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Back in Time: The salvage of HMS Resolute

In September 1855, New London-based Captain John Buddington ordered the crew of the George Henry to fend off the ice threatening to encase the whale ship in the Davis Strait between Greenland and Canada.

His failure to get his ship into the strait to look for whales spelled doom for his second expedition in the North Atlantic.

So successful was his first voyage aboard the George Henry that the Perkins and Smith whaling firm engaged him for two more. Sadly, on this voyage he was forced to give orders to turn and make for New London.

A week into their voyage home, the George Henry spotted a vessel off the coast of Baffin Island. They gave signal, but no reply came.

It took five days for the George Henry to sail the four and a half leagues to the ship. Upon arrival, Buddington ordered George Tyson, a seaman aboard George Henry, and three others to go aboard and report back.

When they climbed over the rail to the deck they found not a soul. They did discover tables below holding wine decanters and half-filled glasses along with partially eaten meals. Uniforms and various other personal items were left behind as well.

With further investigation, the crew learned they were aboard HMS Resolute. It was a one of the British ships that had sailed in search of the Sir John Franklin expedition that had mysteriously disappeared in the Arctic with 128 men aboard.

Tyson signaled Buddington, and the captain seized an opportunity to turn a failed whaling voyage into a successful salvage operation. Money earned from salvaging the HMS Resolute promised to be lucrative for the firm, the investors, the captain, and the crew.

But how had the Resolute come to be abandoned? That was surely a mystery to the New London sailors, who were not privy to a series of events that started in May 1845 when Sir John Franklin set out on his two vessels, the Terror and the Erebus. Their mission was at last to discover the fabled passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans to the north of Canada.

This Northwest Passage, long sought since the 15th century as a way to expedite trade to Asia, continued to be an explorer’s nightmare well into the 20th century, and Franklin’s expedition was no exception.

Two years passed with no word from Franklin, and in 1848 expeditions were sent out in search. HMS Resolute, under the command of Captain Thomas Kellett, was part of the Edward Belcher expedition.

Originally named the Ptarmigan, Resolute was outfitted for arctic exploration and joined the nine-ship flotilla tasked with finding the Terror and Erebus. Leaving in 1852, Resolute became trapped in the ice.

Remaining trapped for a year, Belcher believed there was no hope of a thaw. After a debate among his captains, he ordered a reluctant Kellett to abandon ship. In 1854, Kellett gave the order and he and his crew left Resolute to the ice, expecting it to be lost to history.

But the Resolute had other plans. When the New London crew of the George Henry found it more than a year later, it was in remarkably good shape.

In less than a week, 13 men from the George Henry’s crew made Resolute seaworthy. Buddington took command of the British ship and sailed the bark to New London. Meanwhile, the inexperienced first mate of the George Henry, a man named John Quayle, was tasked with captaining the whaling ship back home.

HMS Resolute arrived in New London Harbor on Christmas Eve of 1855, and Quayle arrived a week later with George Henry.

The Perkins and Smith firm was owned by three partners, all New London residents: the brothers Elias Perkins and Nathaniel Shaw Perkins Jr, called Shaw, and a retired sea captain named Franklin Smith.

When Buddington arrived in New London, Shaw was the only partner in the city. Elias Perkins was in Hawaii looking after the firm’s Pacific interests, and Smith had come out of retirement to sail the Laurens to Desolation Island for elephant seal oil.

Technically the British still owned Resolute until they released the rights of ownership. The Perkins and Smith firm needed to confirm with the British government that since one of their ships had salvaged Resolute, the vessel now belonged to them.

A vast amount of correspondence was exchanged between two British consulates, the Perkins and Smith firm, and Henry Grinnell. The latter was engaged by Perkins and Smith because Grinnell understood salvage laws from both the British and American perspectives.

In British salvage law, ownership rights were given to the captain of the ship which found the salvage. In the United States, the firm which owned the ship was given the salvage ownership rights.

Eventually the British awarded the salvage rights of Resolute to the “owners of the George Henry.”

Once the ownership issue was settled, Henry Grinnell enlisted LaFayette S. Foster, the senator from Norwich, in a plan involving the purchase of HMS Resolute. Grinnell knew about the rocky relationship between Britain and the United States and he hoped refitting and returning the ship to England would go a long way in earning good will from Britain.

Foster agreed with the plan, and put forth legislation to create a committee to investigate the idea.

As the idea for using the Resolute’s return to England to help mend differences between the two countries was discussed in the Senate, James M. Mason of Virginia contacted Foster and together submitted a joint resolution to purchase Resolute, repair her, and give her to England. The resolution was passed unanimously on June 24, 1856.

HMS Resolute was purchased for $40,000 by the United States. However, the Perkins and Smith firm did not receive any of that money. The panic of 1857 forced Perkins and Smith to sell their whaling assets to the Williams and Haven firm. Now, Henry Haven owned George Henry, and all profits gained from the sale of Resolute. Traditionally money earned from the sale of salvage was divided among the ship owners, voyage investors, captain and crew. However, Haven refused to release any of the salvage money to Buddington and the crew. He argued that Buddington leaving George Henry to command the HMS Resolute broke his contract.

That meant the captain and the crew forfeited any right to shares in the salvage.

Buddington sued Haven in court. The judge decided that Buddington did break his contract and was due no money, but he did award salvage shares to the crew of the George Henry.

In a matter of months, HMS Resolute was restored and outfitted with every detail exactly as she had been prior to her abandonment. On the 13th of November 1856 she set sail from New York to Portsmouth, England.

She arrived home on December 12th to cheering crowds and a grateful country. In the following weeks, thousands came to celebrate her return. Even Her Majesty Queen Victoria visited and toured the ship.

Though never again used in an official capacity, Resolute endured as a symbol of international friendship for over 20 years before Queen Victoria had her decommissioned and broken up in 1879.

The next year President Rutherford B. Hayes was given a desk built of the timbers from the retired ship. The Resolute Desk is still in the Oval Office today.

Steve Manuel is the executive director of the New London County Historical Society.

Resolute Abandoned

“Sunday, May 15 1854, The sun rose on the morning of the last day we were to spend onboard our old ship, endeared to us all by many bygone associations. Without affecting any absurd sentimentalities, it may easily be imagined we all experienced feelings of regret as the time approached; abandon the staunch old craft to her fate…by the ice. There were a thousand and one things we would have desired to save, had our weights permitted.

“45 pounds is, however too low a figure to indulge in luxuries.”

George M. McDougall, Master, HMS Resolute

 

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