American Experience Presents The Greely Expedition, January 31, 2011
In 1881, a multi-national expedition was launched to create fourteen Arctic stations that would collect scientific data (meteorological, magnetic, astronomical) to be used to better understand the earth’s climate. The data the American crew gathered is being used today to better understand concepts such as global warming, however, their expedition was marked by tragedy.
Under the leadership of Adolphus Greely, twenty-five Americans sailed from Newfoundland on July 7, 1881. They were on their way to Lady Franklin Bay deep in the Arctic. Three years later, six survivors were rescued. They had been all but abandoned by the government that sent them north, and returned with dreadful tales of shipwreck, starvation, mutiny, and cannibalism.
The men expected a supply ship after their first year there and to return home at the end of the second year. Instead, they were left on their own, as the impassible ice made rescue impossible. Lt. Greely believed in the army and orders; following orders, however, was the cause of many of the deaths. While the Department of the Army and the Department of War dragged their feet, Mrs. Greely took the campaign to rescue the men to the press, enlisting relatives to tell the story of the abandoned men to the newspapers in their cities. This ignited the interest of the masses, who demanded that the men be rescued.
All Arctic expeditions have not failed, but when they do the details are unsettling. Men froze to death, had body parts fall off from frostbite, and starved. One man was shot for stealing food. They lived in temperatures as low as fifty degrees below zero and went further north than anyone else had ever done. When the survivors returned, they brought their scientific data with them. Despite what they had been through, their accomplishments were largely ignored, tainted by the specter of cannibalism.
The Greely Expedition is a story of bravery, death, commitment, comradeship, and redemption. It is—in turns—inspiring, sad, and incredible. Just the film to see on a cold winter’s night, you can watch it Monday, January 31, 2011, at 9:00 p.m. (E/P) on PBS; also available on DVD.