Frederick Schwatka

Apr 14, 2021

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

When Alexis de Tocqueville came to America in 1826 to study its new citizens, he was amazed at their restlessness—moving an average of once every five years—an average that still holds true today.

If restlessness is in the air we Americans breathe, then Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka of Rock Island took an extra breath.

In 1878 Lieutenant Schwatka was put in charge of an expedition sponsored by the American Geographical Society to discover the fate of Sir John Franklin, the famous Arctic explorer whose party had disappeared in 1845 while trying to find the Northwest Passage. Fourteen previous searches had failed to find the answer. Schwatka's party lived with Eskimos for eight months learning to live off the land, before setting out on their search. They found and buried the remains of the Franklin expedition, covering 3,251 miles by sled dog—the longest such trip ever made. Schwatka became world famous, the subject of articles and books.

Lieutenant Schwatka returned to Rock Island, married, earned a medical degree and a law degree, but his restlessness drove him to Alaska in 1883 where he mapped much of that unknown country by floating over 150 miles of lakes and then 1,300 miles down the Yukon River on a primitive raft.

From his home base in Rock Island, Schwatka continued to explore. He commanded an expedition into northern Mexico in 1889 for the Chicago American, and a year later for the Chicago Herald.

In 1892, he and a group of friends planned a 90-mile winter hike through Yellowstone Park, but his friends reported back that he had not finished. On the evening of November 1st, 1892, in Portland, Oregon, a policeman found him unconscious in a doorway, suffering from an overdose of narcotics he had taken for stomach pains.

Hospital officials identified him as the famous explorer Frederick Schwatka. He died the following day, just as his wife received a letter written a few days earlier, planning new expeditions from Rock Island. He was 43.

What happened remains a mystery, but it may be that it was not only his last, but his most restless, voyage.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.