What Does the Northwest Passage Have to do with a Historic U.S. Artifact?
The Northwest Passage and reclaimed wood have a history together - in the form of the famous Resolute desk. In order to fully explain the significance of the Northwest Passage to arguably some of the most significant pieces of reclaimed wood in history, we have to start near the beginning.
During the 19th century, the Northwest Passage had become increasingly important to Britain for trade routes – and even more important to its naval officers. (With no current wars happening, an expedition was one of the few ways to get a promotion at that time.)
A Search for Lost Ships
Although there were many earlier expeditions, our story starts in 1845 when a “lavishly equipped” two-ship expedition (HMS Erebus and HMS Terror) led by Sir John Franklin sailed to the Canadian Arctic to chart the last unknown swaths of the Northwest Passage.
Early records show Franklin died in 1847 and Captain Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier took over command. In 1848, the expedition reportedly abandoned the two ships and its members fled south across the tundra by sledge.
Meanwhile, as concerns rose about the fate of the arctic expedition, the British government sent expeditions in search of its lost ships.
However, there were just a few existing warships deemed suitable, so the government bought six merchant ships, which were converted for exploration purposes, between 1848 and 1850. They included two steamships – the HMS Pioneer and HMS Intrepid – and four sailing ships (the Resolute, Assistance, Enterprise, and Investigator).
The HMS Resolute, formerly known as the Barque-rigged “Ptarmigan”, was purchased in 1850 and renamed a month later. To make the Resolute worthy of arctic travel, it was serviced by the Blackwall Yard shipyard. Modifications included the installation of strong oak timbers, an internal heating system, and a polar bear as a figurehead.
During 1850-51, the Resolute, Assistance, Pioneer, and Intrepid sailed the eastern Arctic under the command of Horatio Thomas Austin. The expedition found traces of Franklin's first winter camp on Beechey Island but failed to find Franklin, so they headed back home.
After returning to England, Austin’s group received supplies, were placed under the command of Sir Edward Belcher, and in 1852, headed off again.
This time the Belcher expedition added a fifth ship, the North Star, which was kept at Beechey Island as a depot ship. Belcher decided to split the expedition, sending the Resolute and Intrepid west in search of Franklin. Shortly thereafter, the Enterprise, Resolute – led at the time by a Captain Kellett – and the Investigator also headed west while the North Star remained moored at the island.
The Search Moves Eastward
Belcher found evidence of Franklin’s fate by expanding the search to the eastern Canadian arctic. Records show that the Investigator, under Robert McClure, traversed the Northwest Passage from west to east during 1850 to 1854, partly by ship and partly by sledge.
As it turns out, McClure's ship became trapped in the ice for three winters near Banks Island, at the western end of Viscount Melville Sound.
During the spring and summer of 1853, the crews of the Resolute and Intrepid sledged along in search of clues to Franklin's whereabouts in hope to locate Investigator and Enterprise. They found neither Franklin nor the Enterprise, but they did succeed in finding and rescuing Captain McClure and his crew in April 1853.
McClure was ordered to abandon the Investigator due to the ship still being frozen in ice. The lack of a proper spring and summer thaw had kept the ship locked in the ice. The conditions had caused severe hardship for the crew, forcing them to reduce their rations for over an entire year.
Before winter set in, and while the passage remained open near Melville and Dealy Island, the 1852–53 winter camp was dissolved and Resolute and Intrepid sailed eastward. But, in August 1853 – yes August – a cold front caused the passage to freeze, encasing Resolute in ice.
Interestingly, since the flow direction of the water – and therefore the ice – was from the west to the east, the ship moved east at about 1.5 nautical miles (1.7 mi) per day. The crew prepared the ship for the winter by stowing her sails and upper rigging below deck. However, The Resolute was still encased by the ice in the spring of 1854.
In April, Belcher ordered Captain Kellett to abandon the Resolute. Despite his protest, Kellett obeyed orders and prepared the ship for winter. In May, Captain Kellett left Resolute locked in the slowly moving flow of ice and led his men across the ice to reach the ships of the expedition at Beechey Island.
