November 12, 1912 Frozen in Time

Over a hundred years later you can still feel anguish from the man’s diary: “The worst has happened…All the day dreams must go…Great God! This is an awful place”.

Roald AmundsenAs long as he could remember, Roald Amundsen wanted to be an explorer.  As a boy, he would read about the doomed Franklin Arctic Expedition, of 1848.  A sixteen-year-old Amundsen took inspiration from Fridtjof Nansen’s epic crossing of Greenland, in 1888.

The period would come to be called the “Heroic Age” of polar exploration.  Amundsen was born to take part.

Not so, Robert Falcon Scott.   A career officer with the British Royal Navy, Scott would take a different path to this story.

Clements Markham, President of the British Royal Geographical Society (RGS), was known to “collect” promising young naval officers with an eye toward future polar exploration.  The two first met on March 1, 1887, when the eighteen-year old midshipman’s cutter won a sailing race, across St. Kitt’s Bay.

In 1894, Scott’s father John made a disastrous mistake, selling the family brewery and investing the proceeds, badly.  The elder Scott’s death of heart disease three years later brought on fresh family crisis, leaving John’s widow Hannah and her two unmarried daughters, dependent on Robert and his younger brother, Archie.

Now more than ever, Scott was eager to distinguish himself with an eye toward promotion, and the increase in income which came with it.

RobertFalconScott.jpgIn the Royal Navy, limited opportunities for career advancement were eagerly sought after, by any number of ambitious officers.  Home on leave in 1899, Scott chanced once again to meet the now-knighted “Sir” Clements Markham, and learned of an impending RGS Antarctic expedition, aboard the barque-rigged auxiliary steamship, RRS Discovery.  What passed between the two went unrecorded but, a few days later, Scott showed up at the Markham residence, and volunteered to lead the expedition.

The Discovery expedition of 1901-’04 was one of science as well as exploration.  Despite a combined polar experience of near-zero, the fifty officers and men under Robert Falcon Scott made a number of important biological, zoological and geological findings, proving that the Antarctic continent was once, forested.  Though later criticized as clumsy and amateurish, a journey south in the direction of the pole discovered the polar plateau, establishing the southernmost record for its time at 82° 17′ S, only 530 miles short of the pole.

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Kathleen Bruce Scott

Discovery returned in September 1904, the expedition hailed by one writer as “one of the great polar journeys”, of its time.  Once an obscure naval officer, Scott now entered Edwardian society, and moved among the higher social and economic circles, of the day.

A brief but stormy relationship ensued with Kathleen Bruce, a sculptress who studied under Auguste Rodin, and counted among her personal friends, the likes of Pablo Picasso, Aleister Crowley and Isadora Duncan.  The couple was married on September 2, 1908 and the marriage produced one child, Peter Markham Scott, who went on to found the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

The elder Scott would not live to see it.

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Ernest Shackleton, ca 1909

The “Great Southern Journey” of Scott’s Discovery officer Ernest Shackleton, arrived at a point 112 miles short of the pole on January 9, 1909, providing Scott with the impetus for a second attempt, the following year.  Scott was still fundraising for the expedition when the old converted whaler Terra Nova departed Cardiff, in South Wales.  Scott joined the ship in South Africa and arrived in Melbourne Australia in October, 1910.

Meanwhile, and unbeknownst to Scott, Roald Amundsen was preparing for his own drive on the south pole, aboard the ship “Fram” (Forward).

It was in Melbourne that Scott received the telegram: “Beg leave to inform you Fram proceeding Antarctic Amundsen“.  Robert Falcon Scott now faced a race to the pole.

Unlike Amundsen who adopted the lighter fur-skins of the Inuit, the Scott expedition wore heavy wool clothing, depending on motorized and horse-drawn transport, and man-hauling sledges for the final drive across the polar plateau. Dog teams were expected to meet them only on the way out, on March 1.

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Mount Erebus, the southernmost active volcano, in the world. Robert Falcon Scott took this photograph in 1911

Weak ponies, poorly acclimatized to the wretched conditions of Antarctica, slowed the depot-laying part of the Scott expedition.  Four horses died of cold or had to be shot, because they slowed the team.

