Monday, December 14, 2020

Souvenirs from a Doomed Voyage

by Erin Doane, Curator

The purpose of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition from 1881 to 1884 was to establish a polar research station near Lady Franklin Bay on Canada’s Nares Strait north of Greenland. The expedition was funded by the U.S. Congress, managed by the U.S. Army Signal Corps., and led by Lieutenant Adolphus Greely. Twenty-five men began the voyage into the Arctic in 1881, but only seven,* including Greely, survived. Uncooperative weather, poor planning, unsuccessful resupply attempts, interpersonal conflicts, and all around bad luck led to disaster. (You can read about it in more detail here.)

No one in the expedition had strong connections to Chemung County (that I am aware of), so why am I writing about it? Well, the museum has a collection of 19 items that are labeled “Greely Expedition 1881-1884.” Later Arctic explorers collected these souvenirs from the doomed voyage. The items include tobacco tins, a pipe, a lid to a brandy keg, various size ammunition, pieces of rope and chain, and fur mittens purportedly used during the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition and abandoned at Fort Conger in the northeast of Ellesmere Island where Greely had set up his basecamp in 1881.

Selection of items in the collection marked "Greely Expedition 1881-1884"

So, how did these items get to CCHS? One of the pieces, the brandy keg lid, has this description in the database:

Brought back by Ross Marvin while on his 1905-1906 Arctic expedition with Admiral Robert E. Peary. This lid from a brandy keg is from the HMS Alert, a British Navy ship that was part of an 1875-1876 British Arctic Expedition. They reached Ellesmere Island. Then the Greely Expedition in 1881 reached the same spot on Ellesmere Island, but the expedition became infamous because only 6 of 24 members survived.* In 1905-06, Admiral Peary's expedition stopped at the same spot and found the site where Greely had been. Ross Marvin brought back relics from the site.

Wooden keg lid with the words “HMS Alert” and “Brandy” just discernible

Elmiran Ross Marvin was a member of Robert Peary’s 1905-1906 and 1908-1909 Arctic expeditions. (You can read more about him here.) Marvin kept journals during both voyages and wrote about finding the keg lid on September 2, 1905:

…Found the remains of a cache made by English Party, H.M.S. Alert, on northern shore of bay. Contents were used later by sledge trips of the Greely Party. Found one box containing 9 tins of boiled beef, frozen and well preserved. Secured head of an old cask…. 

Ross Marvin’s journal, September 2, 1905

I feel confident that the “head of an old cask” he found among the remains of the HMS Alert’s cache is indeed the wooden keg lid in the collection. While the lid did not originate with the Greely Expedition, it was among the other items found at Fort Conger. Marvin’s journal entry from September 5, 1905 mentions that he “found a souvenir for myself,” but does not go into detail. There is no way of knowing if he was referring to any of the other items we have here at the museum.

The other items in the collection may not have been collected by Ross Marvin at all. A general note on the collection reads:

Professor Donald MacMillan of Peary's expedition found the remnants of Greely's base camp at Fort Conger. The items here were brought back from Peary's expedition by Donald MacMillan.

This note made me wonder. I have done quite a lot of personal research on Ross Marvin, his two expeditions into the Arctic with Peary, and his untimely death there in 1909. I had never read anything indicating that MacMillan ever came to Elmira, let alone donated a collection of objects to the Historical Society. Donald MacMillan (who later became a significant Arctic explorer and researcher in his own right) was on Peary’s 1908-1909 Arctic expedition with Ross Marvin. He certainly would have had the opportunity to collected souvenirs that had been left behind on previous voyages as Marvin had done three years prior. But how did those items end up here?

I found a clue to this mystery when I learned that MacMillan was a longtime friend of James Vinton Stowell. Stowell was an Elmira artist, archaeologist, and explorer. He traveled into the Arctic four times, including once with MacMillan in 1946 to Northern Labrador. In 1967, Stowell donated his extensive collection of Native American and Arctic artifacts to the Chemung County Historical Society.

The Seal Hunters, oil on canvas by James Vinton Stowell, 1958

Since Stowell donated one collection of items to the museum, was it possible that sometime along the way he made another donation of items that had been collected by MacMillan during his voyage with Peary in 1908-1909, then given to Stowell as a gift to a fellow polar explorer and friend? Maybe. Maybe not. There is no proof of such a thing, but it is fun to speculate about how such an interesting collection got here. 


* I have found sources that say six men survived and others that say seven. Naval History Magazine; International Journal of Naval History, and the New England Historical Society all have articles that indicate seven men survived; PBS, the National Museum of American History, Nature Magazine have articles indicating six survived. I’m not sure which is correct. Similarly, some sources report that there were 24 men on the voyage, others 25.


1 comment:

  1. I remember Ross Marvin from Cornell- I thought he was the "Elmira" connection as I started to read this! Nice!