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Bill Thayer

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The following text is reproduced from (the report of the) Twenty-Fourth Annual Reunion of the Association of the Graduates of the United States Military Academy, June 9th, 1893.

 p67  Frederick Schwatka
No. 2389. Class of 1871.
Died, November 2, 1892, at Portland, Oregon, aged 43.

Frederick Schwatka was born in Illinois in September, 1849. His parents were natives of the Scandinavian Peninsula, who, joining an early band of immigrants, came to the United States just before the outbreak of the war with Mexico. They established themselves temporarily in Illinois, where Frederick was born, but soon afterward took part in the movement to the newly acquired territory on the Pacific and, on the completion of their long and dangerous overland journey, settled in Olympia in Oregon Territory. Save that they were drops in the first great wave of migration, that swept across an ocean and a continent in search of new homes and more hopeful surroundings, but little is known of them. They were thrifty substantial folk, good citizens of the State in which their lot was cast, and doubtless exemplified, in their lives, the homely but useful virtues of the sturdy stock from which they came.

Schwatka, who had profited fairly by such meagre educational advantages as were obtainable in the new Northwest, entered the Academy in 1867. He took a fair standing in his class from the first, taking not unkindly to mathematics, but showing a decided preference for science and the languages, and an especial aptitude for natural history, in which he was destined later to gain considerable distinction. He will be best remembered, however, for his inexhaustible cheerfulness and good nature, which never seemed to forsake him under the severest trials or in the most unpromising situations. There was no state of affairs, however distressing, in which he was not able to discover a ridiculous side, or out of which he was not able to deduce a humorous conclusion. He was always ready for a practical joke, in which he was quite willing to be accounted the  p68 principal sufferer, so long as it contributed to the general stock of amusement. A harmless irony and a quaint humor adorned his conversation, and made him always a welcome visitor in the rooms of his classmates and friends.

Upon his graduation in 1871, Schwatka was assigned to the Third Cavalry and joined that regiment in Arizona, in October of the same year. His service, in campaign and in garrison, was that of all young officers of his arm in the disturbed period between 1871 and 1878. His active and inquiring mind was not satisfied with the routine of cavalry service, however exacting, and he found vent for his energies in the more congenial study of Indian languages and in practical work in chemistry, zoology and botany for which he had always had a decided taste. While serving in the department of the Platte, he began a course of medical study under the direction of the post surgeon, and carried it forward to completion by attending the junior and senior lectures in New York and Albany in order to enable him to graduate within the limited period of leave which he had been able to obtain for this purpose. Soon after his graduation, he appeared before the board of surgeons for examination with a view to entering the Medical Corps and, although unsuccessful, from a want of training in hospital work, passed a most creditable examination.

In 1876 the news was brought from Repulse Bay, by Captain Barry, an Arctic whaler, that a party of Esquimaux had brought to his ship one of Sir John Franklin's spoons which had been taken from a cairn, distant about 700 miles from the cruising grounds. They also reported that other relics, including some books and papers, had been deposited in the cairn. Captain Barry's story aroused great interest in New York, and as the Government seemed disinclined to set on foot an official investigation, the matter was taken up by private individuals, and an expedition was organized under the direction of Chief Justice Daly, the President of the Geographical Society, and Mr. Morrison, the head of a shipping firm having extensive interests in the Arctic whaling grounds.

 p69  Lieutenant Schwatka, who had volunteered his services, was selected to take charge of the expedition, and sailed for the north in the schooner Eothen in June 1878. The party was landed at the head of Repulse Bay, and entered at once upon its duty of exploration. From its point of landing a sledge expedition was undertaken to King William's Land, involving over 3,000 miles of travel. The result of Schwatka's endeavors was to determine in the negative all hope of finding any written records of Franklin or his companions. The fact of the existence of the box, of which the Esquimaux had brought an account to Captain Barry, was established, although the box and its contents had disappeared some thirty years before. Some relics of the ships were found, the remains of an officer of the Franklin party were discovered, and the account of the retreat and tragic death of the survivors of the crews of the Erebus and Terror was obtained from the testimony of natives who had been witnesses of the facts.​a Schwatka's special contribution to Arctic knowledge consisted in his demonstration of the fact that white men, by conforming to native habits, and subsisting, if need be, on native food, can maintain existence in the extreme cold of the Arctic regions, not only without danger to life, but with such reasonable immunity from hardship as to enable useful scientific work to be successfully carried on.

The results of Schwatka's journey were received with the greatest interest throughout the civilized world. The excellent character of his work was recognized and commended, especially by explorers like McClintock and Hayes, who had themselves been identified with the early searches for the survivors of the Franklin expedition.

In the belief that the scientific work in which he had achieved such marked success, offered greater promise for the future than seemed open to him as a subaltern of cavalry, Schwatka resigned his commission in the Army on January 31, 1885, and began the work in which the brief remainder of his life was passed, of collecting and disseminating information relating  p70 to the topography, meteorology and natural history of the North Polar Region.

His latter explorations were carried on with zeal, energy and intelligence, in the face of great danger and difficulty, and he succeeded in adding not a little to the existing stock of knowledge in relation to the river and mountain systems of the Alaskan Peninsula. In 1885‑6 he conducted an important expedition along near the entire course of the Yukon River, following in part the route taken by Lieutenant Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Raymond of the Engineers. In 1886 he explored the region between Mount St. Elias and the sea, in the course of which he discovered and mapped the lower courses of the Jones River.

During the last ten years of his life, not a little of his time was devoted to the preparation and delivery of courses of lectures on Arctic subjects, and in literary work of a similar character.​b While thus engaged, he died suddenly at Portland, Oregon, November 2, 1892.

Schwatka will be best remembered as the leader of the last, and, in some respects, the most successful of the long series of expeditions sent out in quest of knowledge regarding the fate of Sir John Franklin and his gallant companions. It was his good fortune to find and lay before the civilized world the last evidences which it was possible to procure of their northward journey, of their resolute and successful search for a northwest passage, of their difficult and disastrous retreat, and of their brave but hopeless attempt to reach relief in the direction of Hudson's Bay. In doing this he has rendered a memorable service to geographical science, and the story of his difficult but unfruitful search will be long and kindly remembered by those who appreciate his unselfish and successful endeavors to extend the horizon of Arctic knowledge.


Thayer's Notes:

a Details of Sir John Franklin's expedition and two U. S. Navy search expeditions (De Haven's and that of the almost equally ill‑fated Jeannette), are given in A Short History of the United States Navy, pp412 ff.

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b Among his literary work, the best-known item is probably his book Along Alaska's Great River, subtitled "A Popular Account of the Travels of an Alaska Exploring Expedition along the Great Yukon River, from its Source to its Mouth, in the British North-West Territory, and in the Territory of Alaska"; it is nicely rendered online at Gutenberg.Org.

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