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Legendary Stories from American History: The HMS RESOLUTE and the Resolute Desks

Updated on March 29, 2018
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Darla Sue Dollman, B.A., M.F.A., is a freelance writer with 39 years combined experience as a journalist, author, photographer, and editor.

The HMS RESOLUTE

From the Illustrated London News.
From the Illustrated London News. | Source

Wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror Discovered in 2014 and 2016

It is a story that legends are made of, and a part of American history that should never be forgotten. Great explorers lost at sea; ships trapped in ice, frozen in time; gifts from the Queen of England and a priceless desk that is used to this day by American presidents.

The story begins in England and ends in the United States White House. In 1845, British naval officer and explorer Sir John Franklin left England with a crew of 24 officers and 110 men on two ships, the Erebus and Terror, in search of the Northwest Passage.

Two years later, it was determined that Franklin and his crew had disappeared in the Arctic. Forty separate search parties were launched over a ten year period to rescue the men of the expedition. One of these rescue teams traveled on the HMS Resolute.


The Terror in the Arctic

"Perilous Position of HMS 'Terror', Captain Back, in the Arctic Regions in the Summer of 1837". William Smyth (1800–1877).
"Perilous Position of HMS 'Terror', Captain Back, in the Arctic Regions in the Summer of 1837". William Smyth (1800–1877). | Source

The Search for the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus

It wasn't until September 12, 2016, that the Arctic Research Foundation announced that it had located the wreck of the HMS Terror in Nunabut's Terror Bay near King William Island. The ship was 57 miles south of where it was believed to have been abandoned so many years before. It was also 31 miles from the wreck of HMS Erebus. The discovery of the HMS Erebus was announced in 2014.

And this is the story of the HMS RESOLUTE, one of many ships filled with men sent to search for the HMS Terror and HMS Resolute, and how the pieces of the HMS RESOLUTE eventually ended up as the desk used by the President of the United States.

The HMS RESOLUTE

HMS RESOLUTE und Geschwader. Wood engraving, 1850.
HMS RESOLUTE und Geschwader. Wood engraving, 1850. | Source

The Rescue and Abandonment of the HMS RESOLUTE

In 1852, Captain Edward Belcher led a rescue expedition of five ships--including the HMS RESOLUTE and HMS Intrepid--in search of Franklin. Belcher was aware of the extremearctic conditionsand prepared to spend two or three years in the ice. Captain Henry Kellett was on the HMS Resolute and HMS Intrepid.

In spite of the extensive knowledge and experience of both men, itdidn't take long for the five ships to be separated in the dangerous arctic weather conditions.

The first winter, the arctic ice held Resolute and Intrepid in a tight grip, as expected, near Dealy Island, moving them slowly near Viscount Melville Sound. The second winter the ships were trapped in floe ice, but continued on course. Nevertheless, the following spring Belcher ordered Kellett to abandon the Resolute and Intrepid.

The men protected the ships as best they could then abandoned the ships as Kellett led the men across the ice in search of the other ships in the rescue expedition.

H.M.S Resolute and Intrepid winter Quarters, Melville Island, 1852-53

Drawing by Master George Frederick McDougall; Michael Hanhart; Nicholas Hanhart.  When George Frederick McDougall drew the picture after which this print was made, he was a Master on H.M.S. Resolute.
Drawing by Master George Frederick McDougall; Michael Hanhart; Nicholas Hanhart. When George Frederick McDougall drew the picture after which this print was made, he was a Master on H.M.S. Resolute. | Source

The Ship's Final Rescue

In September of 1855, HMS Resolute was discovered nearly 1200 miles from where her crew had left her. Captain James Buddington of the whaling ship George Henry had his men free the Resolute and she was taken to New London, Connecticut.

After a series of letters exchanged between the British and the whaling firm, it was decided that the whaling firm would retain possession of the ship according to maritime law. Senator Mason from Virginia convinced the United States Congress to restore the Resolute and return her to England.

The Resolute was purchased from the whaling firm for $40,000, refitted at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and returned to England under the guidance of Captain Hartstein of the United States Navy.

On December 17, 1856, the Resolute was presented to Queen Victoria as a token of friendship, an act that calmed tensions over issues that could have led to a war between England and the United States at that time.

William Simpson - George Zobel - England and America. The visit of her majesty Queen Victoria to the Arctic ship Resolute - December 16th, 1856

England and America. The visit of her majesty Queen Victoria to the Arctic ship Resolute - December 16th, 1856, to whom this engraving is by special permission respectfully dedicated by her obedient servants, P. & D. Colnaghi & Co., an engraving by G
England and America. The visit of her majesty Queen Victoria to the Arctic ship Resolute - December 16th, 1856, to whom this engraving is by special permission respectfully dedicated by her obedient servants, P. & D. Colnaghi & Co., an engraving by G | Source

The Resolute Desks

In 1879, HMS RESOLUTE was retired. The ship was made of fine, strong oak and Queen Victoria commissioned William Evenden of the Royal Naval Dockyard at Chatham, England, to make artifacts from its timbers. According to Resolute historian Elizabeth Matthews, author of HMS Resolute, there were at least four desks made from the Resolute.

