Friday, August 31, 2012

Adventure Runs in the Family

Lt. Henry Thomas Dundas Le Vesconte is a singular-looking fellow. His steady gaze and erect posture suggest a competent officer; his eloquent and observant prose reveals a perceptive and intelligent human being. As history can tell us, he was brave and adventurous enough to join Franklin's expedition in search of the Northwest Passage. He is not, however, the only one in his family to have embarked on a dangerous, and ultimately fatal, quest.

Thanks to the tireless work of Franklin researchers and the well-travelled Wills family, we know that Lt. Le Vesconte is a Wills by his mother's side of the family. The Wills family maintains an extraordinarily comprehensive genealogical website: HERE . His mother was Sarah Wills; she married Commander Henry Le Vesconte. One of Sarah's eight siblings was Dr. William Wills, who had seven children. Among those children was William John Wills, the same William Wills who acted as second-in-command of the famed Burke and Wills Expedition in Australia! Henry T.D. Le Vesconte and William John Wills, both famed and ill-fated explorers, are first cousins!

The Burke and Wills Expedition (more formally known as the Victorian Exploration Expedition), much like the Franklin Expedition, was one centered on geographical discovery. In 1860-61, Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills set out with a small party to survey the Australian continent from south to north. Wills was a trained surveyor and was recommended to the expedition by the Exploration Committee of the Royal Society of Victoria. Burke was appointed as commander, despite his marked lack of experience in exploration. The expedition had a rough start and made unsatisfactory progress at first; searing summer heat was punctuated by monsoons that caused considerable hardships. Burke's later decision to split the party resulted in profound logistical problems, and his failure to mark the location of a note he cached sealed the fate of his small splinter party. Burke and Wills died of malnutrition (more specifically, beriberi) at Cooper Creek. As was the case with the Franklin Expedition, several relief expeditions were organized. Alfred Howitt ascertained the sad fate of Burke's small, detached party when he reached John King, the sole survivor.

The Victorian Exploration Expedition and the Franklin Expedition are both characterized by tragedy, nutritional problems, and bad luck. The former endured searing heat; the latter, freezing cold. Yet, both contributed greatly to humanity's knowledge of geography. Franklin's men essentially found a northwest passage, while Burke and Wills completed the map of Australia.

I strongly recommend a visit to Mike Wills' website on his fascinating family. There, you will find two photos of a letter written by Lt. Le Vesconte to his father, as well as a journey some of the Wills descendants took through Australia to trace their ancestors' footsteps.

When I think of Le Vesconte's short but eventful life, I think of a quote I once read in a biography of T.E. Lawrence. It was taken from Pliny the Younger's letter to Tacitus, in which he essentially states that the most fortunate man is one who can do things worth recording AND write things worth reading.  Le Vesconte, Wills, and all those who strike out for distant horizons, are all worthy of praise.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

An American James Fitzjames: Stephen Decatur, Jr.

June 18th of this year marked the bicentennial of the Anglo-American War of 1812. It was a conflict that forged some of America's most celebrated naval icons, including Isaac Hull, Oliver Hazard Perry, James Lawrence, and Stephen Decatur, Jr., to name a few. Those who have read the histories will not soon forget Perry's heroics at the Battle of Lake Erie (exploits that earned him the moniker "The Hero of Lake Erie") or Lawrence's dying command, "Don't give up the ship!"

Yet, even among this pantheon of naval officers, one star shines especially bright: Commodore Stephen Decatur, Jr., USN. Decatur's dauntless exploits in the Barbary Wars and the War of 1812 made him a national hero and legend. It turns out that he had a few things in common with another naval legend: Captain James Fitzjames, RN. Both men were noted for their handsome appearances and winning personalities; both implemented clever disguises and narrowly escaped danger in the vicinity of the Middle East. Decatur and Fitzjames were also talented artists: Decatur constructed model ships, while Fitzjames made gorgeous drawings that appear almost photographic. And, sadly, both men died tragic, painful, and very untimely deaths. Decatur lost his life in a duel with fellow officer James Barron, while Fitzjames met his demise on the unforgiving wastes of King William Island, Nunavut.

