In the Cold Cold Night

Today’s “This Day” post mentions the demise of James M. Ambler, a Virginia-born Navy surgeon who reluctantly volunteered for service with an Arctic expedition aboard the Jeannette, a ship commanded by George W. De Long. The ship became imprisoned by ice late in 1879, and Ambler did well to keep the crew not only alive but relatively healthy. Still adrift in June 1881, the Jeannette struck ice, which crushed its wooden hull. While a few of the crew’s thirty-three men survived, many froze to death, drowned, or starved, including Ambler, who died with De Long sometime around October 30, 1881.
A few years later, De Long’s journals, in two volumes and edited by his wife, were published and they included a series of wood engravings, most of which were done by George T. Andrew after designs by M. J. Burns. They offer a compelling visual narrative of an Arctic adventure–turned tragedy. They are provided here, with captions, courtesy of the United States Naval History and Heritage Command.
Above: the USS Jeannette enters the Arctic ice, near Herald Island, on September 6, 1879 (Andrew / Burns).

Above: Expedition members return from a bear hunt while the USS Jeannette is still icebound north of Siberia, 1880 (Andrew / Burns).

Above: The USS Jeannette begins to sink on ice flows north of Siberia, June 12, 1881. She went down completely the next morning (Andrew / Burns).

Above: The crew of the USS Jeannette hauls the ship’s boats over the very rough Arctic ice north of Siberia during the summer of 1881 (Andrew / Burns).

Above: A party of sailors from the USS Jeannette lands on Bennett Island, north of Siberia, on July 29, 1881, after a difficult pull over water and broken ice (Andrew / Burns).

Above: Boats containing crewmembers of the USS Jeannette separate in a gale northeast of the Lena River Delta, Siberia, on September 12, 1881. The boat commanded by Lieutenant Commander George De Long (foreground) eventually lands at the northern end of the Delta. The one commanded by Chief Engineer George W. Melville (background, right) lands on the Delta’s eastern side. Meanwhile, the boat commanded by Lieutenant Charles W. Chipp (background, left) is never heard from again (Andrew / Burns).

Above: Lieutenant Commander George De Long and his party wade ashore from the USS Jeannette‘s first cutter, on the north end of the Lena River Delta, Siberia, September 17, 1881 (Andrew / Burns).

Above: On the right, Seamen William F. C. Nindemann and Louis P. Noros trudge through the snowy Siberian wastes in search of help for Lieutenant Commander George De Long’s party in October 1881 (Andrew / Burns). On the left, a facsimile of the next-to-last page of De Long’s journal, covering the days October 21–24, 1881, as his part is dying of starvation at the head of the Lena River Delta, Siberia. Numbered days reflect the time since the USS Jeannette was abandoned in the ice north of Siberia.

Above: Chief Engineer George Melville discovers the bodies of Lieutenant Commander George De Long, Passed Assistant Surgeon James M. Ambler, and Seaman Ah Sam, in the Lena River Delta, Siberia, on March 23, 1882. The three men died in October or early November 1881 (George T. Andrew, after a design by Captain Gronbeck).

Above: The survivors of the USS Jeannette‘s Arctic expedition are pictured (left to right, in front): Lauderback, Bartlett, William Coles, Seaman William F. C. Nindemann, and Mansen; (left to right, in middle): Chief Engineer George W. Melville and Lieutenant John W. Danenhower; (left to right, in back): Raymond Lee Newcomb (naturalist), Seaman Louis P. Noros, Henry Wilson, Tong Sing (cook), Anequin and H. W. Leach). Based on a photograph taken at Yakutsk, Siberia, in 1882.


5 thoughts

  1. Dear Brendan, I’ve been doing a lot of research lately into my ancestor Hans Halmøe Erichsen of the Jeannette expedition and came across your excellent entry here. I possess the Congressional Medal that was awarded posthumously to him as a family heirloom. I’m currently exploring his birthplace on Aerø island, Denmark. I’m still trying to find an image of him in some form. Do you know of any? I welcome any communication you may have. Sincerely, Navyo Ericsen

    1. Hi Navyo, I see you have been actively researching the Jeannette. I have yet to run across a photo of your ancestor Hans Erichsen, I have been researching the Jeannette non-stop since 1996 as I am the GG Grandniece to Jerome J. Collins. I sent you a message on Facebook along with my contact info. Hampton Sides contacted me via the Naval Academy Museum recommendation in Annapolis, MD, and I was mentioned in the back of his book “In the Kingdom of Ice” as I spoke with him in regard to his research. Looking forward to hearing from you. ~Amy

  2. I just read a book about the voyage of the USS Jeannette, “In the Kingdom of Ice” by Hampton Sides and published in paperback in the US by Anchor Books in May 2015. Your ancestor, Hans Erichsen, was mentioned repeatedly in glowing terms: ” always cheerful”, a “big, brawny Dane” whose “herculean feats of strength” saved one man’s life and led another to wonder how they could have survived without him.
    Anyway, I was disappointed that the book didn’t have a picture of him, and came across your post when I tried to find a picture of him online. It seemed to me that the author of the book would have posted a picture of him if he’d found one, since your ancestor was a major character in the book. You might try contacting the author and asking him. I also noticed that Hampton Sides acknowledged Mark Mollan at the National Archives in Washington, who helped him sift through “the mountains of ‘Jeannette’ primary documents housed there. ” Might be another place to try…
    Good luck in your search!

  3. Three years later, I find your comment Joan. Thank you! I will definitely contact Mr Sides regarding my ancestor. I don’t know why I didn’t even think of that. Thanks again! Navyo

    1. Hi mr. Ericsen, I have books by George Melville, engineer on the Jeannette called “In the Lena Delta,” and I am now reading “The Voyage of the Jeannette: the Ice and ship Journals of George De Long, edited by his wife, Emma Wooton DeLong. I found another Book “The Lost Explorers by Newcombe. That book has lots of sketches and photographs taken in the Lena Delta and as they traveled through Siberia. Some of Melville’s photos plates were saved and images were gotten from them. Im not sure what they contain, but it would be a good place to look. Emma Wooton DeLong also wrote a book later in her life called”The Explorer’s Wife.” I check that as a source out as well.
      Good luck to you.
      Jeanne Pascal


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