Sunday, November 25, 2007

Joseph Elison Artic Explorer

Members of the Greely Expedition Elison backrow on the right.

This is an exciting story of another Schuylkill countian a soldier from the 5th Cavlary who was a member of the ill fated Greely Expedition to the far North in 1881.


Arctic Explorer and HERO.

In the summer of 1881, June 14, to be exact, the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition set sail for the far North. Led by Lt. Adolphus Greely, of the 5th United States Cavalry and twenty-four men established a base camp for arctic exploration on Ellsmere Island near latitude 81.44 degrees north. Little did the men know that they would spend three years in the north fighting for their lives in one of the most extraordinary arctic survival stories ever told. It is a story filled with months of starvation and man’s heroic efforts to survive under the most trying of conditions.
On the expedition was a man who now rests in the Catholic Cemetery in Yorkville, Pottsville Pa. T Joseph Elison, born in Baden, Germany in 1849, came to this country in 1868 and moved in with his brother at Pottsville. He worked for a year or more at the Rolling Mills in Palo Alto. Leaving Pottsville, Joseph Elison traveled West were he worked as a carpenter for a time. Tiring of this, Elison entered the United States Army Signal Corps were he enlisted for a period of six years. In 1881 he reenlisted and volunteered for the military expedition known as the Greely Expedition led by its namesake, Lt. Adolphus Greely. Elison was credited with being an expert naturalist. He was also given special training as a taxidermist. Lt. Greely, after the ill-fated expedition praised Elison for his natural history work and his bravery. Also Elison Island is named after this brave man. Elison kept a very detailed diary of the first two years of the expedition, and the original diary is in archives of the Schuylkill County Historical Society.
Leaving from the port of Baltimore on June 14, 1881, the expedition set sail for the North on the Steamer Proteus, and arrived in St. Johns, Newfoundland on June 22nd. After gathering supplies and loading stores, the men left St. Johns on July 7th. Elison noted in his diary on July 8th

“ Arose after a quiet night’s rest at 7a.m. but soon found out the sea was not calm. I noticed the first ice berg at 7:39 a.m. off the eastern coast of Newfoundland.”

On July 12th the men spotted the first ice fields about three square miles in length. They were all excited. On the 15th they passed the Arctic Circle were they put in at an Eskimo village named Disco, or better known as God Haven Greenland, consisting of about two hundred inhabitants. In Greenland the expedition would pick up fourteen Eskimo dogs. Continuing their northward travel, the men picked up another eleven bear dogs. Struggling north, the Proteus fought large ice flows sometimes being stuck solid in the ice and expecting every minute to be crushed to pieces. Arriving on August 11th in Lady Franklin Bay, the ship laid anchor about 150 yards off shore in Discovery Harbor. Here they built a wooden. And named it Fort Conger after Senator Conger who helped to get appropriations for the expedition. The Fort consisted of one building in which all the members of the party lived and worked. Unloading their supplies from the Proteus, the expedition had stores for twenty-seven months. On August 26th, the Proteus left Lady Franklin Bay and sailed out of sight to the South and so began the expedition’s reason for being.
On May 1, 1880 the President of the United States authorized an expedition to establish a temporary station in the Arctic seas at some point north of 81 degrees latitude on or near the shore of Lady Franklin Bay for the purpose of scientific observation and exploration. During the second year of the expedition, a scientific first was noted in early April of 1882 when fifteen men set out from Fort Conger northward on dog sleds. Elison was a member of the supporting party. They made a base at Cape Britannia miles north of Fort Conger. On April 28th, 1882 Lt. J.B. Lockwood, Sgt. D.L. Brainard and an Eskimo named Fredrick Christiansen made a dash north on dog sled teams and reached a distance of 83.44 degrees from the equator, the farthest north any man had ever traveled. They all returned safely to Fort Conger within a few days.
During the ensuing months the expedition faired well enough. The winter months were hard but the men survived. They were well nourished and their food supplies were plentiful. They shot and ate geese, and large Arctic muskox. At times the men were even in a jolly good mood. On July 4th, 1882 while at Fort Conger Elison describes in his diary what took place,

“ We had a shooting match 100 yards, foot race for 100 yards, wheelbarrow race, blindfolded and a base ball match. We had a fine dinner and the usual allowance of rum, Dr. Pavy and my self went gathering flowers in the evening, returned at 11 p.m.”

