• Back to Encyclopedia Arctica homepage

    George Morse Stoney

    Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies

    001      |      Vol_XV-0789                                                                                                                  

    STONEY, GEORGE MORSE (1852-1905),

            U. S. naval officer and leader of two naval expeditions to northern

    Alaska, was born October 9, 1852 at Beaufort, South Carolina. His

    early education was in the hands of private tutors. The first South

    Carolinian to enter the U. S. Naval Academy following the Civil War,

    Stoney was appointed Cadet Midshipman in September 1870, graduating

    September 1875. Made an Ensign in 1876, he was commissioned Lieutenant

    (junior grade) in 1883, and Lieutenant in 1889.

            Following his graduation, Stoney served first on the U. S. S. Swatara ,

    North Atlantic Station, later on the Alaska and Tuscarora , surveying in

    the Pacific. Transferred to the Rodgers early in 1881, he then partici–

    pated in the Rodgers Expedition (1881-82) despatched to the Arctic in

    search of the Jeannette under the command of G. W. De Long. The ex–

    pedition, Lieutenant R. M. Berry commanding, covered large parts of the

    Chukotsk Sea off the northern Siberian coast, later wintering in St. Law–

    rence Bay, Siberia, where the Rodgers went up in flames. Berry billetted

    his officers and crew in five Siberian villages, while he himself pro–

    ceeded overland to the Lena River where he made contact with some of the

    Jeannette survivors at Yakutsk. He thence returned to the United States.

    His party was picked up in the spring by the whaling ship North Star

    and transferred to the U. S. revenue cutter Corwin which reached San

    Francisco in June 1882.

            Hardships and suffering notwithstanding, the Rodgers Expedition

    went on record for its brilliant exploratory work both in the Chukotsk

    Sea and on the Siberian mainland. Access was gained to the interior

    of Herald and Wrangel islands and examinations were made of parts of the

    002      |      Vol_XV-0790                                                                                                                  

    northern and eastern shores of Chukotsk Peninsula. Stoney was a member

    of the boat party which effected a landing on Herlad Island and erected a

    plank with the ship's name and the date on one of its western ridges. He

    assisted in the mapping of Wrangel Island and later, in midwinter, led a

    sledge party from St. Lawrence Bay to Cape Dezhnev, Asia's northeast point.

    His team, one of several engaged in a search for Master C. F. Putnam who

    had been lost in a storm, pushed through many miles of uncharted wilder–

    ness along the eastern Siberian coast.

            The men of the Rodgers Expedition, left destitute by the burning of

    their ship, had survived largely because of the kindness of the Siberian

    natives who had fed them through the severe arctic winter. The U. S.

    Congres s, therefore, appropriated a sum of money with which to buy presents

    for those natives and the distribution of the gifts was entrusted to

    Stoney. Taking passage on the Corwin in the spring of 1883, Stoney reached

    St. Lawrence Bay in July. As the cutter was bound farther north and Stoney,

    after the distribution of the gifts, had time on his hands before she returned

    to the south, he asked to be dropped off at Hotham Inlet, Alaska, an open–

    ing of Kotzebue Sound, where a large river was said to debouch. Stoney

    was landed on a sand spit close off Hotham Inlet with one white man, an

    Eskimo from Norton Sound, a boat, and a week's provisions. Guided by

    an Eskimo from a village nearby, he then worked his way inland for about

    85 miles, exploring the intricacies of the Kobuk river delta and parts of

    the river's lower course. Fifteen days after landing, he was picked up

    again by the Corwin and landed in San Francisco in October, 1883.

