As I write this, Washington, D.C. is officially entrenched in winter. Temperatures have plummeted and winds are gusting. It’s unpleasant, to say the least. However, in researching this article, I’m immensely grateful for my warm winter coat, my mostly-desk job, and the space heater I employ if I’m a tad uncomfortable. Any mild discomforts are put to shame when compared to the disastrous Lady Franklin Bay Expedition. The members of this ill-fated entourage, better known as the Greely Expedition, suffered far worse a fate than dry skin and chilly toes.
Many are perhaps more familiar with the famous British Franklin Expedition, which set out for the Artic in 1845. The Franklin ships became entrenched in ice, and ultimately the entire expedition was lost (until recently – but that’s a different story). The American Greely expedition departed over thirty years later but was similarly beset by troubles. Twenty-five men departed Newfoundland for the Artic in 1881. In 1884, when the party was finally rescued, only seven remained – and only six made it back to safety. The first to perish was William Cross, who is buried at Congressional Cemetery.
The goals of the Greely Expedition were twofold: first, to establish a research station to collect weather observations; second, to reach a new “Farthest North,” the highest latitude reached by explorers, and a record long held by the British. The expedition used Fort Conger, their camp on Ellesmere Island, as their home base. The trip was designed to take a year: the U.S.S. Proteus dropped the expedition off on the island and a relief ship was scheduled to arrive in the summer of 1882. However, a relief ship never came.
Anticipating problems, the expedition came with three years of supplies. However, after the relief ship still had not arrived in 1883, First Lieutenant Adolphus Greely made the executive decision to abandon Fort Conger and relocate to Cape Sabine, as the Army had planned to drop supplies at three points further south in case they were unable to reach the men at Fort Conger. The party endured a traumatic journey south to Cape Sabine, and once they arrived, they were not rewarded for their sacrifices. There was only a small cache of supplies at Cape Sabine, enough to last only an additional few weeks.
From there, as the popular saying goes, things went from bad to worse, and this certainly was the case for William Cross. Cross was an engineer for the expedition, and overall was not well-liked by the rest of the expedition. His disposition was surly and he often overindulged in alcohol. His drunkenness – and the many incidents of falling into water that resulted – made it into the pages of others’ journals. In August 1882 Greely wrote:
“The engineer is drunk today. He fell from the launch into the water, where he would have drowned if he had not been rescued by Brainard. I learned from Lieutenant Lockwood that he had stolen a portion of the alcohol which was sent for the launch for fuel on the late trip up Archer Fiord, and was drunk at that time. He evidently avails himself of every opportunity to purloin and conceal a portion of the fuel alcohol sent out with parties.”
Alcohol problems aside, Cross also endured numerous other ailments over the course of three years. He suffered frostbite in his feet and his ear as well as a painful toothache that resulted in a swollen cheek. By the time the party arrived at Cape Sabine, Cross was already an unhealthy man. He persisted throughout the fall, but by January 1884, he grew weak and was unable to leave his tent. He died on January 18, 1884 of scurvy and malnutrition. On the following day, Sergeant Brainard described the services for Cross and noted poignantly:
“One cannot conceive of anything more unearthly – more weird and solemn – than this ghostly procession of emaciated men moving slowly and silently away from the wretched ice-prison in the uncertain light of the Arctic night, having in their midst a dead comrade about to be laid forever in the frozen ground. It was a scene I can never forget.”
The situation did not improve for the rest of the party. Following Cross, men continued to die of starvation, hypothermia, and drowning. One member, Private Henry, was even executed for stealing shrimp from the community pot. By the time a rescue party finally made it to Cape Sabine, only seven, near-death men remained, including Lieutenant Greely. One man died on the journey home from his wounds, leaving a remaining six men alive.
The remains of the fallen members of the Greely Expedition were retrieved at the time of the rescue. Cross’ body was transported to his home of Washington, D.C., and he was buried in Congressional Cemetery. According to his obituary, 5,000 people cycled through the Cross residence to view William Cross’ casket prior to the funeral. The victims of the disaster were lauded as heroes.
For the survivors, however, the story was quite different. Rumors of cannibalism tainted the reputation and the achievements of the Greely Expedition. Many of the rescuers claimed that the recovered bodies showed evidence of cannibalism, and some families of the deceased upheld these disturbing claims. Greely continued to deny these rumors until his death – even appearing in a diorama depicting the expedition at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.
To end on a gruesome note – while it is possible, and even probable, that cannibalism did occur, it is unlikely that William Cross’ remains suffered this fate. As the first to die before starvation truly set in for the party, it is improbable that his fellow team members used him for that purpose, and they certainly wouldn’t have resorted to digging up his frozen remains when the situation became truly dire. William Cross – likely all of him – is buried in Range 90, Site 299. Though not well loved by his comrades, the courage he exhibited in going on this mission in the first place should be remembered, especially on wintry days like today.
—Lauren Maloy, Program Director
Website that includes summaries, photos from the expedition, and journals. American Experience: The Greely Expedition. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/greely/
Bytes of History: William Cross articles and obituary: http://bytesofhistory.org/Cemeteries/DC_Congressional/Obits/C/C_PDF/Cross_WilliamH.pdf
“The Greely Expedition. Alleged Cannibalism.” Daily News. New York, August 12, 1884. https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/43815941
Urness, James. 25 Brave Men: Tales of an Arctic Journey. Tucson: Wheatmark, 2013.