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John Rodgers: Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies
Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, 1879-1962

John Rodgers

EA-Biography
(Vilhjalmur Stefansson)

JOHN RODGERS

John Rodgers (1812-1882), member of one of the most conspicuous of naval
families, was the first officer of the United States Navy to command an ex–
ploring expedition in the Arctic Sea to the north of Bering Strait. He was
born at Sion Hill near Havre de Grace, in Maryland, on August 8, 1812, the
son of John and Minerva (Denison) Rodgers. His early naval chronology is that
he was warranted midshipman in 1828, passed midshipman in 1834, lieutenant in
1840 and commander in 1855. He studied a year at the University of Virginia
and was three years with the Brazil Squadron in connection with work of the Coast
Survey. After this he was employed in surveying the Florida coast. He also
spent three years in the Mediterranean and on the coasts of Africa. Thereafter
he was again in the work of the Coast Survey for three years.
During 1853 a large project for exploration beyond the confines of the
United States was in full swing. Congress had appropriated $124,000, a great
sum in those days, for a naval and commercial survey of the China Sea, the
North Pacific, Bering Strait and related seas that were or might be frequented
by trading and whaling vessels. The North Pacific Exploring and Surveying Ex–
pedition had sailed in 1852 under Commander Cadwalader Ringgold, an officer
who had accompanied Wilkes on the great U.S. Antarctic Expedition of 1838-42.
The ships under Ringgold were the sloop-of-war Vincennes, the screw steamer
Hancock, the brig Porpoise , the schooner J. Fenimore Cooper and the store ship
J.P. Kennedy . Lieutenant Rodgers had been detached from the Coast Survey to be
second in rank on the North Pacific Expedition and in command of the Hancock.
The instructions to the expedition from John Pendleton Kennedy, Secretary of the Navy, drew special attention to the growing impor–
tance of the whaling industry around Bering Strait and to the consequent
need of increased knowledge about the Aleutian Islands, the Bering
and Anadyr seas, and the coasts of North America and Asia in the whaling
region. The instructions included permission to go as far north as
the commanding officer thought desirable, and called to his attention
the importance of every practicable scientific study and of the increase
of knowledge in any field. Suggestions from various learned bodies
were made parts of the instructions. William Stimpson was naturalist,
C. Wright, botanist, E.W. Kern, artist, W.D. Stuart, secretary and
draughtsman, Anton Schoenborn, instrument maker.
According to Professor J.E. Nourse, American Explorations in the Ice
Zones
, who personally knew members of the expedition, Secretary Kennedy
had selected many of its leading figures and was especially concerned
about the scientific program. This is confirmed by the printed record;
for in his annual report of December 2, 1852, the Secretary considers
that "the constant employment of ships and men in the promotion of
valuable public interests, whether in defense of the honor of our flag
or the exploration of the field of discovery and the opening of new
channels of trade, or in the enlarging of the boundaries of science, will
be recognized by the Government and the people as the true and proper
vocation of the Navy." Among other things, the thoughtful care of the
Secretary brought about arrangements through the Russian Minister in
Washington for a sympathetic attitude toward the expedition in Russian
America and in northeastern Siberia from representatives of the
Imperial government. Russian charts were to be supplied.
The expedition reached the Pacific by way of the Cape of Good Hope
and spent its first year visiting Java and Australia on the way to Hong Kong. Generally the employment of the first year was in tropical and
sub tropic research. Meantime the health of the commanding officer
was deteriorating and he was invalided to the United States, whereupon
the command devolved upon his next in rank, Lieutenant Rodgers, who
transferred from the Hancock to the Vincennes . That year the duties of
the various ships continued to be in low and middle latitudes. One of
the ships, the Porpoise , was lost in February, 1855, in a gale between
Formosa and china.
