American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

CORWIN. The U.S. revenue steamer Thomas Corwin (built 1876) embarked from San Francisco on 4 May 1881 on its most famous expedition to northern Alaskan waters. Although the normal duties of the Corwin included the control of contraband trade in the far north, the 1881 voyage, under the command of Captain Calvin L. Hooper, was charged with three additional goals: to examine the condition of Eskimo peoples, imperiled after a particularly severe Arctic* winter; to locate the Mount Wollaston and the Vigilant, two American whaleships missing in the Chukchi Sea since 1879; and, most importantly, to search for traces of Captain George W. De Long’s Jeannette expedition, lost since 1879 in a celebrated attempt to reach the North Pole through the Bering Strait.

Among the crew of the Corwin’s 1881 voyage was John Muir, American naturalist, conservationist, and nature writer. Muir's talents as adventurer, glaciologist, and author ideally suited him to accompany the ship as a journalist and naturalist, and Muir’s literary account immortalized the 1881 voyage. In journals and in letters published in the San Francisco Evening Bulletin, Muir recorded the events of the journey, described the customs and condition of Chukchi, Tlingit, and other northern Indians, and narrated the discovery that the crews of the Mount Wollaston and the Vigilant had all died. From Muir, in a letter published in the Bulletin, 29 September 1881, the world learned that the Jeannette had been crushed by ice and sunk in the Arctic Ocean and that De Long and nineteen others of the ship’s crew of thirty-three had died of exposure and starvation. Muir’s writings concerning the Corwin expedition, edited by William F. Bade, were published posthumously as The Cruise of the Corwin (1917).

Michael P. Branch