According to Decatur's Wikipedia entry, a seaman present at his funeral exclaimed, "He was the friend of the flag, the sailor's friend; the navy has lost its mainmast." I think two very storied navies lost their mainmasts with the passing of these remarkable, strikingly similar gentlemen.

Monday, August 20, 2012

"An Old Man-of-War's-Man's Yarn"

At the University of Pennsylvania, located in the city of Philadelphia, a stained glass window features the following sagacious words of Francis Bacon: "Some books are to be tasted; others to be swallowed; and some few to be chewed and digested." A novella by the obscure author Richard Heathcote Gooch is definitely one of those books to be "chewed and digested", at least by Franklin aficionados. Gooch was a clerk in the London Custom House from 1845 to 1882; in 1870, he published An Old Man-of-War's-Man's Yarn: An Actual Incident (never Before Narrated) of the Expedition of the Late Sir John Franklin. The book is short, and the plot is simple, but the words are undeniably moving. While on holiday near Ramsgate, Kent, Gooch encountered a very old man selling pipe lights by the shore. After a bit of conversation, the author learned that the old man "had two sons on the Erebus with Sir John Franklin"--none other than John and Thomas Hartnell!

Gooch's particulars are largely fictional, but they were inspired by that fateful meeting with the elderly Thomas Hartnell, Sr. near the cliffs of Dumpton. Gooch must have felt as strongly as we do about the impact of the Franklin tragedy; otherwise, he would not have endeavored to publish his account. Interestingly, the finished work is dedicated to Charles Dickens, Esq.

I strongly recommend that those whose interest has been piqued take a look at this book, especially since it is available in its entirety on Google Books: HERE

I found the writing style to be engaging and similar to that of Coulson Kernahan, author of the memorable In Good Company. At any rate, it is a lovely, melancholy little story. Enjoy!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Hartnells of Nelson Street

As an avid fan of classic films, I could not resist alluding to one of my favorites for the title of this post: "The Barretts of Wimpole Street" (1934, MGM). Though not as famous as the Barretts, the Hartnells of Nelson Street (Road, actually) are a truly noteworthy family and, in my humble opinion, just as illustrious. This post will attempt to introduce the family that lost two promising lives to the Arctic's avaricious grip.

Thanks to a website called, I found out that John and Thomas (born 1820 and 1822, respectively) were the first two children of Thomas Hartnell, a shipwright, and his wife Sarah, who was born in 1796. They had three other children: Mary Ann (born 1826), Charles (born 1828), and Betsey (born 1832). They lived in Gillingham, Kent, which is in the very southeastern UK and in close proximity to the Chatham Dockyards on the River Medway. All three sons followed the call of the sea; two (John and Thomas, Jr.) would perish thousands of miles from home in one of history's greatest maritime tragedies: the lost Franklin Expedition.

A few Google searches later, I came across a fascinating article from the "Medway Messenger" dated October 10, 2011. In it, Brian Spenceley, Professor Emeritus of Physics at Lakehead University in Ontario, Canada, reminisced about witnessing the autopsy of his ancestor, John Hartnell. Spenceley had accompanied Dr. Owen Beattie and his team to Beechey Island to photograph the proceedings. Even more importantly, the article stated that Hartnell lived on Nelson Street (presumably with the rest of the family), and that eight other seamen from the Medway towns also took part in the Franklin Expedition. Further research could uncover the identities of the other eight men.

With the help of Google Maps, I was able to take a virtual "drive" down Nelson Road. I hope to visit in person one day and take a tour of the Chatham Dockyards where Thomas Hartnell, Sr. probably found employment in the construction and repair of ships. The loss of two sons must have dealt a terrible blow to this hardworking family.

Welcome to "Stars Over Ice"!

I have been fascinated by the history of exploration and adventure my entire life. This blog will serve as a place to share all the riveting stories I have encountered during my readings and travels, with emphasis on US and British naval history.

During the past year and a half, I developed a keen interest in the unparalleled tragedy of Sir John Franklin's last Arctic expedition. By sharing some of my research, which is rudimentary at best, I hope to perpetuate the captivating personalities of "Franklin and his gallant crew". The poignant story of the Hartnell brothers, Thomas and John (both of whom were Able Seamen on HMS Erebus), is of particular interest to me.

Here's to the days of "iron men in wooden ships"!