Message from a balloon. . . How did it come to the VHS?
While researching Arctic explorations for a web feature on the ill-fated 1879-1881 Jeannette expedition, I came across a curious scrap of paper in our manuscripts collection. On a piece of paper less than two inches in height and about seven inches long is a note addressed to Sir John Franklin explaining where provisions have been left and detailing the intended course of HMS Resolute. The note is dated August 31, 1859, and was dispatched by a balloon somewhere near Beechey Island in present-day Nunavut, Canada.
In 1845, Sir John Franklin embarked from Great Britain to explore Arctic waters in search of the Northwest Passage. Five years later, the Resolute left Britain on a search and rescue mission looking for Franklin and his crew. Without the aid of telegraph or other modern communication devices, the crew of the Resolute seems to have relied on sending notes by hot air balloon in an attempt to provide rendezvous points.
In August 1853, the Resolute became encased in an ice floe, and in April 1854 the captain issued orders to abandon ship. The crew was rescued, but no salvage mission was attempted for the Resolute. In September 1855, however, American whalers found the Resolute adrift and sailed her to Connecticut. Upon hearing of her discovery, Sen. James Mason of Virginia presented Congress with a bill to restore and return the ship to England as a gesture of “national courtesy.” This bill was proposed at a time when tensions were running high between the United States and Britain because Britain was pressuring the U.S. government to abolish slavery. After much debate, however, Congress resolved to return the Resolute, and on December 13, 1856, the Resolute was presented to Queen Victoria.
In 1880, President Rutherford B. Hayes received a large crate delivered to the White House. The president and his staff had no idea that Queen Victoria had sent him a dark oak desk with repeating carved panels. The desk had been made from the best timbers of the Resolute after she was decommissioned in 1879. Accompanying the desk was a brass plaque that read: “Presented by the Queen of Great Britain and Ireland to the President of the United States.” Many of our presidents, including President Obama, have sat at this desk, which is in the Oval Office. In fact, a photograph of President Obama standing in front of the Resolute desk is currently on display in the National Geographic exhibition, The President’s Photographer: Fifty Years Inside the Oval Office, which is on exhibit at the VHS from March 4 to July 8, 2013.
What intrigues me most about this story is that a scrap of paper that traveled by ship from England and by hot air balloon in the Arctic circle is now at the Virginia Historical Society. The HMS Resolute, which searched for Sir John Franklin and his crew, was also retrieved, and a part of it now sits in the White House. But Franklin and his crew, without whom none of this would have occurred, were never found, although in recent years speculation suggests that they died on Beechey Island. But a further mystery remains: how could a scrap of paper be retrieved from the Arctic circle and placed in the collections of the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond, Virginia? Regrettably, we have no record of when we acquired this item, suggesting that it has been in our collections for a long time. We may never learn how we acquired this unique item.
Katherine Wilkins is Assistant Librarian at the Virginia Historical Society.