The Overland Expedition:
A Coast Guard Triumph
Paul H. Johnson
This article was first published in the September / October 1972 issue of the Coast Guard Academy Alumni Association The Bulletin (Vol. XXXIV, No. 5), pages 63-71.
News of the whalers’ peril was brought out of the Arctic by the whaleship KARLUK. Whaling interests in San Francisco, through the city Chamber of Commerce, immediately petitioned President McKinley for assistance. Over the years, the whaling industry had suffered a series of heavy blows. In 1865 the Confederate raider SHENANDOAH sank eleven whaling vessels. In 1871, thirty-three New Bedford whaling ships had been trapped in the ice and crushed off Point Barrow. Twelve hundred crewmen barely escaped with their lives. Five years later fifty-three men and thirteen vessels laden with bone and oil were lost in the same area. Other less spectacular disasters had taken a steady toll of lives and property in the Arctic.
President McKinley, a compassionate man, responded to the appeal without delay. Undoubtedly his sympathies were heightened by memories of the political furor and embarrassment surrounding the lost Greely expedition a decade earlier.
At the time the press and Greely’s friends charged the Administration, unjustifiably, with having abandoned Lieutenant Greely to die in Arctic wastes.
(Left: The Revenue Cutter Bear)
Obeying his political as well as his humanitarian instincts, McKinley instructed the Treasury Department to entrust a rescue attempt to the Revenue Cutter Service, a logical selection from the standpoint of experience in the Arctic.
An urgent letter, dated November 15, 1897, from Secretary Lyman J. Gage to Captain Francis Tuttle, skipper of the BEAR, outlined the nature of the emergency and spelled out in great detail the ways and means by which the rescue might be effected. Gage began:
The best information obtainable gives the assurance of truth to the reports that a fleet of eight whaling vessels are icebound in the Arctic Ocean, somewhere in the vicinity of Point Barrow, and that the 265 persons who were, at last accounts, on board these vessels are in all probability in dire distress.
"Dire distress” must have seemed a monument of understatement to tile old Alaska hands of the BEAR. Most Arctic veterans and many Eskimos doubted the chances of success and questioned the wisdom of venturing into that area in the dead of winter. The plain fact was that advancing ice would not permit passage of a relief vessel until July at the earliest. Supplies at Point Barrow would be exhausted months before help could arrive by ship. Misery, starvation, death, and perhaps cannibalism seemed the fate of the icebound men.
It was inescapable that an overland expedition, admittedly a desperate recourse, was the only hope of reaching the stricken men alive.
(Right: officers of the Bear. CAPT Tuttle is in the front row, left-center with the large mustache--only his right hand is visible; LT Jarvis is to Tuttle's immediate right.)
Furthermore, many Cutter Service men were acquainted with travel by sled.
Dog sleds has been used in rescue operations, most notably in 1881 when Captain C. L. Hooper of the CORWIN dispatched four sled teams across the frozen sea to Siberia in search of the ill-fated exploring ship JEANNETTE.
Captain Shoemaker, Commandant of the Revenue Cutter Service, selected the BEAR with a volunteer crew for the rescue attempt. Originally a Dundee-built sealer, the BEAR had been purchased in 1884 to lead the successful search for survivors of the Greely expedition, lost in Arctic Canada. Built stoutly to work in heavy ice, the BEAR had, by 1897, won a reputation for reliability, with Captain “Roaring Mike” Healy as her first skipper in Alaskan waters. The BEAR was a barkentine with auxiliary steam power, 200 feet long, she had a beam of 32 feet, a draught of 18 feet, and was 703 tons net register. Her two-blade propeller could drive her at nine knots in a smooth sea under steam lone. Eight knots could be maintained under sail alone with a fair wind blowing strong.
In November, 1897, Captain Tuttle and his crew had just returned to Seattle following an arduous season on the BEAR in Arctic Alaskan waters. Upon receipt of the unexpected sailing orders from Washington the ship was hurried prepared for an emergency voyage back to Alaska. In three short weeks the BEAR sailed out of Seattle headed north. Speed was of utmost importance. Every day lost meant the impenetrable ice would be found further south of the Bering Strait, adding miles and days to the overland relief expedition.
Secretary Gage’s instructions basically called for a landing of men and supplies as far north as the ice would permit. The relief party was to make its way to the village of St. Michael, where additional supplies would be obtained for a journey to Cape Prince of Wales. There the party would “collect” all available reindeer herds for an unprecedented drive to Point Barrow. It was clear that only meat “on the hoof” could be moved in the need quantities in time to save the stranded whalemen, undoubtedly suffering from malnutrition. Everything depended on movement of the reindeer as Gage emphasized
“From whatever point tile overland expedition is landed from the BEAR its first aim will be to get the reindeer herd in motion for Point Barrow, and you (Tuttle) will instruct the officer given charge that celerity of movement is of first importance: that he must, so far as possible, live on the country and change his teams for fresh ones as often as he can.”