The expedition remained at Fort Conger on Lady Franklin Bay for a period of more than two years. The supplies started to run low and the excitement of Arctic exploration started to wear off. The winter of 1882 was extremely severe and the men were at times confined to their sleeping bags for days at a time. The first supply ship was scheduled to arrive in the summer of 1882, but it never came. Loaded with essential equipment and food supplies, the ship landed minimal supplies at two different locations, Month after month passed and still no relief ship arrived. On Christmas day 1882 Elison wrote in his diary,

“ Cloudy and calm. A dreary Christmas, this is a day one feels the forlorn situation more than any other day. I hope that this will be our last Christmas in the Arctic, it makes me sad to think of home and friends. We had an excellent dinner consisting of wine soup, roast meat, green corn, carrots and beets, coconut pie, rum jelly, English plum pudding, pine apples pears and grapes. After dinner each man was presented with a fine cigar which was very welcome. “

Surviving the first seven months of 1883, Elison noted in his diary on July 29th, 1883

“ Just before divine service Comm. Officer Lt. Greely issued the following orders. We would abandon the station on the 7th of August ice permitting. Extra weight per man out side of clothing worn on the body 8ilb. Officers 16Ilbs we were also informed that we should give the weight of extra clothing by Wednesday and also be in readiness so that we could leave at 3 hours notice.”

The July 28th diary report stated,

“ In case of a noon arrival of a vessel by Aug. 7th 1883, this station will be abandoned and a retreat southward by boats to Littleton Island will be attempted. “

Prior to leaving Fort Conger, Lt. Greely ordered the men to leave behind all personal property all scientific books, samples and papers were stored in three metal boxes and sealed with solder for safe keeping. It is important to note that Joseph Elison’s diary would be left behind at Fort Conger and would not be returned to his family until July 6, 1900 by members of the Peary Arctic Club of New York. A memorandum stated that the diary of Joseph Elison Co. E 10th Infantry was brought in May 1899, from Fort Conger by Civil Engineer, Robert E. Peary.
Despairing that a ship would arrive, on August 8th, Fort Conger was abandoned. The last scientific observation was made on the 9th; the men left by using the steam powered launch called the Lady Greely, which towed several smaller boats with the men. Struggling over three hundred miles of the most treacherous ice, Lt. Greely noted in his diary that,

“ We have tea and coffee enough for forty days, all other provisions sufficient for 50 days but could be made to last sixty days.”

By Sept. 5th the men were drinking the blood from seals that they killed. Sgt. Brainard stated,

“The conduct of the men during this retreat have been all beyond praise, they are to be highly commended for their unselfishness and for their happy faculty of making the best of everything. Even under the most trying circumstances. I thought there would be endless repining and laminations, but to my surprise good natured chaff, a hearty ringing laugh or a snatch of a song heard from the irrepressible little band almost any time.”