Expedition member Lawrence “Titus” Oates warned Scott against the decision to locate “One-Ton Depot” 35-miles short of the planned location at 80°.  “Sir, I’m afraid you’ll come to regret not taking my advice.”  His words would prove prophetic.

Scott Expedition

Unlike the earlier attempt, Robert Falcon Scott made it to the pole this time, only to find that Amundsen’s Norwegian team had beat him there, by a mere five weeks. Over a hundred years later you can still feel anguish from the man’s diary: “The worst has happened…All the day dreams must go…Great God! This is an awful place”.

Defeated, the five-man Scott party turned and began the 800-mile, frozen slog back from the Pole on January 19, 1912.  Team member Edgar “Taff” Evans’ condition began to deteriorate as early as the 23rd. A bad fall on Beardmore Glacier left the man concussed on February 4, “dull and incapable”.  Another fall two weeks later, left Evans dead at the foot of the glacier.

Man-hauled sledges

Dog teams failed to materialize at the appointed time.  Within days, Titus himself was severely frostbitten, concerned that his incapacity would become a threat and a burden to the team. He left his tent for the last time and limped into a blizzard on March 17, saying “I am just going outside and may be some time”.  He never returned.

Noble as it was, Lawrence Oates’ suicide, came to naught.  The last three made their final camp on March 19, with 400 miles yet to go.   A howling blizzard descended on the tents the following day and lasted for days, as Scott, Henry “Birdie” Bowers and Dr. Edward Wilson wrote good-bye letters to mothers, wives, and others.

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Starving and frostbitten, Robert Falcon Scott wrote to his diary in the final hours of his life “It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more.” In his final entry, he worried about the financial burden on his family, and those of the doomed expedition: “Last entry.  For God’s sake look after our people”.

The lowest ground level temperature ever recorded was −128.6° Fahrenheit at the Soviet Vostok Antarctic Station, in 1983.  Meteorological conditions for those last days in the Scott camp, went undocumented.

The frozen corpses of Robert Falcon Scott and his comrades were found on November 12, 1912, that last diary entry dated March 29.  A high cairn of snow was erected over it all, that final camp becoming the three men’s tomb. Ship’s carpenters built a wooden cross, inscribing on it the names of those lost: Scott, Edward Wilson, Henry Bowers, Lawrence Oates and Edgar Evans. A line from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, Ulysses, was carved into the cross:

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”.
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Defeated by only weeks, the Scott party spends a moment at the south pole, before turning for the frozen, 800-mile slog, back.

It was eleven miles short of the next supply depot.

On hearing the fate of his rival, Roald Amundsen said “I would gladly forgo any honor or money if thereby I could have saved Scott his terrible death”.

A century later, ice and snow have covered the last camp of the southern party.  Pressed ever downward by the weight of snow and ice, their corpses are encased seventy-five-feet down in the Ross Ice Shelf and inching their way outward, expected to reach the Ross Sea sometime around 2276.  One day to break off and float away, at the heart of some unknown and nameless iceberg.

Feature image, top of page:  Last Camp of the Southern Party, of Robert Scott Falcon

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August 29, 1854 The Resolute Desk

The British government presented a large partner’s desk to President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880, a token of gratitude for the return of HMS Resolute, 24 years earlier. Excepting a brief period following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the desk has been in the oval office or a private study in the White House, from that day to this.

Since the time of Columbus, European explorers searched for a navigable shortcut by open water, from Europe to Asia.   The “Corps of Discovery“, better known as the Lewis and Clark expedition, departed the Indiana Territory in 1804 with, among other purposes, and intention of finding a water route to the Pacific.

Forty years later, Captain sir John Franklin departed England aboard two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, to discover the mythical Northwest Passage.

The two ships became icebound in Victoria Strait near King William Island, in the Canadian Arctic.

Ship

Prodded by Lady Jane Franklin, the hunt for her husband’s expedition would continue for years, at one time involving as any as eleven British and two American ships.  Clues were found including notes and isolated graves, telling the story of a long and fruitless effort to stay alive in a hostile climate.  The wreck of HMS Erebus would not be discovered until 2014, her sister ship, two years later.

