The privately owned, Navy-operated steamer Jeannette left San Francisco, California, on 8 July 1879 with 33 Navy officers, enlisted men, and civilians on board, in an attempt to reach the North Pole through what was then believed to be open water beyond the Arctic icepack. The ship entered the ice to the east of Wrangell Island on 6 September and within a few days was held fast.
Over the next twenty-two months the drifting ice carried the ship several hundred miles to the northwestward. The crew occupied themselves maintaining the ship, making scientific observations, hunting, and, in May 1881, landing on Henrietta Island, some 600 miles from Wrangell. Under Lieutenant Commander George Washington DeLong’s leadership, plus the inspired care of Passed Assistant Surgeon James M. Ambler, their health generally remained good, and the ship, though leaking somewhat, was still sound. In June 1881 the ice parted and it seemed the ship might reach open sea, but on 12 June the floes closed in and crushed Jeannette’s hull. Her crew removed three boats, equipment, and provisions and, after a few days’ rest, began a grueling journey on foot across the ice to reach the Siberian coast, almost 700 miles away. They landed on Bennett Island in late July, and reached the Kotelnoi and Simonoski Islands in early September, after which the way was clear to sail to the mainland. On 12 September 1881 the three boats separated in a storm; one, with eight men on board, was not seen again. The other two, commanded by DeLong with thirteen others and Chief Engineer George W. Melville with ten others, landed far apart on the Lena River Delta.
Melville’s party soon encountered local inhabitants and were saved. DeLong and his men waded ashore through the nearly frozen water and trudged south over the desolate terrain. After one man died of the effects of frostbite and the others were weakened by exposure and hunger, two seamen were sent ahead to find help. The remaining eleven succumbed before help arrived; DeLong made his final journal entry on 30 October 1881. Melville conducted an exhaustive search for the other members of the expedition and in March 1882 located ten bodies, which were transported back to the United States in early 1884.