            Stoney's improvised discovery of the Kobuk River had relatively far–

    rreaching consequences in so far as it resulted in two naval expeditions

    to the arctic Alaska, both under Stoney's command. The first of the expeditions

    003      |      Vol_XV-0791                                                                                                                  

    took place in the summer of 1884, with Stoney in command of the Ounalaska ,

    of forty-five tons, which was fitted out for a six-mo n ths' trip. A 28-foot

    Navy steam-cutter, the Helena , had been added to the equipment. The ship's

    crew consisted, besides Stoney, of Ensign J. L. Purcell, Gunner Cushman,

    Dr. Reed, a civilian from San Francisco who shipped as apothecary, and eight


            The Ounalaska made the mouth of Hotham Inlet on July 10, 1884, and was

    left in charge there of Ensign Purcell, while Stoney with three of the crew,

    four natives, and the interpreter Aloka, went on board the Helena which

    had a dinghy and a 6-ton skin-boat in tow. The party then left for the

    mouth of the Kobuk, later ascending the stream as far as Lake Selby (so

    named by Stoney), not far from the river's headwaters. Because of rapids

    and shoal water, the latter part of the stretch was covered partly by skin–

    boat, partly on foot. Stoney crossed Lake Selby in a canoe and ascended the

    mountains on its northern side to determine their position and height. On

    his return to Hotham Inlet on August 22, and with time still available

    until the Ounalaska was scheduled to depart, Stoney ordered Purcell to take

    the Helena to Selawik Lake, a tidewater lake connecting with Hotham Inlet,

    to explore its shores and the mouths of the different streams that flow into

    it. Purcell returned on August 26, and a day later the Ounalaska sailed for

    San Francisco, which was reached on October 26.

            Reporting the results of the expedition to the Secretary of the Navy and

    enclosing a chart, Stoney requested that he be sent back to accurately tri–

    angu al la and survey the entire Kobuk r R iver area, as the work done during the

    summer of 1884 was "from force of circumstance" only approximately correct.

    The request was granted and the two-masted schooner Viking , three hundred

    ninety tons, was selected to take his party to Hotham Inlet and leave it

    004      |      Vol_XV-0792                                                                                                                  

    there. In addition, Stoney was furnished not only the steam cutter Helena ,

    used during the previous expedition, but a newly constructed 60-foot flat–

    bottomed stern-wheel steamboat, named the Explorer , which was especially

    fitted to meet his needs. Provisions for twenty months were supplied, most

    of which were stores left over from the Greely Relief Expedition, also a

    small portable steam sawmill, and $2,000 [ ?] with which to purchase trade

    articles to exchange for winter clothing, dogs and sleds, and to hire natives.

    Members of the expedition included Stoney, who was in command; Ensigns

    J. L. Purcell (later invalided home), M. L. Reed, and W. L. Howard;

    A. V. Zane, Passed Assistant Engineer; F. S. Nash, Passed Assistant Surgeon;

    and twelve men.

            The Viking left San Francisco on May 3, 1885, stopping on her way north at

    Unalaska in the Aleutians, at St. Michael's, Alaska Territory, and at Cape

    Niniagmo, St. Lawrence Bay. At St. Michael's, Stoney took the interpreter

    Aloka and two other natives together with their families on board. He also

    purchased what he considered essential clothing equipment - double reindeer

    winter coats (parkas) for each member - as well as other helpful articles,

    such as skin-boats, steel runners and bolts. At. St. Lawrence Bay, where

    the natives welcomed him as an old and trusted friend although treated merely

    to bread and molasses on board ship, he scquired some deer and sealskin and

    "one hundred skin boots." Hotham Inlet was reached on July 9. The Helena ,

    and then the Explorer , were hoisted out, and passage was then forced into

    the inlet through a channel clear of ice. Two days later, anchor was cast

    off "Pipe Spit", a small sandy projection inside Hotham Inlet, where store

    houses were built and some trading done with the natives at a post nearby.

    The Viking left on July 22, while Stoney and his men embarked on the Helena

    and the Explorer to proceed up the Kobuk River. By mid-August, Stoney had

    005      |      Vol_XV-0793                                                                                                                  

    made his choice with regard to his winter quarters. The place was a dry,

    elevated spot on the river's right bank, at the outlet of a small deep

    creek, about 150 miles from the mouth. The surroundings were well wooded

    and the creek afforded excellent shelter for the two boats, the Helena and

    the Explorer . The saw mill was set up, lumber was sawn, and a log house,

    sheds, and an observation station were built. Stoney named the place Fort

    Cosmos, after a club in San Francisco. The log house, which served as living

    quarters, was a structure about forty-foot square, built over a three-foot

    deep pit, and insulated against the cold with reindeer moss, straw, and

    canvas. The bunks were lined with straw between canvas and logs. Bear

    skins covered the plank floors of both officers' and men's quarters. There

    were hanging lights and wood-burning stoves set in boxes of sand, and coolers

    of drinking water were kept in every room. A 100-gallon butt, filled twice

    daily with river water, was kept in the so-called drying room underneath.