In 1848, the British Admiralty possessed few ships suitable for arctic service. Two civilian steamships were purchased and converted to exploration vessels: HMS Pioneer and HMS Intrepid, along with four seagoing sailing vessels, Resolute, Assistance, Enterprise and Investigator.

e9b3482e7a0e242654668c20479b9fb4HMS Resolute was a Barque rigged merchant ship, purchased 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 doomed Franklin expedition.

Neither Franklin nor any of his 128 officers and men would ever return alive.  HMS Resolute found and rescued the long suffering crew of the HMS Investigator, hopelessly encased in ice where, three years earlier, she too had been searching for the lost expedition.

resoluteice2Three of the HMS Resolute expedition’s ships themselves became trapped in floe ice in August 1853, including Resolute, herself. 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 in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, 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 1½ 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.

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The so-called ‘Pig and Potato War” of 1859 was resolved between the British and American governments with the loss of no more than a single hog, yet a number of border disputes made the late 1850s 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 presented her to Queen Victoria on December 13. HMS Resolute served in the British navy until being retired and broken up in 1879. The British government ordered two desks to be fashioned from English oak 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.

Resolute, ReaganThe desk, known as the Resolute Desk, has been used by nearly 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 Resolute 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 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, thus far, Donald J. Trump.

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If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

August 10, 2010 An Awful Place

A chirpy little forecast on weather2travel.com advises the Antarctic traveler to “Check How Hot & Sunny It Is Before You Book Your Next Holiday in 2019,” reporting max daytime temperatures for March, of -51°C.

Roald Amundsen always wanted to go to sea. The fourth son of a family of Norwegian shipowners and captains, Amundsen’s mother wanted no such thing for her boy, and made him vow that he’d go to school to become a doctor. Amundsen was 21 when his mother died.  He kept his promise until that day.  After that, there would be no more school.

Roald Amundsen
Roald Amundsen

Amundsen wanted to become an explorer, taking inspiration from the doomed Franklin Arctic Expedition of 1848, and Fridtjof Nansen’s crossing of Greenland in 1888.

The period would come to be called the “Heroic Age” of polar exploration. Amundsen was drawn to the story, as much as he helped in its creation. He was part of the Antarctic expedition of 1897-99 aboard the RV Belgica, the first to winter in Antarctica. He led the first expedition to successfully navigate Canada’s Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, in 1903–06.

Amundsen’s attempt to reach the South Pole set out on September 8, 1911. Using skis and dog sleds, Amundsen and his men created supply depots at 80°, 81° and 82° south latitude, precious stockpiles of food and equipment at 69-mile intervals on the way to the Pole. The effort proved to be premature and had to be abandoned due to extreme cold. A second attempt departed on October 19 with four sledges and 52 dogs, along the previously unknown Axel Heiberg Glacier.  The team of five men and 16 dogs arrived at 90° 0′ S on December 14, 1911, the first team in history to reach the South Pole.

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Robert Falcon Scott

English explorer Robert Falcon Scott attempted the South Pole in 1901–04, and was doing so once again at the time of the Amundsen expedition. Though he’d had to turn back, the earlier expedition had established the southernmost record for that time, at 88° 23′ S. Ninety-seven miles short of the pole.

Unlike Amundsen who adopted the lighter fur-skins of the Inuit, the Scott expedition wore heavy wool clothing, depending on motorized and horse-drawn transport, and man-hauling sledges for the final drive across the polar plateau. Dog teams were expected to meet them only on the way out, on March 1.

Weak ponies, poorly acclimated to the wretched conditions slowed the depot-laying part of the Scott expedition, four horses dying of cold or having to be shot because they slowed the team.

Expedition member Lawrence “Titus” Oates warned Scott against the decision to locate “One-Ton Depot” 35-miles short of its planned location at 80°.  His words would prove prophetic.  “Sir, I’m afraid you’ll come to regret not taking my advice.”