During the late winter and spring of 1855 the expedition worked
north. The Hancock explored the Okhotsk Sea; the Cooper surveyed the
northern Japanese, Kurile and Aleutian Islands; the Vincennes headed
for Petropavlovsk, Kamchatka, whence to begin her cruise to the Arctic
Sea. This was to prove by general consent a notable voyage of exploration;
but its story cannot as yet be told in full because of a reason
deplorably frequent in connection with U.S. polar work. For it is
probably neither an inaccurate nor an unfair generalization to say that
we have been as niggardly in publishing the scientific results, and other
contributions to knowledge, of our polar expeditions as we have been
generous in furnishing those expeditions with ships, equipment and
staff. We are in that respect like a farmer who cultivates the ground,
plants the crop and follows it with care to maturity but does not
trouble to gather the harvest. About the Rodgers case Professor Nourse
said in 1884:
"Of the most important and permanently valuable work of the northern
cruise of the Vincennes , it remains as yet a matter of universal regret
that no official or other narrative has been published... The non–
appearance of the text has been caused by the want of a sufficient
appropriation for the issue by the Navy Department." This must have been more heartbreaking to Rodgers, and to all others concerned, in
that the great preparations had been made for the publication. This
is confirmed by Isaac Toucey, Secretary of the Navy, who wrote in
December, 1857: "The work of publishing the survey of the late
Expedition to the Nroth Pacific and Behring Straits under Commander
Rodgers, is rapidly advancing; engagements have been made with eminent
professors in the various branches of natural history, describing the
most important specimens brought home." It was over again the story
of the Wilkes Antarctic expedition, where extensive preparations were
made, with a lot of money and labor spent, the larger part of the result
to be sacrificed eventually to the penny wisdom of a subsequent
administration.
A material part of the Wilkes results was published, though
inadequately (considering the great preparations); those of Rodgers were
not published at all except in preliminary, routine from. So we can
do no other here than to depend in the main on what Nourse was able
to piece together around 1880, from the fragmentary publications and
then from a diary loaned by Lieutenant John M. Brooke, second-in-command
of the Vincennes . Nourse also knew personally other members of the
Vincennes expedition. (He goes on to say that extremely valuable maps
resulting from the voyage were published by the Navy, an important
though relatively small part of the total contribution to knowledge
which could have been made by the full publication of the results.)
In Petropavlovsk, Kamchatka, on July 8, 1855, the expedition found
a village of about a hundred buildings of hewn logs, mainly deserted,
a small population of non-combatants, some of them wounded, and dogs
dying of hunger in the streets, because the French had been there to
burn and sack the town as part of a European war. Brooke noted in his diary that the destruction appeared to him wanton and "the more mournful
because the severity of the climate and the cold aspect of the mountains
would incline one to think that into such a country men should scarcely
carry the cruelties of war." However, in the gardens of the town, "the
gooseberry bushes were just shedding their blossoms, the strawberry beds
were verdant. . . Violets and heartsease were gathered for home letters."
The harbor was spacious and "in the calm of the evening the scenery
was fine". The Russian government had not forgotten its promise of
cooperation and "a visit to the Vincennes was made by Captain Martineff
of the Russian Army who, with another officer, had been sent out by
the Russian Government. . . to bring Russian charts. His journey from
St. Petersburg had been made in 70 days by horse and dog."
Petropavlovsk, in that heyday of whaling for oil and bone, was a
port of call and to an extent one of provisioning for the Yankee fleet
and was, for that and other reasons, the destination of merchant ships
as well as whalers. "On the 9th an American ship with a cargo consigned
to this port arrived from New York via Valparaiso". Those were truly
"the great days of sail", and the Vincennes was cooperating, through her
surveys, in maintaining and extending a commerce which depended, though
only in part, on the enterprise of the whalemen.
With a Cossack for interpreter the Vincennes headed for the Arctic
and was on July 16 abreast of Bering Island. Around the 28th she was
making oceanographic studies during a spell when little advance was
possible because of head winds and calms. The sounding and dredging
was done through an invention of Lieutenant Brooke's for which he later
received much credit; for one of the greatest of possible authorities,
Sir C.W. Thomson (Wyville Thomson) refers in his Depths of the Sea to
"Brooke's deep sea sounding apparatus, of which all the more recent contrivances have been to a great extent modifications". This
pioneering work in oceanography by the Vincennes was among the things
which the Navy later prepared to publish but never did publish, for
want of a printing appropriation.
The expedition passed between the Siberian mainland and St.
Lawrence Island to enter Bering Strait August 1. On the 4th a landing
was made in Siberia, at N. Lat. 65°, W. Long. 172°35′, to put ashore a
party under Brooke for astronomical and other scientific observations.
