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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.

Note sent by balloon in search of Sir John Franklin in 1850 (Mss4 R3125 a 1).

Note sent by balloon in search of Sir John Franklin in 1850 (Mss4 R3125 a 1).

On the reverse side of the note are details where the H.M.S. Resolute plans to drop provisions and their intended course (Mss4 R3125 a 1).

On the reverse side of the note are details where the H.M.S. Resolute plans to drop provisions and their intended course (Mss4 R3125 a 1).

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.

Obama with Carlton Philadephia's family

President Obama with the family of White House staffer Carlton Philadelphia standing in front of the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office. This photograph is a part of the National Geographic exhibit, The President’s Photographer: Fifty Years Inside the Oval Office, on display at the VHS from March 4- 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.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. 04/29/2013 8:45 pm

    Fascinating stuff! Elaine Hoag, former archivist at the National Library of Canada, has written two extensive pieces about the shipboard printing on board HMS Resolute and other vessels; see her Caxtons of the North and “Shipboard Printing on the Franklin Search Expeditions” (Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada, Spring 2000). She doesn’t seem to have come upon this slip, but describes the press used to print it, and other slips of this kind.


    • 04/30/2013 9:58 am

      Oh, wow! Thank you so much for sharing. I look forward to reading more about this. Thank you so much for letting me know about Elaine Hoag’s writings!


  2. Elaine Hoag permalink
    12/13/2013 6:35 pm

    Hi, Katherine and Russell

    I did come across this slip while researching Arctic shipboard printing. I’d be delighted to know how your institution came to acquire it, if you have come across this information since April 2013.

    Elaine Hoag


    • 12/16/2013 4:00 pm

      Dear Ms. Hoag,

      I am writing in response to your question about the provenance of the item from the HMS Resolute. (Ms. Wilkins has moved on to new challenges.) I am afraid that we have not accrued any more information on the background of this item. Although infrequent, we occasionally encounter the message “provenance unknown,” or “In the possession of the Virginia Historical Society as of 1901”—which typically reflect, of course, the dearth of archival administration in the 19th century.

      I am sorry that we could not provide more information, but thanks for your interest in the manuscript.

      Best Regards,

      John McClure
      Reference Department Manager


      • 12/16/2013 9:31 pm

        I believe I can make an educated guess as to how these slips ended up at the Virginia Historical Society. Robert Randolph Carter was an officer aboard the Brig “Rescue” in 1850 at the time these slips — among the first — were distributed via balloon from Beechey Island. He noted in his diary for Sept. 2nd 1850 that “One of the balloons for distributing news over the Arctic was sent up from Beechey Island during the gale …three of the papers were found by a party from the Advance about five miles from Beechey which were probably some of the first bundle showing that it had worked well this far” (published diary pp. 66-67). Robert Randolph Carter was a Virginian from a prominent family, and I see that several fonds at the Society — under the Minor Family, the Carter Family, and the Bagby Family, contain some of his papers. I’d be willing to wager that he obtained a slip himself, or from one of his compatriots (“Rescue” and “Advance” were the American squadron), and kept it as a souvenir.


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