The men who landed near Cape Vancouver that cold and stormy December 15th in 1897 were well-chosen for the awesome task that lay ahead. In command was the brilliant, soft-spoken First Lieutenant David H. Jarvis, top man in the cadet class of 1883. Second Lieutenant E. P. “Bully” Bertholf, later Commandant of the Coast Guard, was named as assistant to Jarvis. They were well matched despite their vastly different personalities.
(Officers of the Overland Expedition, left to right: 2d LT E.P. Bertholf; Surgeon S. J. Call; 1st LT D.H. Jarvis.)
Slight of build, Jarvis was a veteran of eight years in Alaskan duty as well as several years in the small boats of the Life Saving Service on the Atlantic Coast. Jarvis had unusual executive talents which particularly fitted him for all expedition wherein a lapse of judgment could cost the lives of some 300 men. Perhaps the most important of Jarvis’ qualifications was his fluent command of the Eskimo tongue, without which the expedition could scarcely hope to succeed. Bertholf, himself an able young officer, possessed an abundance of energy and strength vitally important in travel by sled over rough terrain. Third member of the BEAR’s landing party was Dr. S. J. Call, a familiar figure on Revenue Cutters in Alaska. Call was an able ship’s physician whose medical skill would certainly be needed by any survivors at Point Barrow.
Dire omens abounded on the day of the landing, December 15, 1897. Captain Tuttle had followed the instructions, laying a course for Norton Sound. Heavy ice was encountered much sooner than expected, driving the BEAR south to Cape Vancouver, some 700 miles south of the point Secretary Gage had selected originally. The landing itself almost ended in disaster as wind-lashed water and rapidly running ice threatened to swamp the boats carrying men and equipment ashore. While Jarvis and his men fought for their lives, the BEAR’s crew struggled to avoid unmarked shoals in little more than four fathoms. By dusk the expedition was safely ashore and the BEAR steamed out to sea not to be seen again by these men until eight months later. Jarvis, Bertholf, and Call were now committed to a harrowing 1,500-mile journey through the Alaskan wilderness at top speed in temperatures as low as -60° surrounded by the gloom and dark of the long Arctic winter. Eskimos warned against the attempt as most unwise even without the hundreds of reindeer Jarvis hoped to acquire along the route. Yet this expedition had to go out: the President himself had asked that it be done.
During tile next hundred days Jarvis and his companions endured almost every hardship known in the Arctic. Traveling in the winter darkness across sea ice or frozen tundra, over mountain passes and snow sometimes too soft to bear the load, these determined men never allowed their own comfort or safety to interfere with the mission. At times the ice was dangerously soft. Occasionally visibility was so poor that the party came close to plunging over hidden cliffs. Blizzard after blizzard hindered their movement, sometimes forcing them to hole up huddling in some abandoned hut or in a tent. The cold was incredible. On the other hand, just above St. Michael (200 miles northwest of Cape Vancouver) the temperature rose capriciously, leaving almost bare the undulating gravel and boulder surface of the tundra. It was in such circumstances that Mate Tilton, one of two men sent from the stranded vessels at Point Barrow, was found struggling toward St. Michael seeking help for the stranded whalers.
Tilton pronounced the proposed reindeer drive an impossible scheme. Pushing, pulling, and straining, the sleds moved on, at times slowly, at other times making up to fifty miles in a day. Once Jarvis became lost in a fierce blizzard. A blinding snow almost ended the expedition as the guide groped for the trail on hands and knees. On another occasion the party was saved only by the instinct of the reindeer when even the Eskimo guide had lost the way. Time after time tile hospitality of poor, isolated Eskimos kept alive the men of the expedition and thereby the only chance of the icebound men at Point Barrow.
An excerpt from the journal kept by Jarvis best conveys an adequate notion of the suffering endured by the rescue party:
“I thought the ice we recently passed over had made a rough road, but this was even worse, for here were all the crushings of the straits shoved up against the mountains that ran abruptly into the sea, and over this kind of ice we had to make our way. Darkness set in long before we had come to tile worst of it, and a faint moon gave too little light for such a road. It was a continuous jumble of dogs, sleds, men, and ice--particularly ice—and it would be hard to tell which suffered most, men or dogs. Once, in helping the sled over a particularly bad place, I was thrown eight or nine feet down a slide, landing on the back of my head with the sled on top of me. Though the mercury was 30° below. I was wet through with perspiration from the violence of the work. Our sleds were racked and broken, our dogs played out, and we ourselves scarcely able to move, when we finally reached Mr. Lopp’s house at the cape (Prince of Wales).”