Unlike his previous attempt, Scott made it this time, only to find that Amundsen’s Norwegian expedition had beat him by a mere five weeks. The anguish in Scott’s diary entry for January 17, 1912, is palpable: “The worst has happened…All the day dreams must go…Great God! This is an awful place”.

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“Scott captures Dr Edward Wilson sketching on Beardmore Glacier during his final expedition to the Antarctic in 1912”. H/T Guardian.com

Roald Amundsen returned safely and publicly announced his attainment of the South Pole on March 7, 1912.

Defeated, the five-man Scott party began the 800-mile, frozen slog back from the Pole on January 19.  Team member Edgar “Taff” Evans’ condition began to deteriorate as early as the 23rd. A bad fall on Beardmore Glacier on February 4 left him “dull and incapable”. Another fall on the 17th left Evans dead at the foot of the glacier.

Dog teams failed to materialize at the appointed time.  Within days, Oates himself was severely frostbitten, concerned that his incapacity was a threat and a burden to the team. The man left his tent for the last time and limped into the blizzard on March 17, saying “I am just going outside and may be some time”.  He never returned.

331221e7257641dd320331d5341f2627--robert-falcon-scott-captain-scottNoble though it was, Lawrence Oates’ suicide came to naught.  The last three made their final camp on March 19, with 400 miles to go.   A howling blizzard descended on the tents the following day and lasted for days, as Scott, Henry “Birdie” Bowers and Dr. Edward Wilson wrote good-bye letters to mothers, wives, and others.  In his final starved, frostbitten hours, Robert Falcon Scott wrote to his diary “It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more.” In his final entry, Scott worried about the financial burden on his family, and those of the doomed expedition: “Last entry.  For God’s sake look after our people”.

The specific meteorological conditions of those final days, went unrecorded.  A chirpy little forecast on http://www.weather2travel.com advises the Antarctic traveler to “Check How Hot & Sunny It Is Before You Book Your Next Holiday in 2019,” reporting maximum daytime temperatures for March, of -51°C.

The frozen corpses of Scott and his comrades were found some eight months later, that last diary entry dated March 29, 1912.  A high cairn of snow was erected over it all, that final camp becoming the three men’s tomb. Ship’s carpenters built a wooden cross, inscribing on it the names of those lost: Scott, Edward Wilson, Henry Bowers, Lawrence Oates and Edgar Evans. A line from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, Ulysses, appears on the cross: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”.

6303323d3bf163bd7706d70a5f6fc7bfThe last three survivors died eleven miles from their next supply depot.

Apsley Cherry-Garrard, part of the expedition to find the doomed Scott party, survived similar conditions by some kind of miracle and wrote in The Worst Journey in the World, that his teeth chattered so violently, that some of them broke.

Satellites measured the coldest temperature in recorded history on August 10, 2010 at −93.2 °C (−135.8 °F), in East Antarctica.  The Amundsen-Scott weather station at the South Pole reports the average daily temperature for March, at -50.3°C (-58.54°F).

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Routes taken to the South Pole by Amundsen (Red) and Scott (Green)

On hearing of the fate of his erstwhile rival, Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen is quoted as saying “I would gladly forgo any honour or money if thereby I could have saved Scott his terrible death”.

A century of ice and snow have covered the bodies, the camp and the cross alike. Pressed ever downward by the weight of the snow and ice and creeping seaward with the glacier, the corpses are encased seventy-five-feet down in the Ross Ice Shelf and inching their way outward, expected to reach the Ross Sea sometime around 2276.  Perhaps to break off and float away, at the heart of some unknown future iceberg.

Feature image, top of page “Final call: From left-righy, Dr E. A. Wilson, Lt. H. R, Bowers, Captain Robert Falcon Scott, Petty Officer Taff Evans and Capt. L. E.G. Oates pose for a photo not long before they died on their way back from their trek“.  H/T Guardian.com

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August 7, 1573, El Draque

Twenty tons of silver and gold were captured by the raid, far too much to carry.  With Spanish forces hot on their heels, Drake and his party buried part of the trove in the jungle and another part on the beach, probably feeding into later tales of pirate’s buried treasure.