    Stoney himself described the house as a comfortable home which was never

    damp until late in the spring when the roof leaked a little due to constant

    rain. The authorized temperature was 65°F., but it was often higher, so

    that the front door had to be opened to keep it right. Walls of excavated

    dirt, banked up as high as the eaves, protected the house against gales and


            Daily routine was strict, but working hours were relatively short, lasting

    from 8 to 4 in winter, and from 7 to 5.30 in the spring. This included

    two-hours daily outdoor exercise, rigidly enforced even in mid-winter, but

    which kept the men in excellent trim. In the evening, games were played,

    and a small library was available as well as various musical instruments,

    including a music box which Stoney had brought along. Every day an officer

    instructed the men in whatever branch might be desired. In addition, there

    006      |      Vol_XV-0794                                                                                                                  

    plenty of well-cooked food, including fresh meat twice weekly in winter

    and every day in the spring, with officers and men living alike. Large

    forenoon rations of line juice were distributed through the winter months.

    Winter wear of the expedition consisted of deerskin coats and trousers, deer–

    skin boots, and deerskin and woolen socks, worn over underclothing of thick

    substantial flannel. All outer garments were made at Stoney's orders who

    thought fur clothing best for arctic wear, provided it conformed in material

    and cut to that of the natives. Summer wear included regular overalls and

    boots of tanned and water-tight sealskin, also a hood - designed by Stoney –

    offering protection against the mosquito plague. Made of light drilling, it

    covered both head and shoulders, with holes for the arms by which it was held

    in place. A steel band ran around the face of the hood and on this was fitted

    a movable mask of fine meshed copper wire.

            Stoney's main aim during the early fall was to get extra supplies of meat

    and fish with which to feed his men through the winter. Steel traps were set

    up within a radius of ten miles of the camp and small and large game were trap–

    ped. A party under Ensign Howard went upriver some 20 miles and secured

    two thousand salmon at a native village. The fish was kept in a frozen state

    until used and served to feed the thirty-six dogs of the expedition in place

    of pemmican which the Paymaster of the Navy had failed to provide.

            As soon as the expedition was settled in winter quarters, preparations

    were made for carrying out its main objective: exploration of the Kobuk

    River valley and adjacent regions. The selection of Fort Cosmos as a main

    base proved a lucky one as it gave access to nearby river areas by relatively

    short routes.

            Following December 1, and through the winter and following spring, teams

    were deployed in various directions, pushing northward as far as the upper

    Colville River and southward as far as the Yukon. The territory covered extend–

    ed roughly from latitude 64°30′ to 68°30′ N., and from longitude 164° to


    007      |      Vol_XV-0795                                                                                                                  

    153° W. and included the valleys of the Kobuk, Notoak, and Selawik rivers

    as well as the intervening mountains; the regions drained by these rivers;

    the upper Alatna; Chandler Lake near the headwaters of the Colville River; and

    finally the upper Colville proper. A single teams under Ensign Howard went

    north from Fort Cosmos in the spring and reached Point Barrow on the arctic


            Considered in somewhat greater detail, the field work of the expedition pro–

    ceeded as follows.

            On December 1, Stoney accompanied by Howard and four natives set out to explore

    the headwaters of the Notoak and parts of the country to the northward. Part

    of Stoney's aim was to discover a [ ?] practical sledge route from the

    expeditionary base to Point Barrow on the arctic coast. The notoak was reached

    on December 9. Stoney thence followed one of its branches to its source,

    crossed the dividing ridge to northward and struck the headwaters of the Colville

    River. He returned to Fort Cosmos on December 18. Nash, the surgeon of the expe–

    dition,had meanwhile gone to the Yukon River to obtain ehtnological information,

    but was back within a week, accompanied by some Yukon natives. Stoney's and

    Howard's three-week trip to the Notoak and upper Colville was a first sharp test

    in endurance. The temperature at time was –50°F. and less and the route led

    in parts over river rapids that were only thinly frozen over and so treacherous

    that dogs and sleds broke through on various occasions.

