Saturday, November 25, 2006

Meet Jerome...

WHEN I was twelve years old,
I was asked by my history teacher to write a "cultural report", basically a paper on where my ancestors came from. So I did. I asked my parents about my heritage and found that I was 1/2 Norwegian, 1/4 Irish, and 1/4 Swedish. As luck would have it, our Norwegian side was already researched and documented quite well, it was traced all the way back to 1600 in Norway! I was able to find out good info about our Irish and Swedish side, however I couldn't trace it back very far. Either way, I got an "A" on my paper, my teacher commenting he wish he knew as much about his family as I did mine. That was the spark that lit the flame which still burns inside me today. Thanks Mr. Sjoberg!!!!!!!

IN college I was going to study abroad in Ireland for a few semesters, so my mother's aunt, a very stoic Irish Catholic Nun (red hair to boot!) sent me some very interesting info about our Irish side of the family. She had hoped I could trace our heritage while I was studying in Ireland. Unfortunately, my father had health problems, and passed in 1989; I stayed home and as a result, I didn't want to leave mom alone. I was only 19, my dad passed when he was 47. The documents that "Aunty Sister" gave me were put away, occasionally I'd bring them out, but I didn't understand the notes that were made on the papers. There was an uncle that had discovered some ocean currents that went to the north pole, there was also a Congressional Gold Medal in my GG Grandfather's obituary mentioned, there was mention of the Paris Conservatory and a musical background in piano and a love for poetry. So many odd notes were written, so many things that didn't make sense. So I put the papers away and they didn't come back out until 1996.

I GOT curious. Where was this Congressional Gold Medal, who in the family now had it? Why was it awarded? Who went to the north pole? Did the fact that I was also a pianist and had a talent for poetry mean it was in my genes? Thank God for the internet. When I was twelve all I had was a telephone and a library. I was older now. I had access to computers and the World Wide Web. Yahoo was the biggest search engine that I knew of, along with AOL. I didn't find anything on the net until 1998 when I moved back home to live with mom. That's when things started happening.

I TOOK another look at my GG Grandfather's obituary. I read a bit more slowly. In there it stated his brother Jerome sailed on the Greely Relief Expedition to the north pole. So I went to the library, and found every book on the expedition. I could find no mention of Jerome Collins. I was getting frustrated. Why would I hit a brick wall so suddenly? Then it happened. I was searching for Jerome Collins on the internet, and I found the name with a sketch of his image on the US Naval Historical website. Could this be our guy? It was! Upon further research I was able to confirm that Jerome J. Collins was actually a member of the Jeannette Arctic Expedition to the north pole in 1879, and that the Greely Relief Expedition was sent after the Jeannette had been out of sight for quite some time. Doors were opening, questions were being answered, but with each question answered, it posed at least 10 more new questions. One thing I learned right away, don't believe everything you read. In this case, my GG Grandfather's obit had been embellished, but why would the family mention the Greely instead of the Jeannette? I was about to find out.

THE Jeannette was formally the Pandora owned by Sir Allen Young, a bark-rigged steamer yacht purchased by James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald who had hopes of making headlines at the north pole. Pandora would have been more appropriate, the Jeannette had bad luck before she even set sail from San Francisco Harbor in July of 1879. She didn't even make it to the pole, instead just a few months after setting her sails, she was thrust into the ice pack by the Lieutenant DeLong, in hopes of letting the flow take her north. Soon she was trapped for almost 2 years. The crew of over 30 men finally had to escape to the ice, sledging over the jagged ice packs where they finally took to the water and made for land. Three boats in all were in the Laptev Sea above Northern Siberia, only two made it to the Lena Delta, the 3rd presumably lost in a gale, never to be found again. (Later, pieces of the Jeannette had reached the coast of Greenland, thus enhancing the theory that Jerome had discovered the "ocean currents" mentioned in his brother Daniel's obit). That boat of Jerome Collins, who was the New York Herald correspondent forced to sign on as a seaman while leaving the harbor to the pole, was alongside DeLong as they landed on the Lena Delta. The other boat made it to safety and found natives and food. DeLong refused to go any further, and insisted he wait for help as he guarded not only the sick men, but his precious log books. Two men were allowed to walk and seek help, Jerome volunteered to go, but was forced to stay behind by DeLong, never mind the fact that he was the largest and healthiest man in the small party.

HELP came, but it was too late. DeLong and his men died, including Jerome, due to starvation and exposure to the harsh arctic elements. DeLong's last entry in his guarded journal read, "Mr. Collins dying", October 30th, 1881. Jerome Collins had died while under suspension for a trivial offense, that which was never lifted by DeLong before their death, and that which was never lifted after a formal Congressional Inquiry into the mistreatment of Jerome while on board the Jeannette from 1879-1881. Even in death to this day Jerome Collins is still under arrest.

HIS brother Daniel, my GG Grandfather, and brother Bernard, did all they could to lift the charges, but a decision was never made. Daniel treasured the Congressional Gold Medal which was awarded to Jerome posthumously, and when he died just 6 short years later, it disappeared, never to be seen by his descendants again. If I died, would I want the world to know about my failed attempts to vindicate my own dead brother? Would I ask that any reference be published alongside my name in the papers to the tragic Jeannette Arctic Expedition? Maybe, maybe not. But the Collins family was full of honor and had roots that ran deep into the heart of Ireland. Their instinct to fight for Jerome's honor wasn't just a publicity stunt, it was their heritage, their way, and their blood which made them stand up for what was right.

HOWEVER it happened, the fight was given up after Daniel's death in 1900. No mention of this expedition was ever verbally passed on down to me along with the heartache and pain it must have caused the family knowing that a cherished son of Ireland perished in northern Siberia at the expense of making headlines for a playboy newspaper man with hopes of selling the next million dollar headline. So it comes to this. 2006. My research, my journey, my fight, and the flame that my history teacher lit in my heart when I was twelve years old to find my roots. Just because I'm 1/4 Irish doesn't mean I won't give it 100% to clear my Great-Great Granduncle Jerome J. Collins name of the trivial charges. If anything, I'll be giving 200%.

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