The British Government announced in The London Gazette that the ships, including Resolute, were “still Her Majesty's property”, but no salvage operation was attempted.
In July 1855 Captain McClure and his officers and men had been awarded the prize of 10,000 British pounds for “discovering the Northwest Passage” by a Select Committee of the House of Commons. This was despite the fact that McClure and his men had been rescued by Captain Kellett of HMS Resolute and had covered some 40% of the distance from the Beaufort Sea to Baffin Bay on foot across the ice.
Therefore, the true discovery of the Northwest Passage, namely by taking a ship through it, had yet to be achieved.
A Twist of Fate
During this time, relations between the United States and Britain were strained. On September 10, 1855, the abandoned Resolute was found adrift by the American whaler George Henry, captained by James Budington of Groton, Connecticut, in an ice flow off Baffin Island – 1200 miles from where she had been abandoned.
It seems that Budington and his crew were not prepared for what they were to find when they boarded the ship. An October 1856 New York Journal described Captain Budington and his crew's encounter:
“Finally, stealing over the side, they found everything stowed away in proper order for desertion—spars hauled up to one side and bound, boats piled together, and hatches closed. Everything wore the silence of the tomb.
Finally reaching the cabin door they broke in and found their way in the darkness to the table. On it they accidentally turned on a box of lucifer matches; in a moment one was ignited, the glowing light revealed a candle; it was lit and before the astonished gaze of these men exposed a scene that appeared to be rather one of enchantment than reality.
Upon a massive table was a metal teapot, glistening as if new, also a large volume of Scott's family Bible, together with glasses and decanters filled with choice liquors. Nearby was Captain Kellett's chair, a piece of massive furniture, over which had been thrown, as if to protect this seat from vulgar occupation, the royal flag of Great Britain.”
Buddington split his crew and took 13 men with him on the Resolute. He arrived in New London, Connecticut on Christmas Eve.
Restoring the Resolute
Although most of the expeditions prior to 1856 in search of the lost Franklin expedition were funded by either the British government or by public subscription from within the British Empire. Two of those expeditions were funded by Henry Grinnell, a New York merchant and shipowner in New Bedford, Mass.
Interestingly, additional assistance to his expeditions was offered by the United States Government. As a result, Senator James Mason of Virginia presented Congress with the bill to restore Resolute and return her to England as a gesture of "national courtesy". Grinnell wrote in support of the bill. The United States Congress then purchased the Resolute for $40,000.
Once refitted, Commander Henry J. Hartstene sailed Resolute to England to present the ship to Queen Victoria on December 13, 1856, as a token of friendship. The Resolute then served in the Royal Navy from 1856 to 1879 but never left home waters.
The Resolute Desk is Born
Now here’s my favorite part of the story…
Retired in 1879, The HMS Resolute was later salvaged for timber. Queen Victoria requested at least three desks to be made from the white oak timbers and mahogany woodwork of the ship. They were constructed by cabinet makers at the Joiner's Shop of Chatham Dockyard.
A large partner's desk was presented to then-U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880 as a gesture of thanks for the rescue and return of the Resolute. Since then, this desk—known as “the Resolute desk”—has been used by every American president except Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford.
Seven presidents have used it as their official desk in the Oval Office, but some have had it in their private study within the Executive Residence. Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first to remove it from the Oval Office, but it was returned to the Oval Office first by John F. Kennedy and then by Jimmy Carter.
A second desk, called the Grinnell Desk or the Queen Victoria Desk, was also made from the timbers of the Resolute. This smaller desk constructed to accommodate a woman was presented to the widow of Henry Grinnell in 1880 in recognition of her husband's generous contributions to the search for Franklin.
In 1983, it was given to the New Bedford Whaling Museum and is in their collection in New Bedford, Massachusetts.
A third desk, or more accurately a writing table, was kept by Queen Victoria. It remains part of the Royal Collection.
To learn more about the Resolute desk and its connection with the White House,