On September 10th 1883 the launch, Lady Greely, was abandoned and the men set out on sleds. By the 28th the men had suffered greatly from exposure. The retreat from Fort Conger to Cape Sabine involved over 400 miles of travel by boats and fully a hundred by sled. The trip was made under such trying circumstances of great peril and each man showed the greatest amount of courage and endurance.
On October 2, 1883 with no rescue in site, the men decided to ration their meager food supplies. They had hoped to stretch the food for 35 days but would try to stretch it into 50 days. At worst, they could last till November 16th and wait for the straits to freeze over. During this time, although exhausted and weak, the men set out to build some shelter. Using tent poles, oars and canvas they built huts made of stone and canvas. On October 17th they built their huts. The huts were two feet thick and three feet high. Outside was an embankment of snow that began about four feet high but later buried the building. Late in October the men were inside the hut. It was cold and uncomfortable and their constant talk was about something to eat and the different dishes they had enjoyed in the past.
On November 2, 1883 a party of four men left their shelter in search of forty pounds of meat left at an earlier date near Cape Isabella. The party consisted of Elison, Fredrick, Lynn and Sgt. Rice. The men took a four-man sleeping bag and a light sled. They had a ration of eight ounces of meat and bread and five ounces of alcohol. Sgt. Rice was in charge because of his knowledge of the area. They reached the area were the meat was stored on November 7th, took the meat and returned to the main camp. It took the men over fourteen hours to travel to where they left their sleeping bag. The men were exhausted and in the process started eating snow. Elison froze both his feet and hands while struggling along. His fellow travelers immediately put him in the sleeping bag. Ice covered both hands and feet. Fredrick crawled into the sleeping bag and placed Elison’s hands between his thighs in effort to thaw him out. Elison cried out the whole night in pain, Fredrick stated “ It was one of the worst nights spent in the Arctic.” Again on the 8th, Elison once again froze his limbs. He could not maneuver properly behind the sled. His legs were as stiff as cordwood and he could barely walk. By the morning of the 9th, Elison was completely helpless and had to be dragged along. On November 10, Lynn with Elison went ahead of the others. The temperature was about -25 and Elison was once again frozen stiff. His eyelids had now frozen shut. The men tried tying a rope to Elison to help him along but he would fall every few feet and be dragged behind the sled for several feet before being noticed. By now Elison’s feet were frozen so solid he could not stand and the men were obliged to halt and make a camp. That evening a northward blowing gale came and Sgt. Rice and Fredrick froze their hands.
The men decided that Sgt. Rice should go alone back to the main party and get help. He made the trip in darkness over 25 miles and sixteen hours later he staggered into camp, where he explained the situation with Elison. After Sgt. Rice left Fredrick , Elison and Lynn crawled into the sleeping bag shivering, cold and hungry. After a few hours the bag became so frozen the men could not turn over and they lay in one position for over eighteen hours.
Finally Lt. Lockwood arrived and tried to free the men from their frozen tomb, but he was unable to do so until he cut off the top of the bag. Fredrick and Lynn reached camp safely. Lt. Lockwood brought back Elison alive but in critical condition. Not only were his hands and feet frozen, but his face was so frozen he did not resemble a human being any longer. As Elison was brought into the hut, he begged for death. But with in one month, Joseph Elison, despite his injuries was bright and cheery.
In another notebook were found the notes that Elison dictated to Roderick R. Schneider on June 8, 1884, He talked about his situation while frozen.

Nov. 2, “ Sergt. Rice in charge and Sgt. Lynn, Pvt. Fredricks and myself left camp about 8 a.m. it being quite dusk, yet with a lightly laden sledge for Cape Isabella for the purpose of getting 144 Ibs of English meat left by Capt. Allen Young in 1876. Traveling quite bad, snow being soft and deep.”
Nov. 5, “ Spent a miserable night, broke camp about 8:30 a.m. only took one cup of tea, one biscuit and started for Cape, left our sleeping gear about 3 miles north of the cape. Snow knee deep, ice very humorocky and broken up. Had to abandon sledge within a mile of camp owing to the open water. The ice being pressed up about 40 feet. Against the cliffs. We climbed along the best we could, reached the cache and obtained the boxes of meat with great difficulty, Started back to the sledge which it took us 5 hours to do so. Took our meat and proceeded to were we left the sleeping bag. Having worked 13 hours in all this day, I was completely exhausted. After two hours of work with the wood boxes succeeded in cooking a cup of tea. The pennican we eat cold. Here I froze my hands so that I was unable to use them. Tried our best to thaw them out in sleeping bag, but owing to high wind, we did not succeed, the bag being frozen so stiff we were hardly able to move. Form this time out I had to be fed.”

Nov. 6, “Spent a miserable night. I froze both of my feet, Myself still able to walk with great difficulty, but not able to assist any on the sledge, thus making it hard on the others”.

Nov. 7. “Spent a miserable night, I still struggle along, my legs being like stilts and entirely unable to bend my ankles, it is by the greatest exertions that I get along at all. After supper party thawed my feet by warming stockings, which occupied about 2 hours.”

Nov. 9, “Myself yet unable to struggle along but growing weaker and weaker until I finally had to give in after traveling 7 miles.”

Nov. 10, “Unable to move in bag my hands and feet frozen now so badly that I had no use of them whatsoever, a high wind was blowing, we were unable to cook, no one was able to get out of the bag about noon Sgt. Brainard reached us from camp Clay, finding us in deplorable condition, frozen solid in the bag. About this time some horrible shortness of breath, begging for water and ice which could not be obtained. Putting me on sledge hauled me to Camp Clay. My sufferings on the way were horrible.”

Hospital Steward Biederbick wrote the following concerning Sgt. Elisons situation.

