[A farewell letter to his daughter, and Arctic souvenirs from the Jeannette's final port of call.]
DE LONG George Washington (1879.)
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PREVIOUSLY UNKNOWN LETTER FROM A DOOMED CAPTAIN
ALS to "my beloved little daughter." 2pp. 4to. Ruled paper, old folds. San Francisco, July 6th 1879. [With:] Black velvet fur lined slippers with American eagle motif in red, white, blue and pink beadwork. 235 by 25mm each [Plus:] Carved fork and two knives, marine ivory, crosshatched embellishments 138 by 17mm each [And:] US Navy 'fouled anchor' cap badge, textured brass with pinback fastening, "MSC" incised to verso. 45 by 28mm. [Also:] Two cartes de visites, one a copy print of George W. De Long in his naval uniform, [NY], Fredericks' Knickerbocker Family Portrait Gallery, [c.1881], the other Sylvie De Long, Hâvre, A. Caccia, [c.1878]. San Francisco and Alaska,
An emotive, and entirely unpublished letter from Captain George Washington De Long to his seven year old daughter Sylvie, written two days before the departure of his ill-fated ship Jeannette to the Arctic. Accompanying the letter are a pair of fur lined black velvet moccasin-style slippers, with a beadwork design of the American eagle, three pieces of Inuit carved cutlery, and a US Navy cap badge. The slippers and cutlery were likely sent as souvenirs from the Jeannette's final supply stop at St. Michael, Alaska, in August of 1879. Two typed exhibition cards by a De Long descendant corroborate the origins of the moccasins and utensils.
The letter reads in part:
"My beloved little daughter
I am going away in two days for the Arctic, and though it may be a long time before you see me again, I want you always to love me and remember me in your prayers. I leave you to your mothers love and care and I know you will be a good girl and love her dearly all your life. [...]
I am already looking forward to the time when you, your mama and myself will be happily re-united at the end of this cruise [...] When your lessons seem long and difficult say to yourself "it is for my papa's sake", and they may seem easier. But do not forget that next to God your mama is everything to you, and so love her that she may be happy in you whatever comes to pass.
Do not let her worry for me for God will hold me in his keeping, and He will see me every hour of the day and night; and if you pray for my safety He will surely answer your prayer and tell you in your dreams where I am. [...]
Your loving papa
Privately funded by the impulsive and extravagant newspaperman James Gordon Bennett Jr., the U.S. Arctic Expedition (1879-81) was a highly publicised attempt to reach the North Pole via the Bering Strait. In the days before the Jeannette's departure, Captain De Long and his wife Emma were posted in a suite at the opulent Palace Hotel in San Francisco, no doubt from where this letter was written. Their daughter Sylvie was no stranger to her father's ship. She had accompanied her parents on the one hundred and sixty six-day preparatory cruise of the Jeannette from Le Havre to California, via the Magellen Strait. A little over a month after the family arrived in San Francisco however, they returned to the east coast, this time by train to Washington DC. When George and Emma returned to San Francisco in May of 1879 for the final stages of expedition planning and provisioning, Sylvie was temporarily sent to stay with Emma's sister in Iowa so as not to further disrupt her education. Sylvie's voyage must have been a grand adventure for the young girl, and the chance to spend such an extended period with her father, seeing him in his domain as Captain of the ship, can only have greatened the pain of separation.
The days before departure saw the De Longs thrust to the forefront of American society. Bennett's extensive and calculated press coverage, plus the legitimacy bestowed by the President's endorsement of it as an official (though privately funded) US Naval expedition, made the Jeannette front page news, and the De Longs toast of San Francisco. It is estimated that 10,000 people waved them off from the Embarcadero and the slopes of Telegraph Hill, and the US Army marked their departure with an eleven-gun salute from the ramparts of the Presidio.
The Jeannette sailed north to St Michael, Alaska, where De Long and his crew spent a fortnight before heading on in search of the Open Polar Sea. St Michael was major trading hub for fur trappers and Indigenous traders from the surrounding areas, and whilst the Jeannette awaited the arrival of their supply ship the Francis Hyde to refuel them with coal, De Long "commissioned the native Inuits to sew fur suits and sealskin blankets" (Sides, 147). This was also one of the last opportunities for the ship's crew to send letters and packages home aboard the returning Francis Hyde or the revenue cutter St. Paul (De Long, 88). The slippers and cutlery which accompany the letter were likely purchased by De Long as gifts for Sylvie during this final stop in Alaska. Both are clearly made using traditional Indigenous methods and materials, but it is interesting to note that the cutlery is fashioned as a miniature imitation of Anglo-European utensils, complete with textured differences between hilt and blade, as if made with steel components. The slippers, rather wonderfully, are emblazoned with an eagle motif drawn from the coat of arms of the United States complete with stars and stripes escutcheon, but rendered in fine Native beadwork. Whether commissioned especially by De Long as a patriotic gift for his daughter, or created by an Indigenous craftsperson in acknowledgement of the 1867 finalisation of the Alaska Purchase by the United States from Russia, they are a striking example of cultural exchange, and evidence of a distinctly American presence in the nineteenth-century Arctic.
After the Francis Hyde turned back from St. Michael, the Jeannette was fully provisioned and ready to pursue her course northwards. However, a meddlesome directive from Bennett required that De Long expend precious Arctic summertime seeking out the Swedish explorer Adolf Nordenskiöld and his ship the Vega, who were expected in the Bering Strait at the end of their own navigation of the Northeast Passage. Unbeknownst to either captain, the Vega and Jeannette had passed one another some weeks prior. It was not until August 31st when a frustrated De Long had found evidence of the Scandinavian camp at Kolyuchin Bay that he was finally free to press on in the direction of Wrangle Island.
However, progress was halted after just a few days sailing when the Jeannette became locked in immovable pack ice off the coast of Herald Island. She remained, drifting in this state for a terrible sixteen months, with the summer of 1880 offering no release. The ship finally sank in June of 1881, and the crew evacuated to march with dogs, sledges and small boats across the ice, in hope of reaching a settlement in Siberia from where they could communicate their plight. Further horrors followed, and of the thirty-three men who left San Francisco in 1867, only thirteen returned. De Long died of starvation in October 1881 near the Lena Delta, from where his diary was later recovered. His grieving widow Emma de Long would edit these with his other papers into The Voyage of the Jeannette, the official published narrative of the expedition.
Sylvie De Long grew up to serve as a Red Cross nurse in WWI, married and had two children. Her mother never remarried, and in 1938 she published her own memoir Explorer's Wife. Sylvie died in 1925, and Emma outlived her by another fifteen years, passing away at the age of ninety-one in 1940. These items came down through Sylvie's family by descent, and then into the trade.
Historian Hampton Sides' bestselling 2014 book In the Kingdom of Ice... quotes extensively from the papers of Emma De Long, loaned to him by a relative. These precious relics from Sylvie's collection add to this powerful story, showing one of the very final communications from a loving father about to alight into the unknown.
cf. Hampton Sides, In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette. New York, Anchor Books, 2014; George W. De Long & Emma Wotton De Long (ed.), The Voyage of the Jeannette, Boston, Houghton Mifflin & Co., 1884.
Stock Code: 239690