White House desk made from ship used in Franklin search

A fascinating side story, that of the Resolute desk, from the best book on climate change.

Clockwise from left: JFK Jr. plays while his father works; Obama makes a call; Caroline Kennedy plays on the Resolute desk.

With today’s announcement that one of the two ships used by Sir John Franklin in his ill-fated quest to navigate the Northwest Passage in 1845 has been located, more people may come to learn of a fascinating side story.

That story has to do with the fact that the primary desk used by the President of the United States comes from ship timbers in one of the vessels sent by the British to search for Franklin and his crew.

Most of the search trips merely compounded the tragedy of the Franklin Expedition, but not the one whose timbers would eventually be used for what is now called the Resolute desk. It’s a story that I relate in my book:

Not all of the Franklin-rescuing trips ended in tragedy. The best-known of the many individual ships, British and American, to seek the fate of, or potentially rescue, the Franklin expedition was the Resolute, captained by Henry Kellett. Part of a four-ship flotilla led by Edward Belcher, Kellett’s ship became frozen in sea ice deep in the Canadian Archipelago in the fall of 1852, remaining trapped for two winters. When the ice showed no sign of releasing his ship, Kellett led his men on sleds to another of the expedition’s ships that was bound fast. Captain Belcher, in the end, decided that all hands should be transferred to the only ship that had managed to find open water. The decision to abandon Resolute led to a court martial in which both captains were acquitted.

As it turned out, moving pack ice carried the abandoned ship 1,200 miles, from Dealy Island down into Davis Strait, between Baffin Island and Greenland. It was there that the crew of an American whaler, George Henry, noted it. The Americans were able to free Resolute, re-rig it, and sail it to New London, Connecticut. Although the British waived all rights to the ship, an American merchant, Henry Grinnell, convinced the U.S. government to restore Resolute to immaculate condition and sail it back to England as a friendship gesture. The ship was presented to Queen Victoria at a ceremony held in Cowes harbor on the Island of Wight on December 17, 1856. A couple of decades later, the British government had a desk made from the timbers of the by-then decommissioned Resolute and presented that desk in 1880 to President Rutherford Hayes. It has been the principal desk used by U.S. presidents in the Oval Office ever since.

While we like to imagine that the efforts to exploit Arctic waters are somehow “new,” I learned while researching Don’t Sell Your Coat that the Arctic has been navigated, historically, far more than it is fashionable to believe.

The Resolute desk is proof of the longstanding western obsession with the Arctic and a literal relic of a fascinating piece of history between the United States and Britain.

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About Harold Ambler

I am a lifelong environmentalist. I started my journalism career at The New Yorker, where I worked as a copy editor. Since then, my own work has appeared in The New York Daily News, The National Review Online, The Atlantic Wire, The Huffington Post, The Berkeley Daily Planet, The Providence Journal, Brown Alumni Monthly, The Narragansett Times, Rhode Island Monthly, and Providence Business News.
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