Cape Prince of Wales was 500 miles north of St. Michael and here it was that Jarvis succeeded in persuading both the missionary W. T. Lopp and “the Eskimo known as Charlie (Artisarlook)” to lend their valued herds to the government to help in the reindeer drive. A herd of about 400 reindeer was assembled and moved under dreadful conditions toward Point Barrow still 800 miles distant. Jarvis and his men suffered from extreme and mounting fatigue in this second half of the journey. Blizzards, drifting snow, rough terrain, and biting wind turned the expedition into a nightmarish ordeal. Nevertheless, Jarvis remained determined and grimly stoical:
“A philosophical common sense is a great help in living in the Arctic, as elsewhere. If you are subjected to miserable discomforts, or even if you suffer, it must be regarded as all right and simply a part of the life, and like sailors, you must never dwell too much on the dangers or suffering.”
On March 26, 1898, a beautiful clear day, the relief party sighted the most westerly of the icebound whaling vessels. Jarvis describes the vessel, the BELVEDERE, as banked up with snow with little visible except her spars and rigging.
“We drew up alongside at 4 P.M., and going aboard announced ourselves and our mission, but it was some time before the first astonishment and incredulousness could wear off and a welcome be extended to us.”
Jarvis soon learned that scurvy had broken out among the starving whaling men. Those living ashore were housed ill wretchedly crowded, filthy, cold quarters. These men were from the crushed whalers ORCA and JESSIE H. FREEMAN. All the men, both ashore and aboard ship, were living in misery and hopelessness, waiting for inevitable death.
The arrival of fresh meat reversed the progress of scurvy. However, these men needed more than food and Jarvis was superbly equipped to furnish the organization and discipline needed to see them through the difficult time ahead. Additional shelter was built using wood from a crushed vessel. The men were split up into smaller groups for better sanitation and comfort. Cleanliness was enforced and medical aid applied where needed. Jarvis became the sole arbiter, steeling disputes and distributing supplies equitably and prudently. In May baseball on the ice was organized to bring the men out of their apathy and depression and to provide exercise after the long period of idleness.
When the good ship BEAR broke through to Point Barrow on July 28, Captain Tuttle must have been greatly relieved to find that the Overland Expedition had been a glorious success and that all but a few of the whaling men had survived. Laden with survivors, the BEAR arrived at Seattle on September 13, 1898, almost ten months after its feverish departure the previous December.
The BEAR’s officers and men had departed as popular heroes. They returned to find public interest had turned, during their perilous journey, to the glories and pyrotechnics of the “splendid little war” with Spain. Nevertheless, Jarvis, Bertholf, and Call were recommended by President McKinley for decoration. Gold medals voted by Congress were presented to them belatedly in 1902 with appropriate expressions of thanks.
Jarvis’ stirring journal remains an unrecognized classic of exploration and travel literature. It stands as a testament to human courage and as a reminder of a time when a small band of dedicated mariners brought succor and justice to the Alaskan frontier. It is satisfying to note that Coast Guard vessels and men still cruise Alaska’s dangerous waters, always ready to aid those in distress.
Bixby, William. Track of the Bear. New York, McKay, 1965. (Part 6, Chapter 6 deals with whalers.)
Nichols, Jeannette P. Alaska. New York: Russell, 1963. (Historical background on Alaska, with interesting references to Jarvis.)
Reed, Byron L. "The Contribution of the Coast Guard to the Development of Alaska," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings LV (May 1929), p. 406. (General treatment of Revenue Cutter Service on duty in Alaska Arctic waters.)
United States Treasury Department. Report of the Cruise of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Bear and the Overland Expedition for the Relief of the Whalers in the Arctic Ocean, from Nov 27, 1897 to Sep 13, 1898. Washington: GPO, 1899. (Primary source of information; by participants of the expedition. Contains Jarvis' journal entries.)
Wead, Frank. Gales, Ice and Men. New York: Dodd, 1937. (Summarizes expedition with emphasis on role of Eskimos. Popularized account with human interest treatment.)
Zeusler, F. A. "Ice in the Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean." U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings LLXVII (August 1941), p. 1102. (Good background on problems confronted in sailing Alaskan Arctic waters.)
EDITOR'S NOTE: The service's newest 378 foot high endurance cutter, the CGC JARVIS, placed in commission at Honolulu, Hawaii on 4 August 1972, was named in honor of the leader of the Overland Expedition. Miss Anna T. Jarvis, the 77-year old daughter of Captain Jarvis, was present to witness the commissioning.