“Elison was brought into Camp Clay on the 12th of Nov. 1883 with his hands and legs badly frozen up to nearly his knees, his hands wrist and nose also badly frozen so that they appeared like a piece of ice. He was put in our miserable camp on a mattress over which a sheepskin sleeping bag cut open was spread and then covered with three woolen blankets. I was set to work at once thawing out the frozen parts with cloth steeped in cold water, which was gradually raised to a higher temp. All attention possible in our miserable condition was paid tot he patient. After about ten days a line of demarcation showed itself just above the ankles, and two days later on the hands. The nose was very sore and part of flesh sluffed off. One foot was removed through the ankle joints, nothing being used but a small scissors, the disjointing coming through the natural process. What makes this case so very remarkable is the short rations that which the patient had to subsist, and the cold dark and damp atmosphere in which we had to live.”
By mid January the first death over took the men. Sgt. William H. Cross died. Just barely staying alive the men struggled through another 150 or more days of Arctic darkness when in April the valiant Sgt. Rice died while on a food hunting search. By early May, despair and hunger started to take hold of some of the men and the stealing of food was noticed by some of the men. Still some of the stronger men were able to go out hunting; some of the men were acting insane and treating the sick very badly. May 19th Pvt. Ellis died.
The melting snow in the hut rained down on the survivors making them even more miserable. May 23d Ralston died. May 24th Pvt. Whisler died of starvation. The men were breaking down slowly. Lt. Greely reprimanded some of the men for their cruelty to the dying men. On May 27th Sgt. Isreal died and on June 3rd, Sgt. Sailor died. The men did not have enough strength left to bury him. He was placed away from the men out of sight. Lt. Greely wrote in his diary,

“ The uncertainty of life or death was a veritable sword of Damocles, but far worse than the fable.”

Knowing that there was a thief among the men and after days of missing food supplies, the culprit was caught. Pvt. Henry was repeatedly caught stealing food and after his admission of quilt was sentenced by Lt. Greely to be shot. On June 6th the order was carried out by pistol fire. That same day Pvt. Bender and the expedition’s doctor, Pavy, also died of starvation. The men were now down to eating their boot lashings and boot soles. June 12th Corp. Gardiner died. Sgt. Elison was still alive at this time and suffering not only from his wounds and starvation but also of bedsores. On June 20th Elison, whose hands had been amputated, was eating with a spoon lashed to one of his stumps. So he could eat seal stew. On June 22 the sound of a whistle was heard. There were seven men left alive in their tent. Strange voices were heard outside the tent. The voices heard were those of Capt. Winfield Scott Schley and the relief party. The men, after months of agony, were rescued.
After being loaded aboard the rescue ship, the seven survivors set sail for the south. After arriving in Greenland Elison under went another amputation. Actually he had lost both his hands and feet and remarkably had survived this horrible ordeal for over seven months. He succumbed to death on July 8th 1884 from the effects of the added amputations.
After the expedition there were many questions asked of Lt. Greely especially about the execution of Pvt. C.B. Henry. There were many accusations of cannibalism among the survivors. Nothing was ever proved concerning the cannibalism and the execution of Private Henry was found to be legal under military law.
Sgt. Elison finally came home to Pottsville; on August 9, 1884 He was buried with full military honors in one of the biggest funerals ever held in Pottsville. His casket weighed over 800Ibs and required 14 men to carry. The military funeral and cerimony was fitting for this soldier, explorer and hero of his time. Schuylkill County can be proud to have such a hero buried within its soil.
The only surviving members of the Elison family living in Schuylkill County at this time is Thomas Elison and William Elison. They are descendants of Joseph Elison’s brother.


Tina said...

My father, William Elison is also a decent of Joseph Elison. He is Thomas Elison's Cousin. William lives in Pottsville.
Christina Elison Seiger
Pottsville, PA

Janet Cross said...

My husband, Richard Cross, is the great-grandson of William Cross, who was the first man to die on the Greeley expedition. We have many of his journals as he was the quartermaster.

Janet Cross
San Dimas, CA

Meredith Gotz said...

Thank you for the history- I have read and watched some of the history regarding the Greeley expedition. Joseph Elison is my great, great, great uncle. I hope one day I can travel to visit his grave.

Patty Elison said...

Joseph is my husbands 2nd great grand uncle. I have come across this picture before that named Joseph as the man sitting second from the left. I hope someone can clear this up for me. I have his picture on my family tree at and would like to correct it if it is wrong.

Stu Richards said...

Patty,Joseph is the man stanfing on the far right as shown, we have a few of his photos at the Historical Society of Schuylkill County and match him perfectly, also this phot os taken from Greely's book. Stop in to the historical society some day check out his diary, its fantastic.

Stu Richards,