Lost in the Arctic and salvaged by American whalers, the timbers of the HMS Resolute eventually became a priceless piece of White House furniture.
In 1845, British naval officer and explorer Sir John Franklin left England with two ships, the Erebus and Terror, and a crew of 24 officers and 110 men, in search of the Northwest Passage. Two years later, Franklin and his crew disappeared in the Arctic and forty separate search parties were launched over a ten year period to rescue the men of the expedition. One of the rescue teams included HMS Resolute.
HMS Resolute’s Rescue Expedition and Abandonment
In 1852, Captain Edward Belcher led a rescue expedition of five ships in search of Franklin, intending to spend two or three years in the ice. Captain Henry Kellett sailed with HMS Resolute and HMS Intrepid. The first winter, the arctic ice held Resolute and Intrepid in a tight grip, as planned, 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, that spring, Belcher ordered Kellett to abandon the Resolute and Intrepid. The men protected the ships as best they could, then Kellett led the men across the ice in search of the other ships in the rescue expedition.
The Rescue of HMS Resolute
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.
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. Two “sister” desks were also created from the Resolute’s timbers. One was used at Buckingham Palace. In 1880, Queen Victoria presented the fourth desk to United States President Rutherford B. Hayes. Every president since Hayes—except Johnson, Nixon, and Ford–has used the Resolute Desk either in the Oval Office or in their private study.
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.
The Legacy of HMS Resolute and the Resolute Desk
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.
- “Now on View at the Research Library.” The New Bedford Whaling Museum website.
- “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.
- Walter, Jeffrey. A Century of Our Sea Story. London: 1901.
- 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.