When the casual student of history can hark back to a time when “Britannia ruled the waves”, it’s hard to remember that the world’s great naval powers were once Spain and Portugal.

In the late 15th century, the two determined to slice the world into “spheres of influence”, in order to minimize conflict.   The Treaty of Tordesillas signed in 1494 between the Pope and the respective monarchs, bequeathed most of the Americas, to Spain.

Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of Wittenburg Church fewer than twenty years later, triggering the Protestant reformation.  The non-Catholic powers of next-century Europe were not about to recognize Papal authority, nor abide by his treaties.

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Treaty of Tordesillas, 1494, dividing the world into Portuguese and Spanish spheres of influence

Spanish authorities were deeply suspicious of foreign encroachment onto their territory, and murdered several hundred French Huguenot inhabitants of Fort Caroline near the future Jacksonville Florida, in 1565.  At the time, the French had already surrendered.

In 1562-’63 and again in 1564-’65, the English adventurer John Hawkins engaged in trading expeditions with Spanish colonies in the New World, with tacit approval from the British crown. Such trade was technically illegal according to the 1494 treaty, but local authorities were happy to trade for slaves.  Hawkins received glowing testimonials from local magistrates and governors, often in exchange for bribes, and took orders from his Spanish clients for a third such journey.

Spanish authorities were alarmed at this challenge to their monopoly.  The sneak attack of September 23, 1568 at the port of San Juan de Ulúa was a humiliating defeat for the English, resulting in the loss of five British ships and the death of hundreds of British seamen.  One-hundred or more survivors were stranded on the beach and later tortured, burned at the stake, or sentenced to penal servitude for life on Spanish galleys, following the arrival of the Inquisition in 1571.

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The Battle of San Juan de Ulúa

Hawkins’ relative and protégé Francis Drake was forced to swim for it, and flee for his life at the helm of the Judith, one of only two ships and a mere 70 or 80 crew, to survive. Three more turned up a year later, in Nova Scotia.

Being forced like that to abandon his relative and sponsor to fend for himself was a searing humiliation, leaving Drake with a deep and abiding hatred for all things Catholic.  Most especially, Spain.

Drake launched his first major undertaking in 1572, attacking Spanish operations on the Isthmus of Panama, where Peruvian silver and gold were moved overland to the coastal Caribbean town of of Nombre de Dios, where galleons awaited to remove the treasure to Spain. Drake and a crew including French privateers attacked a Spanish mule train in March 1573 with the help of local Maroons, African slaves escaped from the Spanish.

Twenty tons of silver and gold were captured by the raid, too much to carry.  With Spanish forces hot on their heels, Drake and his party buried part of the trove in the jungle and another part on the beach, probably feeding into later tales of pirate’s buried treasure.

The triumphant expedition returned to Plymouth this day in 1573, heroes in England and reviled in Spain. Gonzalo González del Castillo described “El Draque”, in a letter to King Philip II, “The people of quality dislike him for having risen so high from such a lowely family; the rest say he is the main cause of wars“.

At one point during that raid of 1572-’73, Drake had climbed a tree to scout the vicinity, becoming the first English man to see the Pacific ocean. He remarked that one day, he wanted an Englishman to sail those waters. He himself gained that chance in 1577, when Elizabeth I sent Drake on an expedition against Spanish holdings along the Pacific coast of the Americas.

Historians disagree to this day, whether this was a voyage of exploration, piracy or merely an effort to poke the Spanish King in the eye.  When it was over, Drake was the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe.

This was the third such voyage. The Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan was first, setting out 58 years earlier with 5 ships and 200 men.  Magellan himself didn’t make it.  He was killed on a Philippine beach in 1521.  Eighteen of his men straggled back on two ships, in 1522.

Death of Magellan
Death of Ferdinand Magellan, 1521

Ordered by King Charles I to colonize the Spice Islands for Spain, explorer García Jofre de Loaísa would be the second, leaving in 1525 with 450 men aboard seven ships.  None of his vessels ever made it back, nor did the explorer.  25 men returned to Spain in 1536, under Portuguese guard.

