The Forgotten Arctic Expedition of 1879

Posted by Aaron on

There’s a little-known story of adventure, sacrifice and heroism that lives today mostly in the margins of history books. It came to a tragic conclusion in the Arctic Circle in 1881, but it began right here in Fauquier County. This is the story of Dr. James Markham Marshall Ambler and the loss of the USS Jeannette.

To those familiar with Fauquier County history, Dr. Ambler’s name might ring a bell. Grandson of Revolutionary War hero James Markham Marshall and grandnephew of Chief Justice John Marshall, Ambler’s ancestors were prominent citizens of the county. Dr. Ambler grew up at “The Dell,” near Markham. He served with the 12th Virginia Cavalry late in the Civil War, received his medical degree from the University of Maryland by age 22 and joined the U.S. Navy as a surgeon in 1874. By 1879 he had successfully completed voyages on at least three ships. From the start, however, the mission on the Jeannette was different.

Today our explorers have their sights set on reaching Mars or the utmost depths of the oceans. But in the late 1800s, the North Pole was the tantalizingly unreachable land that occupied the imaginations of the adventurous. The goal for the Jeannette was to travel through the Bering Strait to find a sailable passage to the North Pole.

Ambler set sail from San Francisco with a crew of 33 in July 1879, and immediately the men encountered setbacks. The ship proved to be slower than anticipated and came upon the edge of the polar ice cap much farther south than expected. By September, the Jeannette had become hopelessly trapped by the arctic ice.

For almost two years, Dr. Ambler tended to the stranded crew. He set up a distillery so the the men would have safe, salt-free water to drink and established a ration for the ship’s supply of lime juice to prevent scurvy. Ambler even saw to the men’s physical fitness and mental health by instituting exercise regimens and organizing sporting events and games. With the exception of a bout of lead poisoning resulting from lead-soldered canned goods, the crew remained relatively healthy under Ambler’s care.

However, in June 1881, the hull of the icebound Jeannette was finally crushed, leaving the men with no option but to attempt to make their way to Siberia where they believed they would find settlements. A three-month trek by foot across the arctic ensued. In September, the weakened crew found themselves once again at the edge of the open ocean where they set out in three small boats. A storm sank one of the vessels and separated the other two. One of the remaining boats containing eleven survivors found its way to a small village, but Ambler’s boat remained lost, its crew wandering hopelessly until October 1881 when they set up a makeshift camp.

Out of desperation, on October 9, Ambler’s crew selected the two strongest men to make a last-ditch attempt to find help. Dr. Ambler was offered the opportunity to set out with the exploratory party, but chose to remain behind in order to care for his sick comrades. While the pair eventually reunited with the eleven men who had been rescued earlier, Dr. Ambler and those who had remained in camp perished. Ambler, who has been keeping what he termed his “Ice Diary” during the arduous trek across the arctic, made his last entry, a farewell letter to his family, on October 20, 1881. Ambler’s body was recovered in 1884 and he was laid to rest in Leeds Episcopal Church Cemetery near Markham.

To find out more about this nearly forgotten expedition, check out Hampton Sides’s In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the U.S.S. Jeannette. Or do a bit of sleuthing and search the ProQuest Historical Washington Post database for contemporary articles written about the tragedy.

∼ Frances, clerk, Bealeton branch library

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