            Towards the end of December, Engineer Zane, accompanied by one of the crew

    and three natives, left for St. Michael's by way of the Pah, Koyukuk, Yukon, and

    Unalaklik rivers, while Stoney explored the areas immediately southeast of the

    Kobuk to seek a new river route to Kotzebue Sound by which to return in the spring.

    Zane's trip to St. Michael's took two months. On his way back, he climbed the

    hills near the head of the Pah River, together

    008      |      Vol_XV-0796                                                                                                                  

    with the pass that leads south to the Koyukuk and which now bears his name.

    Stoney, who returned within eight days, discovered the Selawik River, an

    affluent of Selawik lake, tracing its course for many miles. The cold

    was extreme throughout, temperatures dropping as low as –70°F., and there

    was practically no wood for making fires.

            Following January 20, Stoney began a series of observations for establish–

    ing a base line for the purpose of triangulating the Kobuk River valley.

    Teams were despatched into nearby areas and parts of the mountains between

    Notoak and Kobuk and Kobuk and Selawik River were explored and mapped

            Finally, toward the end of February, Stoney, accompanied by three natives,

    set out on his longest and most hazardous trip, to the cources of the Kobuk

    River and areas to the northeastward and northward. His aim, once again,

    was to ascertain a route to Point Barrow. He took with him three sleds,

    nineteen dogs, and provisions for twenty days. Leaving on the 28, Stoney

    went up the Kobuk to Par Village, at the confluence of the Par River, then

    eastward to the upper reaches of the Alatna, finally northward across the

    mountains to Lake Chandler (so named by Stoney after William E. Chandler,

    Secretary of the Navy). The track led across difficult territory, steep

    mountains or deep gorges filled with boulders and snow, and the weather

    was frightful, marked by terrific gales and snowstorms and a first beginning

    of the spring thaw. The lowest temperature was –48°F., the highest 28°F.

    There was little fuel and less food and there were difficulties with the

    natives. At Par Village, the chief was hostile, demanding that Stoney

    appear before him and pay tribute. Stoney refused, wisely enough, and the

    chief, much impressed, thereupon sent his wife with an offer for a peace

    council. Later, at Lake Chandler, there was momentary trouble with a

    009      |      Vol_XV-0797                                                                                                                  

    native because Stoney had purchased his sledge and then used it for fuel,

    so that some meat could be cooked and tea made. Seeing the labor of many

    days' work go up in smoke, the former owner of the sledge was much incensed

    and it took all of Stoney's diplomacy to restore peace. Stoney reached the

    lake on March 18, and was told here that there were no natives beyond this

    point until the coast was reached. However, some of the villages were

    willing to guide him north to the coast prvided Stoney postpone his trip

    until the ice on the north-flowing rivers had broken. Unable to wait that

    long, Stoney decided to turn back. Before leaving he erected a cairn cont–

    aining a pepper bottle with a record of the trip at one of his observation

    spots near the lake. In order to impress the natives with its sacredness,

    Stoney " performed a variety of antics", while Bill, his dog driver, told

    the villagers with much seriousness that any one who touched the cairn

    would have his hand rot off and whoever looked into it would be struck blind.

    Returning the way he had come, Stoney reached Fort Cosmos on April 6, having

    lived on the food of the country for twenty-four days.

            During Stoney's absence, Ensigns Howard and Reed had remained in alternate

    command of the camp. At various intervals, both had made shorter sledging

    trips northwest-and northeastward, Reed exploring what is now known as

    the Reed River, a tributary of the Kobuk, while Howard established food

    caches on the Ambler and Etivluk Rivers , ( the latter an affluent of the

    upper Colville ) shoul d Stoney decide to cut through here in the spring on his

    way to Point Barrow. Howard, in fact, had recommended this route from the

    first and it was ultimately found the best one by which to go to the arctic

    coast. [ ?] It was Howard, too, who was eventually selected to lead a team to

    the Point, while Stoney remained in command at the camp.

    010      |      Vol_XV-0798                                                                                                                  

            Accompanied by machinist Price and three natives, Howard started north

    on April 12, 1886, and reached Point Barrow on July 16, after a journey

    of ninetey-six days. His route led across the Notoak to the Etivluk River

    and thence by ways of the Colville and Chipp rivers to the arctic coast.

