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    John Rodgers

    Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies

    001      |      Vol_XV-0671                                                                                                                  

    (Vilhjalmur Stefansson)


            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,

    002      |      Vol_XV-0672                                                                                                                  
    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

    , 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

    003      |      Vol_XV-0673                                                                                                                  
    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

    004      |      Vol_XV-0674                                                                                                                  
    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


            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

    005      |      Vol_XV-0675                                                                                                                  
    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

    006      |      Vol_XV-0676                                                                                                                  
    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

    007      |      Vol_XV-0677                                                                                                                  
    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

    008      |      Vol_XV-0678                                                                                                                  
    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

    009      |      Vol_XV-0679                                                                                                                  
    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


            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

    010      |      Vol_XV-0680                                                                                                                  
    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

    011      |      Vol_XV-0681                                                                                                                  
    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.

    012      |      Vol_XV-0682                                                                                                                  
    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


            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.

    013      |      Vol_XV-0683                                                                                                                  

            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 .

    014      |      Vol_XV-0684                                                                                                                  

            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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