The Pelican left Plymouth, England on November 15, 1577 with four other ships and 164 men. The weather was so rancid they soon had to turn back, seeking shelter in Falmouth, Cornwall, and finally returning to Plymouth, where the whole thing started.  The small flotilla set out once again on December 13 after making repairs and soon joined by a sixth ship, the Mary.

Drake crossed the Atlantic and made it to Patagonia, when it seems one of his people got on his last nerve. Thomas Doughty had been given command of the captured Portuguese ship Santa Maria, renamed the Mary, when he caught Drake’s brother Thomas stealing from the vessel’s cargo. One thing led to another and Doughty himself was accused as “a conjurer and a seditious person”. Doughty was brought before a shipboard trial on charges of treason and witchcraft, establishing a principle which lasts to this day, that a ship’s captain was absolute ruler, regardless of the rank or social class of the passengers.

Golden Hind Replica
Golden Hinde, replica

Thomas Doughty lost his head, near the spot where Magellan had put his own mutineers to death, a half century earlier.  Drake renamed his flagship the “Golden Hind” (Female deer), probably to smooth over the Doughty episode with the expedition’s sponsors.

From the 16th century on, the Spanish Main was a rich source of treasure. The three sided box enclosing the Caribbean from Florida through Mexico and along the northern coast of South America was a ripe territory for pirates and buccaneers, though that became less so as you traveled south along the South American coast, and unheard of at this time in the Pacific.

Spanish_MainReduced to three ships by August 1578, Drake made the straits of Magellan, emerging alone into the Pacific that September.

El Draque captured a Spanish ship laden with 25,000 pesos of gold near Lima, when he heard about a galleon sailing west toward Manila.  The aptly named “Cacafuego”,  (“Fireshitter”) would be the richest prize of the voyage, with a golden crucifix, jewels, 13 chests full of “royals of plate” (silver coins), 80 pounds of gold and 26 tons of silver.

After a fine dinner with the Cacafuego’s officers and passengers, Drake offloaded his captives, each with a gift appropriate to his rank, and a letter of safe conduct.

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Cacafuego, under full sail (left), under attack by Francis Drake

The expedition landed on the California coast in June 1579, claiming the land for the English Crown and calling it Nova Albion “New Britain”. The precise location was carefully guarded to keep it secret from the Spanish.  First-hand records from the voyage were destroyed in a Whitehall Palace fire in 1698.  Today Drakes Bay, about 30 miles from San Francisco, is anyone’s best guess.

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Drake’s Bay

The Golden Hind sailed into Plymouth, England with Drake and 59 remaining crew on September 26, 1580. The half share owed to the queen surpassed the crown’s entire income for the year.  Awarded a knighthood the following year, Sir Francis Drake was the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe.

Dysentery brought the seafaring career of El Draque to an end in January 1596, off the coast of Panama. Dressed in his armor and buried at sea near Portobelo, Divers have searched for his coffin, to this day.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

June 7, 1942 The Alcan Highway

The project received a new sense of urgency on June 7, when a Japanese force of 1,140 took control of Attu Island, murdering Charles Jones, a ham radio operator and weather reporter from Ohio, and taking his wife Etta prisoner, along with 45 Aleuts. 

Discussions concerning a road to Alaska began as early as 1865, when Western Union contemplated plans to install a telegraph wire from the United States to Siberia. The concept picked up steam with the proliferation of automobiles in the 1920s, but the idea was a hard sell for Canadian authorities. Such a road would necessarily pass through their territory, and the Canadian government believed the project would have little impact, benefiting no more than a few thousand people in the Yukon.

In the days following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Guam and Wake Island fell to Imperial Japanese forces , making it clear that parts of the Pacific coast were vulnerable.

Priorities were changing for both the United States, and Canada.

The Alaska Territory was particularly exposed. Situated only 750 miles from the nearest Japanese base, the Aleutian Island chain had but 12 medium bombers, 20 pursuit planes, and fewer than 22,000 troops in the entire territory, an area four times the size of Texas.