One of the desks, a small “lady’s desk,” was presented as a gift to Henry Grinnell’s widow in honor of his efforts to rescue the Franklin party. Grinnell funded one of the rescue expeditions. Another desk was made for Queen Victoria's private yacht.


Queen Victoria, 1856

Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1805-1873) painting of Queen Victoria.
Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1805-1873) painting of Queen Victoria. | Source

Construction of the Four Desks

When the ship dismantling of the HMS RESOLUTE was complete Queen Victoria ordered the construction of four desks from the timbers.

All four desks were created by William Evenden at the Royal Naval Dockyard in Chatham, England. In addition to the mahogany timbers from the HMS RESOLUTE, Evenden also used white oak in the construction process.

The larger desk, referred to as a partners desk, was presented to U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes on November 23, 1880. Every president since Hayes—except Johnson, Nixon, and Ford--has used the Resolute Desk either in the Oval Office or in their private study.

A smaller desk, called a "lady's desk," was given to Henry Grinnell's widow. Grinnell funded several expeditions in an attempt to resolve the mystery of the wrecked ships. The Grinnell Desk is presently on display at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in New Bedford, MA.

There was enough timber left over for Evenden to create two desks for Queen Victoria. He built a writing table, which is now on display at the National Museum of the Royal Navy, Portsmouth. A small table was also made for Queen Victoria's yacht. This table is believed to be in the Royal Collection.

View of the Oval Office at the White House Showing the Resolute Desk

White House Oval Office during the administration of Bill Clinton showing the Resolute Desk.
White House Oval Office during the administration of Bill Clinton showing the Resolute Desk. | Source

Changes Made to the Resolute Desk

President Franklin D. Roosevelt added a door, called a modesty panel, to cover the kneehole on the Resolute Desk and conceal his wheelchair, but Roosevelt died before the panel was completed.

President Harry Truman chose to have the panel installed.

One of the more popular photographs of the Resolute Desk shows John F. Kennedy working at the desk with John Kennedy, Jr., playing at his feet, peeking through the kneehole door, or modesty panel.

The modesty panel is carved with the presidential seal, one of four presidential seals in the White House that shows the eagle facing the arrows of war held in its left talon--in 1945, President Truman officially changed the seal to show the eagle facing the olive branch of peace in its right talon.

President Ronald Reagan also modified the desk with a two inch platform to accommodate his favorite chair.

President John F. Kennedy at the Resolute Desk

Portrait of President Kennedy at his desk. White House, Oval Office, November 2, 1961. Public Domain.
Portrait of President Kennedy at his desk. White House, Oval Office, November 2, 1961. Public Domain. | Source

The Legacy of the HMS RESOLUTE and the Resolute Desk

In 2007, author Elizabeth Matthews wrote a detailed book explaining the expeditions, the fate of the HMS RESOLUTE, and the political implications. Her book, HMS RESOLUTE, is believed to be one of the most precise historical documentations of the events involving the HMS RESOLUTE.

On February 15, 1965, HMS Resolute’s bell was presented to President Lyndon B. Johnson by the British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. Queen Victoria's desk is displayed at the Royal Navy Museum in Portsmouth, Uk. The Grinnell Desk is displayed at the New Bedford Whaling Museum Research Library in Massachusetts. The Buckingham Palace desk is believed to be at Windsor Palace.

The Resolute Desk is a legendary and priceless part of the White House furnishings. In the late 1960s, the Resolute Desk was part of a traveling exhibition and display at the Smithsonian Institute. President Johnson suggested that the desk be added to the tour because of its association with President Kennedy with the hope that viewing the desk would help the nation heal after Kennedy's assassination.

The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California, has a full-scale replica of the Oval Office including an exact replica of the Resolute Desk with Reagan's alterations. The history of the Resolute Desk was also integral to the plot of the 2007 film National Treasure: Book of Secrets. Resolute, Nunavut Canada, a small Inuit hamlet established in 1947, and the nearby Resolute Bay, were both named for HMS Resolute.

Huzzah for the RESOLUTE! by Elizabeth Matthews

Sources:

  • "Now on View at the Research Library." The New Bedford Whaling Museum website. Retrieved August 29, 2009.
  • "Oval Office." The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation Library and Museum Website.
  • Rattray, Mary. "The Resolute Desk: A Gift of Peace." Our Whitehouse: Looking Out, Looking In. The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance.
  • Spilman, Rick. "Rescuing Franklin--HMS Resolute, the Desks and Nicolas Cage." The Old Salt Blog. Retrieved September 9, 2009.
  • Walter, Jeffrey.A Century of Our Sea Story. London: 1901.
  • White, Elizabeth. HMS RESOLUTE. Alto Press Book: 2007.
  • White, Elizabeth. Personal Interview.
  • Wright, Helen. The Great White North: The Story of Arctic Exploration From the Earliest Times to the Discovery of the Pole. The Macmillan Company: New York, 1910.

© 2015 Darla Sue Dollman

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