During the 1840’s the explorer Sir John Franklin lost his life in the Arctic while trying to unwrap the icy cover of the North West Passage, the fabled short cut to Asia and her exotic treasures, hidden behind the shroud of the frozen shores of northern Canada.
It took until 1852 before pressure from Lady Franklin, backed by the general public, forced the Admiralty into sending the newly formed “Arctic Searching Expedition”. This mercy mission lead by Captain Sir Edward Belcher, consisted of five ships; H.M.S Resolute, H.M.S Intrepid, H.M.S Assistance, H.M.S Pioneer and H.M.S The North Star plus over two hundred and twenty men.
The Arctic Squadron left southern England on the 21 April 1852 with George Frederick McDougall as the sailing master of Resolute, along with the Admiralty orders to unlock the puzzle of the North West Passage and to locate the missing seamen that had so far eluded mortal man.
The Squadron made its way north, crossing the Atlantic Ocean, before arriving at Melville Bay to the west of Greenland. Here they followed the orders laid down by Admiral Sir John Barrow to split the search into three groups: H.M.S. The North Star (a depot ship) was to be stationed as a floating refuge to the south of the pack ice limits. H.M.S. Assistance and H.M.S. Pioneer were to sail north up the Wellington Channel, while H.M.S. Resolute with her steam tender H.M.S. Intrepid were to continue west.
During the short Arctic summer the crews of the Resolute and Intrepid explored the northern coast of Melville Bay searching for any clue that may give light to the whereabouts of the stranded sailors and their blocked ships. On the 12 th October 1852 while in Winter Harbour they recovered a Naval metal cylinder that had been carefully placed on a sandstone boulder. Opening the weather beaten tube, they found it contained the Journal of Proceedings and Charts up to April 1852 of another British expedition lost in the Arctic lead by Captain McClure from H.M.S. Investigator. This frozen distress beacon give more evidence to the existence of the North West Passage and that they had fellow countrymen close by, stranded in the ice to the north of their present position.
It was now the end of October and the low sunlight was disappearing, the moving ice flows had refrozen, blocking the H.M.S Resolute and H.M.S Intrepid in their tracks for the long glacial winter months.
Next April the sun returned and so did the morale of the men but the ice refused to thaw. With the two ships icebound and drifting with the pack (east of the Barrow Straights), all exploration to find the Investigator and her crew had to be undertaken by sledge. Lady luck was watching them Leopold McClintock found the Investigator after travelling for over one thousand miles over land. This mission saved the life of the ships crew and confirmed beyond doubt that the North West Passage existed. One of the puzzles of the Victorian era had at last been unlocked.
Another winter had to be endured in unbearable climatic conditions, food was becoming a dilemma and scurvy was starting to affect the sailors, the lack of fresh fruit, vegetables and half rations were taking their revenge. With the arrival of spring the next year and the strong prospect of the pack ice not breaking up in the summer, the orders of Captain Belcher to abandon the Resolute and Intrepid had to be obeyed.
So on May 15th 1853 with no new information on the disappearance of Sir Franklin or his crew, George McDougall and the surviving forty-two sailors set off overland, hand pulling their laden sledges over the slushy pack ice to locate the rest of the expedition and the floating refuge, situated off Beechey Island. They trekked by foot for one month, encountering conditions that today we would class as impossible before the crews of Assistance and Pioneer, who had also abandoned their ships due to the pack ice, at last discovered McDougall and the other sailors, suffering from frostbite and exhaustion only ten miles from their goal. The Arctic Squadron was now down to one ship, it was the end of the Arctic Searching Expedition, leaving only one unpopular course open to Captain Sir Edward Belcher; a return to England on The North Star.
The following summer Mother Nature gave her own twist to the tale by letting the abandoned H.M.S Resolute float free from the grip of the ice. Over the next twenty-four months she drifted, without a soul on board or a stitch of canvas set, for over one thousand miles. On the 10th September 1855 James M. Buddington sited her from the American whaler George Henry on the northern shores of the Davis Straits. Captain Buddington decided that she would fetch a high salvage prize, so after following her for a few days she was boarded with a skeleton crew and sailed back to the United States before bring sold to Congress for $40.000.
The American government then refitted the H.M.S. Resolute down to the finest detail; even the officer's libraries had been restored. On completion of the work they sent her back across the Atlantic as a private gesture to Queen Victoria and a token of respect between the two nations. The days of this great ship were numbered; her time as a means of transport concluded, so eventually she was broken for her wood and left to rest. As a sign of appreciation to the United States, fragments of the ship’s timbers were used to make a desk, which was presented to the then President of the United States; Rutherford B Hayes. It can now be found in the Oval Room of the White House, where the Resolute Desk has been in permanent use since President John F. Kennedy’s term of office.