HMS Resolute was a Barque rigged merchant ship, purchased by the English government in 1850 as the Ptarmigan, and refitted for Arctic exploration. Re-named Resolute, the vessel became part of a five ship squadron leaving England in April 1852, sailing into the Canadian arctic in search of the Franklin expedition, which had disappeared into the ice pack in 1845.
They never found Franklin, though they did find the long suffering crew of the HMS Investigator, hopelessly encased in ice where they had been stranded since 1850.
Three of the expedition’s ships themselves became trapped in floe ice in August 1853, including Resolute. There was no choice but to abandon ship, striking out across the ice pack in search of their supply ships. Most of them made it, despite egregious hardship, straggling into Beechey Island between May and August of the following year.
The expedition’s survivors left Beechey Island on August 29, 1854, never to return.
Meanwhile Resolute, alone and abandoned among the ice floes, continued to drift eastward at a rate of 1.5 nautical miles per day.
The American whale ship George Henry discovered the drifting Resolute on September 10, 1855, 1,200 miles from her last known position. Captain James Buddington split his crew, half of them now manning the abandoned ship. Fourteen of them sailed Resolute back to their base in Groton CT, arriving on Christmas eve.
1856 was a difficult time for American-British relations. Senator James Mason of Virginia presented a bill in Congress to fix up the Resolute, giving her back to her Majesty Queen Victoria’s government as a token of friendship between the two nations.
$40,000 were spent on the refit, and Resolute sailed for England later that year, Commander Henry J. Hartstene presenting her to Queen Victoria on December 13.
Resolute served in the British navy until being retired and broken up in 1879. The British government ordered at least three desks to be fashioned out of the ship’s timbers, the work being done by the skilled cabinet makers of the Chatham dockyards. The British government presented a large partner’s desk to President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880. A token of gratitude for HMS Resolute’s return, 24 years earlier.
The desk, known as the Resolute Desk, has been used by almost every American President since, whether in a private study or the oval office.
FDR had a panel installed in the opening, since he was self conscious about his leg braces. It was Jackie Kennedy who brought the desk into the Oval Office. There are pictures of JFK working at the desk, while his young son JFK, Jr., played under it.
Presidents Johnson, Nixon and Ford were the only ones not to use the Resolute desk, as LBJ allowed it to leave the White House after the Kennedy assassination.
The desk spent several years in the Kennedy Library and later the Smithsonian Institute, the only time the desk has been out of the White House.
Jimmy Carter returned the Resolute Desk to the Oval Office, where it has remained through the Presidencies of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and, so far, Donald Trump.