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Colonel Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr., son of the Confederate commander who famously received Ulysses S. Grant’s “Unconditional Surrender” ultimatum at Fort Donelson (“I propose to move immediately, upon your works”), was in charge of the Alaska Defense Command.  Buckner made his made point, succinctly. “If the Japanese come here, I can’t defend Alaska. I don’t have the resources.”

The Army approved construction of the Alaska Highway in February 1942, the project receiving the blessings of Congress and President Roosevelt within the week. Canada agreed to allow the project, provided that the United States pay the full cost, and the roadway and other facilities be turned over to Canadian authorities at the end of the war.

Construction began in March as trains moved hundreds of pieces of construction equipment to Dawson Creek, the last stop on the Northern Alberta Railway. At the other end, 10,670 American troops arrived in Alaska that spring, to begin what their officers called “the biggest and hardest job since the Panama Canal.”

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Dawson Creek, 1942

In-between lay over 1,500 miles of unmapped, hostile, wilderness.

The project received a new sense of urgency on June 7, when a Japanese force of 1,140 took control of Attu Island, murdering Charles Jones, a ham radio operator and weather reporter from Ohio, and taking his wife Etta prisoner, along with 45 Aleuts.  Adding to the urgency was the fact that the Alaskan winter permits no more than an eight-month construction window.  That period was already well underway.

Construction began at both ends and the middle at once, with nothing but the most rudimentary engineering sketches. A route through the Rocky Mountains had yet to be identified.

06162017_HighwayRadios of the age didn’t work across the Rockies, and the mail was erratic.  The only passenger service available was run by the Yukon Southern airline, a run which locals called the “Yukon Seldom”.  For construction battalions at Dawson Creek, Delta Junction and Whitehorse, it was faster to talk to each other through military officials in Washington, DC.

Moving men to assigned locations was one thing.  Transporting 11,000 pieces of heavy equipment, to say nothing of supplies needed by man and machine, was quite another.

alcan-hwyTent pegs were useless in the permafrost, while the body heat of sleeping soldiers meant waking up in mud. Partially thawed lakes meant that supply planes could use neither pontoon nor ski, as Black flies swarmed the troops by day.  Hungry bears raided camps at night, looking for food.

Engines had to run around the clock, as it was impossible to restart them in the cold. Engineers waded up to their chests building pontoons across freezing lakes, battling mosquitoes in the mud and the moss laden arctic bog. Ground which had been frozen for thousands of years was scraped bare and exposed to sunlight, creating a deadly layer of muddy quicksand in which bulldozers sank in what seemed like stable roadbed.

Alaska Highway Black Soldiers

That October, Refines Sims Jr. of Philadelphia, with the all-black 97th Engineers, was driving a bulldozer 20 miles east of the Alaska-Yukon line when the trees in front of him toppled to the ground. Sims slammed his machine into reverse as a second bulldozer came into view, driven by Kennedy, Texas Private Alfred Jalufka. North had met south, and the two men jumped off their machines, grinning. Their triumphant handshake was photographed by a fellow soldier and published in newspapers across the country, becoming an unintended first step toward desegregating the US military.

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A gathering at Soldier’s Summit on November 21, 1942 celebrated “completion” of the route, though the “highway” remained impassable for most vehicles, until 1943.

Alaska-Hwy-historyNPR ran an interview about this story back in the eighties, in which an Inupiaq elder was recounting his memories. He had grown up in a world as it existed for hundreds of years, without so much as an idea of internal combustion. He spoke of the day that he first heard the sound of an engine, and went out to see a giant bulldozer making its way over the permafrost. The bulldozer was being driven by a black operator, probably one of the 97th Engineers Battalion soldiers.  The old man’s comment, as best I can remember it, was a classic. “It turned out”, he said, “that the first white person I ever saw, was a black man”.

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If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

A Love of History

If you are so inclined, there’s nothing like a visit to the place where history happened, to make the story come alive.

“Today in History” will be suspended for a time, following the passing of the man for whom I am namesake: Lieutenant Colonel (retired), Richard B. “Rick” Long, Sr.

I have a few new articles tee’d up to post automatically. If you’re interested, please sign up on the right, to receive email notifications when they come out.

