James M. Ambler's Possessions
Original Author: Unknown
Created: Nineteenth century
Medium: Medal, watch, scarf, and diary
Publisher: Virginia Historical Society

James M. Ambler’s Possessions

A collection of personal artifacts belonging to U.S. Navy surgeon Dr. James M. Ambler bears witness to his days as medical officer aboard the ill-fated ship Jeannette that became trapped in ice late in 1879 during an Arctic expedition. Adrift in the Arctic Ocean for nearly two years, the boat’s hull was finally crushed in June 1881. The crew made a long trek over the ice pack and tried to reach Siberian settlements in small boats, but many of the thirty-three crewmen drowned, froze, or starved to death, including Ambler who was probably the last to die. In his journal shown here, Ambler penned a final note to his brother in Fauquier County, Virginia, on October 20, 1881, telling him that he had “little hope of surviving” since he and his fellow crewmen had been “without food for nearly 2 weeks.” The gold watch belonged to Ambler, as did the red silk scarf that was found in his pocket after his death and sent to his mother. A commemorative gold medal (bottom right) depicts the icebound ship and the escaping crew members. The medal was posthumously awarded by the U.S. Congress to Dr. Ambler for his dedication and skill in tending to his men. On the reverse it reads: “JEANNETTE ARCTIC EXPEDITION 1879-1882 / TO JAMES AMBLER / P.A. SURG'N / U.S.N. / IN COMMEMORATION OF PERILS / ENCOUNTERED AND AS AN / EXPRESSION OF THE HIGH / ESTEEM IN WHICH CONGRESS / HOLDS HIS SERVICES / ACT APPROVED / SEPT. 30, 1890."