Rodgers was at first doubtful about the safety of an observing party,
were he to leave one behing; but he and Brooke soon developed so high
an opinion of the natives (Siberian Eskimos) that his fears vanished.
The men were tall and well proportioned; "the women were not ugly, some
of them quite pretty, particularly when they smile" (a quotation from
Brooke's diary). The officers of the ship were much surprised to see
persons of such an agreeable appearance living so far north.
Nourse says that "the hesitancy of Commander Rodgers to leave the
observing party at this place was overcome by the prompt desires of
the Lieutenant. . . Provisions were landed for eleven persons for two
months and the party were thoroughly equipped for defence by the gun
of the launch, twelve pounder howitzer, fifty-three pounds of canister
and shell, three carbines, three muskets and three rifles with about
one thousand cartridges. . . Brooke did not fear the people who seemed
to be honest and independent. . . The Lieutenant found himself located
on a peninsula which was almost a meadow land, luxuriantly carpeted
with grass, and blue, white and yellow blossoming flowers."
The Brooke party included naturalist Stimpson, botanist W R r ight,
artist Kern, three marines, four sailors and the Cossack interpreter.
It proved that during their month ashore they made valuable observations in many fields and Nourse considers that the Smithsonian was able
to make use of much valuable material gathered by this segment of
the expedition.
The Vincennes had passed through Bering Strait and was in the Arctic
Sea proper by August 11. She could not possibly winter, for she was
provisioned for only four months; besides, Rodgers thought it likely to
be advantageous for the general program of the expedition if he were
to work mostly south of the narrowest part of the Strait. So there was
no plan to attempt a high northing, since there would then be danger
of being caught in the ice and forced to winter.
As Rodgers put it, he was "desirous to return to the work of the
surveys [in Bering Sea and the North Pacific] at the earliest date con–
sistent with the visiting to the land in about lat. 72° N., long. 175° W.,
as placed upon the Admiralty charts from the Report of H.B.M. frigate
Herald , Captain Kellett; with examining Herald Island, seen by the
same ship but not explored; and the endeavor to reach Wrangell Land
as described to Lieutenant Wrangell's companion, Dr. Kyber, on his Polar
Exploration of 1824". Rodgers is mistaken about Kellett's not having
explored Herald Island, since a party from the Herald landed on this
tiny islet and climbed to the top of it, whence they saw what was
later called Kellett's Land and eventually named Wrangel Island.
As to what he says of Wrangell Land, Rodgers is partly right and
partly in error; he refers correctly to Siberian natives having seen
land and having reported this to the Russians; but he fails to mention
that Kellett, from the top of Herald Island, had seen land in the
same location, which the British placed on their charts as Kellett's
Land or Mountains Seen by the Herald .
In the light of present knowledge we recognize that looking west from Herald Island and seeing land, Kellett must have seen the east
coast of what we now call Wrangel Island, in about 178° west longitude;
this was what the British charts thereafter called Kellett's Land.
But then looking more northerly, toward 175° West and 72° North, Kellett
had reported a great land "where the clouds rose in numerous extended
masses, occasionally leaving the very lofty peaks uncapped, where could
be distinctly seen columns, pillars and very broken peaks, characteristic
of the higher headlands in this sea — East Cape and Cape Lisburne,
for example." This description the cartographers were to translate into
"Appearance of Land" in the Parliamentary Blue Book of 1850.
Heading north, Rodgers met chiefly thick weather. In one stretch the
ship "encountered a stream of drift timber, some of the trees of which
were so large and numerous that she had frequently to alter her course
of seven knots to avoid them. She ran over the tail of Herald Shoal,
which had less than 18 fathoms water, and on the 13th passed the island
[Herald], which appeared dimly between the clouds as two small ones. The
weather became foggy, and the ship stood for the North until she ran
through the position of the land as given on the Admiralty charts,
R.N., and came to anchor in 42 fathoms, in latitude 72° 5′ N., Longitude
174° 37′ W. In a few hours the fog lifted, and a sudden change, peculiar
to the Northern regions, flashed across the scene; it was so clear that
the horizon appeared without limit. No land or appearance of land
could be seen from the royal yards. The water, as far as the eye could
reach, was entirely free from ice, but the weather became again foggy."