Thank you for your interest.

Rick Long, Jr.

Long Family "Blue/Gray Ramble", Gettysburg, 2012
The Patriarch explains the story of John Burns, the civilian old timer who came out to help fight back the invasion of his town. He fought with the Union forces on the second day and then, having been “nicked” three times by three bullets, he quietly went back to his farm to await the end of the battle. Long Family “Blue/Gray Ramble”, Gettysburg,
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Walking with the Rebel side of the family. Long Family “Blue/Gray Ramble”, 32nd North Carolina, Culp’s Hill
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Long Family “Blue/Gray Ramble, Petersburg Campaign
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Long Family “Blue/Gray Ramble, Spotsylvania

 

 

Featured image, top:  Rick Long, Sr., remembering the 17th PA Cavalry Regiment at Gettysburg, with which our ancestor served as Blacksmith.

Photography by my son and Rick Sr.’s grandson Daniel Christopher Long, an apple who didn’t fall far from the tree.

January 9, 1493 Mermaid

Columbus seems not to have been impressed, describing these mermaids as “not half as beautiful as they are painted.”

“Pax Romana”, or “Roman Peace”, refers to a period between the 1st and 2nd century AD, when the force of Roman arms subdued most everyone standing against them.  The conquered peoples described the period differently.  Sometime in 83 or 84AD, Calgacus of the Caledonian Confederacy in Northern Scotland, said “They make a desert and call it peace”.

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The conquests of Genghis Khan and his successors accomplished much the same during the 13th and 14th century.  The “Pax Mongolica” effectively connected Europe with Asia, making it safe to travel the “Silk Road” from Britain in the west to China in the east.  Great caravans carrying Chinese silks and spices came to the west via transcontinental trade routes.  It was said of the era that “a maiden bearing a nugget of gold on her head could wander safely throughout the realm.”

Never mind the pyramids of skulls, over there.

The “Black Death” and the political fragmentation of the Mongol Empire brought that period to an end.  Muslim domination of Middle Eastern trade routes made overland travel to China and India increasingly difficult in the 15th century.  After Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, such travel became next to impossible.   Europe began to look for a water route to the East.

flat-earth

It’s popular to believe that 15th century Europeans thought the world was flat, but that’s a myth.  Otherwise, the cats would have pushed everything over the edge, by now.

The fact that the world is round had been understood for over a thousand years, though 15th century mapmakers often got places and distances wrong.  In 1474, Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli detailed a scheme for sailing westward to China, India and the Spice Islands.  He believed that Japan, which he called “Cipangu”, was larger than it is, and farther to the east of “Cathay” (China).  Toscanelli vastly overestimated the size of the Eurasian landmass, and the Americas were left out altogether.

This is the map that Christopher Columbus took with him in 1492.

mermaidColumbus had taken his idea of a westward trade route to the Portuguese King, to Genoa and to Venice, before he came to Ferdinand and Isabella in 1486.  At that time the Spanish monarchs had a Reconquista to tend to, but they were ready in 1492.  The Nina, Pinta and the Santa Maria sailed that August.

By January 9, 1493, the expedition had been at sea for six months.  Sailing off the coast of Hispaniola, what we now call the Dominican Republic, Columbus spotted three “mermaids”.

They were Manatee, part of the order “Sirenia”.  “Sirens” are the beautiful sisters, half birdlike creatures who live by the sea, according to ancient Greek mythology.  These girls, according to myth, sang a song so beautiful that sailors were hypnotized, crashing their ships into rocks in their efforts to reach them.

ManateeColumbus seems not to have been impressed, describing these mermaids as “not half as beautiful as they are painted.”

Small wonder.  These marine herbivores measure 10’ to 13′ from nose to tail, and weigh in at 800-1,200 lbs.

Not everyone was quite so dismissive.  A hundred years later, the English explorer John Smith reported seeing a mermaid, almost certainly a Manatee. It was “by no means unattractive”, he said, but I’m not so sure.  I think it’s possible that Mr. Smith needed to get out a little more.

 

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it too. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.