy remarks is unclear. What is clear is that the scene Schley described offered a far more respectable image of Greely and his party than the ones that circulated for months in the popular press upon Greely’s return. Immediately after the return of Schley’s rescue expedition, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and other papers deluged readers with lurid stories about the Greely party’s demise on Cape Sabine. They uncovered Greely’s execution of a man for stealing food. They reported on rumors of cannibalism among the party and discussed charges by Greely’s men that he was inept as a commander. Schley’s account did not erase the impact of these revelations, but arriving in the wake of the reports, offered a means of capping the well of controversy, as its extensive use later suggests.

Adolphus Greely

The controversy that engulfed Greely after his return eclipsed his expedition’s scientific work. Billed as the most ambitious research mission ever sent into the Arctic, Greely’s expedition marked instead the end of serious collaboration between scientists and Arctic explorers in the nineteenth century. In the decades to follow, explorers occasionally promoted their voyages as research expeditions, but their words had little bearing upon their expeditions or campaigns. New patrons of Arctic exploration freed explorers from having to appeal to the scientific community to raise funds or lobby Congress. From the point of view of scientists, Greely and other explorers had abandoned their research missions in order to give allegiance to new masters, private patrons and press moguls who cared little about Arctic science. Schley’s account of the rescue only underscored the point. Greely declared to Colwell that he “did what I came to do – beat the best record,” but he had not entered the Arctic to do anything of the kind. In fact, organizers of the Greely expedition had hoped quite the opposite: that Greely and his men would turn their backs on dangerous and irrelevant dashes to the North Pole, focus on methodical research, and embrace the collaborative spirit of the International Polar Year. To his credit, Greely carried out much of this research at first, but he eventually turned his attention to the geographical dashes so disapproved of by international organizers. Greely’s words on Cape Sabine, true or apocryphal, only confirmed suspicions that science had also been a casualty of his expedition.

The claim that the Greely expedition marked the end of explorers’ serious collaboration with the scientists stands at odds with most historical accounts. Because Greely brought back the most comprehensive and systematic set of observations ever produced by Americans in the Arctic, historians have often held it up as a sign that U.S. scientific exploration had come of age. For historian of science A. Hunter Dupree, the Greely expedition “laid the groundwork for a really scientific interest in Arctic and Antarctic problems.”The wealth of data collected by Greely and his men has led William Barr to revisit the events of the expedition in hopes of illustrating its scientific importance. Expedition historian A. L. Todd agrees, calling Greely’s official narrative “one of the most important source books of arctic data available to the world of science.” Focused on quality of expedition data, however, these works leave unexamined the reactions of scientists, press, and public back home. Fixing our attention here, we see a different picture emerge: a diminished role for science in Arctic exploration, a waning collaboration between explorers and researchers, and a decline of scientific rhetoric in expeditionary campaigns.[iii]

The reasons for this change extend beyond the expedition. Greely and his rescuers may have sown the seeds of controversy by their actions in the Arctic, but these actions only bloomed into scandal because of important cultural and institutional changes back home. That science fell victim to scandal after Greely’s return reflected a new trend in newspaper journalism that put a premium on critical, often sensational, reporting. This was a far cry from the 1850s, when reporters generally avoided controversy in their attempts to portray Arctic explorers as American heroes. By the 1880s, however, writers proved far more willing, even eager, to expose expedition scandals even when it came at explorers’ expense.

The estrangement of explorers and scientists also grew out of changes in the patronage of Arctic exploration. Whereas Henry Grinnell had encouraged his explorers to campaign as a way of raising funds and creating broad coalitions among scientists and the public, the deep pockets of new patrons such as the New York Herald made such actions unnecessary. Flush with funds and backed by promotional power of their patrons, explorers had little need to campaign. Greely took his orders from the Army Signal Corps, not the popular press, but many of the effects were the same. With his expedition already organized and underwritten by the Corps, Greely felt no incentive to write, lecture, or rub elbows with scientists or other groups in the months before his departure. As a result, Greely established few of the personal bonds with scientists and others that had so benefitted Elisha Kane and helped to insulate him from his critics…

[i]. Two of the twenty-five members of the expedition were native Greenlanders, Jens Edward and Thorlip Frederick Christiansen. Quotation is from W. S. Schley, The Rescue of Greely (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1886), 222.

