Frederick Schwatka

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Frederick Gustavus Schwatka
Schwatka sm.jpg
From an 1880 engraving
Born(1849-09-29)29 September 1849
Galena, Illinois
Died2 November 1892(1892-11-02) (aged 43)
Portland, Oregon
Allegiance United States
Service/branchUnited States Army
Years of service1871–1885
RankUnion army 2nd lt rank insignia.jpg Second Lieutenant
Unit3rd Cavalry Regiment
Battles/warsGreat Sioux War of 1876
Other workArctic exploration

Frederick Gustavus Schwatka (29 September 1849 – 2 November 1892) was a United States Army lieutenant[1] with degrees in medicine and law, and was a noted explorer of northern Canada and Alaska.

Early life and career[edit]

Lt Schwatka charge at Slim Buttes 1876

Schwatka was born in Galena, Illinois, the son of Frederick Gustavus Sr. and Amelia (Hukill) Schwatka. His father Frederick G. Sr. (1810-1888) was born in Baltimore, Maryland, the son of August and Catherine (Geissendorfer) Schwatke (the original German spelling with the same pronunciation), German Lutheran immigrants from East Prussia (now eastern Poland) and Bavaria, respectively. His mother Amelia Hukill (1812-1885) was born near Bethany, Brooke County, in present-day West Virginia and was of English and Scots descent. When he was 10 his family moved to Salem, Oregon. Schwatka later worked in Oregon as a printer's apprentice and attended Willamette University.[2] He was appointed to the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1867 and graduated in 1871, serving as a second lieutenant in the Third Cavalry in the Dakota Territory. Studying law and medicine simultaneously, he was admitted to the Bar association of Nebraska in 1875 and received his medical degree from Bellevue Medical College in New York in the same year.[3] In 1876, Lt. Schwatka led the initial cavalry charge at the Battle of Slim Buttes.

Search for Franklin's expedition[edit]

In 1878–80, at the behest of the American Geographical Society he led an expedition to the Canadian Arctic to look for written records thought to have been left on or near King William Island by members of Franklin's lost expedition. It was supported by various New York businessmen including Henry Grinnell, James Gordon Bennett, and Charles Patrick Daly.[4]

Traveling to Hudson Bay on the schooner Eothen, Schwatka's initial team included William Henry Gilder, his second in command; naturalist and artist Heinrich W. Klutschak; experienced seaman Frank E. Melms; and Joe Ebierbing, an Inuit interpreter and guide who had assisted explorer Charles Francis Hall in his search for Franklin between 1860 and 1869.[4][5]

The party landed on Depot Island in Hudson Bay at about 16:00 in the afternoon of 7 August 1878.[6] The group, assisted by other Inuit, went north from Hudson Bay "with three sledges drawn by over forty dogs, relatively few provisions, but a large quantity of arms and ammunition."[7] They interviewed Inuit, visited known or likely sites of Franklin Expedition remains, and found a skeleton of one of the lost Franklin crewmen, identified as Lieutenant John Irving of HMS Terror. Though the expedition failed to find the hoped-for papers, in a speech at a dinner given in his honor by the American Geographical Society in 1880, Schwatka noted that his expedition had made "the longest sledge journey ever made both in regard to time and distance"[8] of eleven months and four days and 2,709 miles (4,360 km) and that it was the first Arctic expedition on which the Caucasians relied entirely on the same diet as the Inuit.[9] The search was conducted under some of the coldest conditions experienced in polar exploration.[4]

Later career[edit]

In 1883, he was sent to reconnoiter the Yukon River by the US Army. Going over the Chilkoot Pass, his party built rafts and floated down the Yukon River to its mouth in the Bering Sea, naming many geographic features along the way. At more than 1,300 miles (2,092 km), it was the longest raft journey that had ever been made.[10] Schwatka's expedition alarmed the Canadian government, which sent an expedition under George Mercer Dawson to explore the Yukon in 1887. After his resignation from the army in 1885, Schwatka led two private expeditions to Alaska financed by William D. Boyce[11] and three to northeastern Mexico and published descriptions of the social customs and the flora and fauna of these regions.[12]

Schwatka received the Roquette Arctic Medal from the Geographical Society of Paris, and a medal from the Imperial Geographical Society of Russia. He was an honorary member of the Geographical Societies of Bremen, Geneva, and Rome.[13]


Schwatka's book-length publications include Along Alaska's Great River (1885)[14] and The Search for Franklin (1882), republished in 1965 as The Long Arctic Search.