So the Vincennes would have to report, on her return south, that
the genuineness of the "Appearance of Land" to the north of Herald
Island was counter-indicated. This may not have been wholly unexpected
to Kellett; for he must have had a doubt from the start, since he forti–
fied the clear cut statement we have quoted, above, with supporting testimony: "As far as man can be certain who has one hundred and
thirty pairs of eyes to assist him, and all agreeing, I am certain
we have discovered an extensive land". Had he really been certain,
Kellett would not have felt the need of calling the 130 witnesses.
(For a discussion of how, variously placed on maps, this "Appearance
of Land" or "Plover Land", as it was sometimes called, kept appearing and
disappearing, to appear last in 1914, see our article, "Disappearing
Islands".)
Rodgers had exercised, though he had not permanently banished,
this phantom northern land. He apparently thought he had also disproved
the existence of Kellett-Wrangel Land; for the horizon had seemed
clear, the visibility unlimited, westward from the anchorage of the
Vincennes . This land should indubitably have been visible from the
royal yards, if the horizon had really been clear. What Rodgers did not
understand, through lack of familiarity with arctic conditions, was
that when you look through clear air toward a fog that is five or ten
miles away, you will get at sea the impression of unlimited visibility.
So it remained for Yankee whalers, more than a decade after the
Vincennes , to sight and land upon an island about the size of Puerto
Rico, thus verifying at one stroke both the eyesight of the British and
the hearsay of the Russians.
The supposedly unlimited view from the royal yards near longitude
175° and latitude 72° had convinced Rodgers of both the absence of the
"Appearance of Lane" and of Kellett Land. But he felt he had to make
doubly sure; so he paused near Herald Island and sent "John Watts, an
active man of the boat's crew, and with good eyesight" to the top of
the island; but "no land could be seen in any direction, although the
horizon was excellent." Commander Rodgers wrote:
"It would be far pleasanter to confirm the discovery of other land
than Herald Island, than to believe that Commodore Kellett was mistaken
in his views; yet we were convinced, however unwillingly, that appearances had deceived him. Several times land was reported to us by the man at
the masthead, which eventually proved to be only clouds, and sometimes
where I knew no land could be seen, since we had passed through the
position on which it was said to be."
"On the 15th we ran for Plover Island [probably a small island shown
on Admiralty charts as lying to the southwest of Herald Island]. The
air was clear and bracing, but when half way to the position of the
land, as placed on the chart, we were stopped by a barrier of ice. At
but half the distance the 'Herald' had been, nothing from the royal
yards in the favorable weather we had, could be seen, and I am forced
to the conclusion that Plover Island does not exist. Captain Kellett
could only give his honest conclusions, and it would have been wrong
to omit the notice of such palpable appearances; for any navigator, under
the circumstances which controlled his acts, must have followed his
course in giving his convictions, and then have left the matter to the
investigations of time and the confirmation or rejection of those who
should have better opportunities for ascertaining the truth of what he
saw as probable."
For some reason (perhaps because of maps he had with him?), Rodgers
was evidently more impressed with the native reports of land seen from
the Siberian mainland, which had been picked up by the Russian exped–
ition of Baron Wrangel in the twenties, than he was by the eyesight
report, from the top of Herald Island, of the British expedition under
Captain Kellett in the forties; for Rodgers speaks of Wrangell Land,
not of Kellett's Land. Nourse sums up the Rodgers testimony: "The
Vincennes now ran for Wrangell Land. On the 19th the weather was foggy,
masses of ice floated near, and a wall-like barrier [of ice] was before
the ship. She was within ten miles of the position of Wrangell Land. . .
No land could be seen though it was thought the vision extended six or eight miles in every direction."
When blocked, where he thought Wrangell Land to be, Rodgers
decided not to make further efforts in this quarter, for three main
reasons, two of them already given, that he was not provisioned for
wintering and that he thought it more useful to explore carefully
farther south. The third reason was the health of his crew. Many of
then had showed signs of scurvy while yet in the Pacific; and when
Rodgers now finally headed south from the Herald Island neighborhood
"more than twenty men were still on the sick list with scurvy" — they
were apparently taking the standard ration of lime juice and, as usual
in those days, were neither receiving benefit from the juice nor losing
faith in it.