    He remained at Point Barrow until August 13, when the U. S. revenue cutter

    Bear took both him and Price on board for transportation to Hotham Inlet

    where the ship was scheduled to pick up the rest of the expedition by

    the end of August. (For full account see Rear Adm. W.L. Howard).

            Stoney's work on the Kobuk River was more or less ended by mid-May.

    On the 19, the ice cracked along the river banks and by the end of the month

    both the Helena and the Explorer had been floated. Fort Cosmos was closed

    on June 15, and all hands moved on the Explorer . The mouth of the Kobuk

    was reached on June 25, and on July 7 camp was set up for a time at Pipe

    Spit in Hotham Inlet. From then to the time of the Bear's arrival on

    August 23, some additional work was carried out on the lower Notoak and

    in the Selawik Lake area. Stoney also visited the Baird Mountains,

    a range between the lower Notoak and Kobuk rivers, largely for the purpose

    of digging for jade. Baird Mountains (named by Stoney after Spencer E.

    Baird, President of the Smithsonian Institution) had been visited by him

    before, but the rock sample rocured at that time had proved a disappoint–

    ment. Stoney, however, was determined to find jade now, all the more

    as he had seen [ ?] what seemed samples among the natives of Hotham

    Inlet. Various villagers there possessed things made of green stone –

    exes, spears heads, and other articles - all very old and of undetermined

    origin. Stoney found kept digging for several days and the specimens

    of rock he had found were later forwarded to the Smithsonian Institution

    for examination. Baird commented adversely on the [ ?] find, but

    011      |      Vol_XV-0799                                                                                                                  

    Professor George F. Kunz took great interest in it, later stating in

    an article:" The world owes George Morse Stoney the discovery of jade

    in America."

            The expedition left Kotzebue Sound on the Bear on August 28 and

    landed in San Francisco on October 21, with every member in the best

    of health.

            The newspapers gave little publicity to the expedition. Stoney

    made a full report of his explorations to the Secretary of the Navy who trans–

    mitted it to Congres s for publication. It was ordered printed, but the manus–

    cript was lost or disappeared and the report was never published. Ten years

    later wrote [ ?] what seems an abridged account of his

    expedition which was published by the United States Naval Institute in

    a volume, entitled: Naval Exploration in Alaska .

            Following his return from the Arctic, Stoney was attached for a time

    to the Bureau of Navigation and to the Branch Hydrographic Office, San Francis–

    co, later serving on the Charleston , the Philadelphia , and various other

    ships. In 1897, he was detached to Mare Island to establish Rendez-vous

    at San Francisco. From 1898 to 1900, he wass attached to was stationed at the Naval Academy,

    and in the late summer of 1900, during the war with Spain he commanded the

    transport Solace . He was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Commander

    in 1899 and commissioned a Commander in 1904.

            During the last three years of his life, he was in charge of ships

    at the Naval Academy with headquarters on the old receiving ship Santee .

    Although often ill and ir r ascible at times, he was very popular both

    with officers and men. Always a vivid, colorful personality, he had turned

    into something like of a legend. Many stories circulated about his former

    adventures, while his language seems to have been both the terror and the

    delight of the midshipmen on duty on the Santee . He died April 30,

    012      |      Vol_XV-0800                                                                                                                  

    1905 at his quarters on the Santee , survived by his wife, the former

    Miss Babcock of San Francisco and two daughters, Helena and Katherine.

    His remains were placed in a vault in Arlington Cemetery on May 2.

    (See also HOWARD, W. L. Rear Admiral).


    Felizia Seyd


    Geographic Dictionary of Alaska by Marcus Saker. Second Edition.

    Washington, Government Printing Office, 1906 Gilder, W. H., Ice-Pack and Tundra . London, Sampson, Low, Marston,

    Searle & Rivington, 1883 Nourse, J.E. American Exploration in the Ice Zones . Boston 1884. Stoney, G. M. Naval Explorations in Alaska . United States Naval Institute,

    Annapolis, Md. 1900.

            Written Communications:

    Letter from Mrs. Harry L. Brown, (nèe Helena Stoney,) 1030 Green Street,

    San Francisco. March 17, 1951 Letter from Mrs. Wm. S. Popham, 129 Tradd Street, Charleston, S. C.

    (Stoney's niece) February 9, 1951

    Back to top