[ii]. “The Rescue of Greely,” New York Herald,” 26 March 1885; Frank Lewis Ford, “The Heroes of the Icy North,” Munsey’s Magazine 14 (1895): 296; David L. Brainard, The Outpost of the Lost: An Arctic Adventure (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1929), 312; Brainard, Six Came Back: The Arctic Adventures of David L. Brainard (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1940), 301; “if we were Englishmen . . .” comes from Charles Harlow, “Greely at Cape Sabine,” Century Magazine (undated) in Adolphus Washington Greely Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.. “If we’ve got to starve . . .” is from Frank B. Copley, “The Will to Live,” American Magazine, February (1911): 502-3. “‘Give us something to eat!’” comes from newspaper clipping “Sergeant Connell”, 31 May 1885, Box 74, Greely Papers, Library of Congress.

[iii]. A. Hunter Dupree, Science in the Federal Government (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1957), 193; William Barr, The Expeditions of the First International Polar Year, 1882-83 (Calgary: University of Calgary, 1985); A. L. Todd, Abandoned (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1961).


  William Battersby wrote @

Thank you for bringing this fascinating but tragic Expedition back in front of the public.

Anyone wanting some insights into what the final stages of the Franklin Expedition MAY have been like would do well to study the Greeley experience. The gradual transition from hunting and fishing to cannibalism is especially sad.

  tedbetts wrote @

Coldest Crucible has been sitting on my desk since the fall. Definitely one of my 2011 must reads, confirmed by your excerpt.

Any idea of WHEN the documentary is showing on PBS?

  Charles H. Lagerbom wrote @

Nice job with the documentary. I always found it interesting that Brainerd never revealed who fired the shot that executed Henry (charged with stealing food).

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Thanks Charles. It was fun to do. How are things with you?


  Russell Potter wrote @

Hi Michael — just saw your doc, and wanted to say, well done! You had the last word, and it was a very good one.

At the same time, I would want to mention, and highly recommend, Geoff Clark’s wonderful documentary on the Greely Expedition, “Abandoned in the Arctic.” Geoff worked with Greely family members, including the General’s great-great-Grandson, James Shedd, who retraced his ancestor’s steps with modern gear. The scene where James dons Greely’s actual eyeglasses, and his face fades to that of Adolphus, still brings tears to my eyes….

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Thanks for the kind words Russell- and for the recommendation of Clark’s book. I will check to see if it’s mentioned on the AE bibliography page on Greely.

  Russell Potter wrote @

Hi Michael — Geoff’s is a full-length film (though there is a tie-in book as well) — see the listing in the IMdB. THe DVD is a bit hard to find, but well worth an online search.

  Kim Adair wrote @

Brilliant story…an inspiration for survival.

  Sikkersoq Olsen wrote @

I just reade about it. Thorleif Frederik Christiansen was one of Greely experiment and he is family on me. i think it so amazing.

  LariM wrote @

Excellent post, excellent information. Thank you. I’ll be reading ‘Coldest Crucible’ ASAP. I agree with the poster who said Greeley could shed major light on Franklin (my current obsession, though I am apparently gravitating to ALL sorts of “doomed” expeditions – I blame this: http://www.ranker.com/list/10-of-the-most-doomed-expeditions-in-history/analise.dubner). Anyway, this is one I knew absolutely NOTHING about until I found your blog. Bookmarked. You have a new fan. Again, many thanks.

  Michael Robinson wrote @

@LariM Thanks for the kind words. On Greely, Leonard Guttridge’s book The Ghosts of Cape Sabine is quite good. In addition to the American Experience documentary, Geoffrey Clark produced an excellent one on Greely as well: http://www.cocked-hat.com/about-abandoned.html

  susie henry wrote @

My great-grandfather, Peter Johnson, was on the Thetis during the rescue. I have been collecting documents for years. I have a newspaper article interviewing him in New Jersey when he was an older man. Thanks for the article.

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Thanks for the note Susie. It must have been quite an experience for your grandfather.

  susie henry wrote @

I’m sure it was. I have been trying to find the muster rolls for the ship in 1884, but still cannot find it.