September 5 the Vincennes was back south to where the Brooke party
were left behind for scientific studies, and found them in good health.
They had been getting along well with the natives, had done a good deal
of hunting, had eaten much fresh meat and had suffered no tinge of scurvy.
This immunity from the sailor's occupational disease was, of course,
not then credited to the fresh meat but, apparently, to greens, which
ahd been picked and eaten; for Nourse (who had information from Brooke
and from other members of the expedition still surviving in the early
1880's) says of the Vincennes when she arrived to pick up the Brooke
party: "A supply of greens was much needed on board the ship, on which
more than twenty men were still on the sick-list with scurvy, but the
lateness of the season prevented the gathering of anything, except a
small quantity of sorrel. A moderate quantity of venison was obtained."
Soon thereafter, the crew regained their health on a diet containing
the "small quantity" of sorrel and the "moderate quantity" of venison.
The expedition had reached St. Lawrence Bay, Siberia, August 31
and had reached Seniavine Strait September 5 to pick up the Brooke party. On the 24th the Vincennes passed south through the Aleutian chain of
islands by way of Amukta Pass. On October 13 she was back in San
Francisco.
Following their return, Rodgers and some of his officers
made various recommendations to the Government for further exploration.
Among the regions mentioned as both important and unknown or misknown
were the Kurile Islands, Kamchatka and the vicinity of the mouth of
the Amur. These recommendations had in mind the development of trading
and whaling.
The planning and outfitting of the Ringgold-Rodgers expedition
had been under a Secretary of the Navy keen on the value — to
commerce, to the whalers and to the Navy — of improved maps and of the
study of ocean and air. He had been a chief of the Navy who believed
that the increase and diffusion of all forms of knowledge would benefit
the nation at large, and all mankind. But the expedition came home
under a Secretary who even omitted seeing to it that the usual expressions
of formal public appreciation should be forthcoming, especially by
Congressional resolution, as Nourse points out. Then followed administra–
tions which, as already mentioned, first made extensive preparation for
the publication of the expedition reports, which seem to have been
universally thought of as valuable in their field. Finally came an
administration which failed to secure the necessary money for the printing
of the reports. Seemingly the roots of that penny wisdom were in
Congress rather than in the Navy.
In 1884 Nourse pleaded that it was not even then too late to
publish; for, although Rodgers had died, there still were living several
officers and scientists of the expedition who could be consulted, and
the records were mainly st i ll extant. But nothing was done.
As to spending a lot of money to gather information and then
failing to spend a little more for the preservation of the gained
knowledge through publication, the case of Rodgers has been compared to
with that of Wilkes. It seems clear, in connection with the failure
of Congress to follow through on the Wilkes Antarctic Expedition reports
of 1838-42, that influential members of Congress could see nothing
much in the proposal beyond pandering to the vanity of a commander
and his officers who would naturally like to see a handsome report of
their own work in pring; so jealousy of Wilkes seems to have been a
factor in the case of his expedition. There does not appear to have
been a like cause with Rodgers, for he seems to have been a popular man
throughout his life. His promotion was rapid. He became captain in 1862,
commodore in 1863, rear admiral in 1869.
A complete biography of Rodgers would no doubt occupy itself
largely with his distinguished record in the Civil War, but in a
work on the Arctic the next point we note is that when De Long was
outfitting the Jeannette he asked help of Rear Admiral John Rodgers,
who was then Superintendent of the Naval Observatory. Rodgers was
naturally interested in this attempt to take a ship farther north along
the old track of the Vincennes , and appears to have been useful to De
Long. Later, when the Jeannette's return appeared too long delayed, it
was natural that Admiral Rodgers should be made chairman, as he was, of
the Navy's Relief Board for the De Long expedition and for the two
whaling ships, Mount Wollaston and Vigilant , last seen near Herald Island
the autumn of 1879. In this capacity, Rodgers arranged for the 1881
search voyages of the Corwin and the Rodgers .
In his later years Rodgers was prominent in scientific circles,
especially those that had some relation to the Navy, and he was one of
the charter members in the founding of the National Academy of Sciences.
He died in Washington May 5, 1882.
Vilhjalmur Stefansson
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