He died in Portland, Oregon at the age of 43 in 1892. The New York Times reported his death as the outcome of an accidental overdose of morphine[1] but the Coconino Sun of Coconino county (Flagstaff), Arizona listed his death as a suicide by laudanum.[15] Schwatka was buried in Salem, Oregon.


Schwatka Lake in Whitehorse, Yukon, is named after him, as is Mount Schwatka, Alaska. In 2007, an Arctic Sharps rifle commemorating Frederick Schwatka was begun by a group of prominent American gunsmiths. Engraved by Barry Lee Hands, the rifle depicts scenes from the arctic adventures of Schwatka (See "External Links" below). Since 1960,[16] the cruise boat the MV Schwatka has ferried passengers along the Yukon River through Miles Canyon to Schwatka Lake.[17]

Frederick Schwatka was initiated to the Scottish Rite Freemasonry at the St. John's Lodge No. 37, Yreka, California.[18][19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Lieutenant Schwatka's Death Accidental" (PDF). New York Times. New York. November 4, 1892. Retrieved March 5, 2008.
  2. ^ Davis, Richard C. (September 1984). "Arctic Profiles: Frederick Schwatka. (1849- 1892)" (PDF). Arctic. 37 (3): 302. doi:10.14430/arctic2209.
  3. ^ Schwatka (1965), p. 14
  4. ^ a b c Savitt, Ronald (2008). "Frederick Schwatka and the search for the Franklin expedition records, 1878–1880". Polar Record. 44 (3): 193–210. doi:10.1017/S0032247407007140. ISSN 1475-3057. S2CID 145350570 – via Cambridge Core.
  5. ^ Schwatka (1965), pp. 13–15
  6. ^ Ferguson, Robert (2017). Arctic Harpooner: a Voyage on the Schooner Abbie Bradford, 1878-1879. Paul Quinn, Leslie Dalrymple Stair (Reprint 2016 ed.). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 37. ISBN 978-1-5128-1583-2. OCLC 979781461.
  7. ^ Savours (1999), p. 301
  8. ^ Schwatka (1965), pp.115–116
  9. ^ Schwatka (1965), p. 116
  10. ^ Sandler (2006), pp. 247–48
  11. ^ Petterchak (2003), pp. 9–10
  12. ^ Sandler (2006), p. 248
  13. ^ Wilson, J. G.; Fiske, J., eds. (1900). "Schwatka, Frederick" . Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography. New York: D. Appleton.
  14. ^ "Review of Along Alaska's great river by Frederick Schwatka". Science. VII (164): 294. 26 March 1886.
  15. ^ Ash, Susan L. (Pinky) Rogers (1975). The Coconino Sun, subject index, 1892. Northwestern Arizona University Library. Retrieved September 1, 2008.
  16. ^ Scott, John D. (1981). A Life in the Yukon. Whitehorse. pp. 118–122.
  17. ^ "MV Schwatka". Yukon Alaska Tourist Tours. Retrieved March 18, 2010.
  18. ^ "Biographical profile of Frederick Schwatka". Ezekiel Bates Lodge A.F. & A.M., MA.
  19. ^ "Frederick Schwatka". Grand Lodge of British Columbia and Yukon. Archived from the original on November 17, 2018. Retrieved November 17, 2018.

Works cited[edit]

  • Petterchak, Janice A. (2003). Lone Scout: W. D. Boyce and American Boy Scouting. Rochester, Illinois: Legacy Press. ISBN 0-9653198-7-3.
  • Sandler, Martin (2006). Resolute: The Epic Search for the Northwest Passage and John Franklin, and the Discovery of the Queen's Ghost Ship. New York: Sterling Publishing Co. ISBN 978-1-4027-4085-5
  • Savours, Ann (1999). The Search for the North West Passage. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-22372-2
  • Schwatka, Frederick (1965). The Long Arctic Search. Ed. Edouard A. Stackpole. New Bedford, Mass.: Reynolds-DeWalt

Further reading[edit]


  • Coleman, E.C. (2006). The Royal Navy in Polar Exploration from Franklin to Scott. Tempus Publishing
  • Schwatka, Frederick (1885). Along Alaska's Great River. New York: Cassell & Company
  • Schwatka, Frederick (1894). A Summer in Alaska. St Louis, Missouri: J.W. Henry
  • Schwatka, Frederick (1886). Children of the Cold. New York: Cassell & Company
  • Schwatka, Frederick (1893). In the Land of Cave and Cliff Dwellers. New York: Cassell & Company
  • Schwatka, Frederick (1885). Nimrod in the North. New York: Cassell & Company


  • Schwatka, Frederick. "Among the Apaches", Century Magazine, Vol. XXXIV (May 1887)

External links[edit]