Recalling a Tragic Tale in Arctic Exploration

Donald Macmillan, left, confers with A.W. Greely.


By Renee Braden

When veteran Arctic explorer Captain Donald B. MacMillan set out on his 1923-24 expedition to northern Greenland and Ellesmere Island, he hoped to carry out an ambitious program of scientific research. But he also intended to discharge a very special duty. Within the hold of his ship, the Bowdoin, in addition to his equipment and supplies, he carried an engraved bronze tablet commemorating the lost members of the Greely Expedition of 1881-1884. The story of this expedition is one of the tragic tales in Arctic history, and one that has an interesting relationship to the National Geographic Society.

Greely and his men successfully completed their mission, but the relief vessels scheduled to pick them up failed to arrive. In August of 1883, in accordance with explicit instructions given them before leaving Washington, the party headed south for what should have been a rendezvous with an alternate relief ship. After a torturous journey southward, they were forced to stop at Cape Sabine, on Pim Island, just off the eastern coast of Ellesmere Island. There they built a shelter, carefully rationed their provisions, and waited for what they thought would be imminent rescue. It was almost nine months before a ship reached them on June 22, 1884. By then, 18 of the 25 expedition members had perished slowly, painfully, one by one.

The reason behind MacMillan’s mission was understandable.  Lieutenant Greely, who when rescued would not have lived another day, and Lieutenant Commander Winfield Scott Schley, who commanded the relief expedition, would both go on to become founders of the National Geographic Society. Greely became one of the Society’s most important and influential early figures.

So, with the plaque carefully stored aboard ship, the MacMillan Expedition went about its main mapping and scientific work, wintering in Refuge Harbor on the western coast of Greenland. On May 6, 1924, as the Arctic spring advanced, MacMillan gathered a few men and set out by dogsled for Pim Island to erect the memorial. As they crossed Smith Sound, which was still frozen, they were almost immediately hit by a blinding snowstorm. Not having enough food to stop and wait out the storm, they pushed forward using instinct and a faint bit of sun for guidance, making directly for Cape Sabine. Incredibly, the men reached their intended landing spot and the weather quickly cleared. They walked among the stones marking the pathetic campsite of the Greely party, looking for a suitable place to erect the plaque. About halfway between Cemetery Ridge, so named because it is the area where the Greely party buried their dead, and a large lake named Cross Lake (for William H. Cross of the Greely party), they found a 100-ton boulder with a broad flat side to accommodate the plaque. It took the afternoon to attach it with four large expansion bolts made just for this purpose. The plaque reads:

“To the memory of the dead who under Lieutenant A.W. Greely
here gave their lives to ensure the final and complete success of the
first scientific cooperation of the United States with other nations 1881-1884 erected by the National Geographic Society 1923″

MacMillan draped an American flag over the plaque, unveiling it the following day. He told a few natives who had gathered that the tablet honored the white men who had died on this spot many years ago. Without further ceremony, MacMillan and his small crew headed back to the main expedition party at Etah, Greenland.

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