  M. Boisvert wrote @

WHY where they abandoned? Was anyone held accountable for leaving them up there for so long?

  susie henry wrote @

I finally found the muster rolls in the follow-up papers with the Navy. My dad says that Robert Lincoln would not permit a rescue mission until Greely’s wife kept insisting and getting some backing for the mission. But when they returned, Lincoln was there shaking hands. My great grandfather shook his hand on his return.

  Michael Robinson wrote @

@ M.Boisvert Two relief expeditions tried to reach Fort Conger but failed, forced back by the ice. (one of the relief ships was crushed). Through a combination of poor judgement and ambiguous orders, few provisions from these ships were left for Greely in southern Smith Sound. Perhaps Greely is also partially responsible since he would have been able to survive another winter at Ft Conger in good form but decided, against the wishes of many of his men, to head south in the steam launch.

@Susie That’s great news about the muster rolls!

  Michael wrote @

My great-great uncle, John Quevedo, was on the Schley relief expedition. That’s him in Operti’s “Rescuing Greely and his Comrades at Cape Sabine,” one of the two leading sretcher-bearers. He’s the one on the left (on the right as one looks at the painting).

A Spaniard by birth, he also was in the Perry expedition to Japan in 1853 and was acting gunner on the U.S.S. Brooklyn during the Battle of Mobile Bay in the Civil War and other of Farragut’s battles.

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Thanks for writing in Michael. Do you know if your great-great uncle left any account of the rescue? I’d be interested to know what his impressions were.

[…] Heritage Command for pointing out on Facebook, a forgotten bit of history – the ill-fated Greely Expedition, which was rescued at Cape Sable on Ellesmere Island on June 22, […]

  susie henry wrote @

That’s amazing. I wish I knew which one was my gr-grandfather. I did find his journal of the rescue mission at Dartmouth. They sent my a copy along with pieces of the flag. However, my dad remembers the journal along with a larger flag from the expedition. They only had pieces. His journal is under P.W. Johnson. He wrote in it every day while on the mission. He passed away at my dad’s house in NJ.

  Michael Jahn wrote @

For his obit, the Brooklyn Eagle used the Operti painting, putting in an arrow to show which one was my ancestor.

About flags, Quevedo gave one to his niece, my gr grandmother, and the main piece was handed down to me. I thought it was part of his Civil War memorabilia, but maybe there’s a connection to the Greely relief mission. I can send you a digital image if you can get me your email address.

  Famous Explorers wrote @

This is sure one of the great American expeditions.

[…] to Eat the Dogs: “The Greely Expedition” (Jan. 30, […]

  Anthony Lawson wrote @

Would be interested in finding out if this tragic expedition was ever portrayed on National Geographic or the History channel?? Tony Lawson, New Zealand.

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Tony: I don’t know of any History Channel or NGS shows on the Greely Expedition. I did some work for Travel Channel’s ‘Mysteries of the Museum ‘ on the expedition which ran last year. Jeff Clark produced a fascinating documentary of the expedition ‘Abandoned in the Arctic’ but I don’t know where its aired. http://info.nhpr.org/node/13162 Good luck with your efforts. Michael.

  Anonymous wrote @

I saw the PBS documentary but haven’t heard of any others. I haven’t done much work on this in the past year due to work issues. I hope to this summer.

Michael I don’t know if you left any writing on the subject. That part of my family wasn’t very good at keeping records. i plan to get back to it this summer after the work issues are over. I hope to see if I can track down the Operti paintings. There’s more stuff about his Civil War work, including reports he made to the Secretary of the Navy about the Battle of Mobile Bay. But regarding the Greely expedition, not so much.

  Michael wrote @

I messed up that entry. That was written by me, Michael Jahn

  Polar Explorers – clay and maggie travel wrote @

[…] later to examine solar winds, which were unknown in Amundsen’s time. The expedition of Adolphus Greely collected reams of data on the Arctic region, even though it resulted in the death of most of the […]

  13 Facts About Robert E. Peary, North Pole Explorer wrote @

[…] to reach them for three years. By the time rescue arrived and they returned home, only Greely and five other men had survived starvation. The public’s appetite for polar adventure waned until, a few […]

  harry Sinsheimer wrote @

Peter William Johnson was my great grandfather as well. I would like to connect with Susie Henry, I believe we have never met? I am Harry Sinsheimer.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s