The history of the country is something every student in America learns from an early age. For instance, you’d be hard-pressed to meet someone who doesn’t know about Paul Revere’s midnight ride or the importance of the year 1776.
However, there are some aspects of our nation’s storied history that are easy to overlook. Many of those mysterious details are connected to the very objects that are located in plain sight in the White House today.
One such object is in view whenever the President signs bills from the Oval Office: the Resolute Desk. That desk becomes all the more impressive once you know its backstory…
The stately desk pictured below has been a fixture inside of the White House since 1880. It is called the Resolute Desk, and when you think of the President signing bills into law, you probably imagine him sitting in front of it. But have you ever wondered how it was made and how it got there? Well, its story began back in the mid-19th century—in the Arctic Ocean, of all places!
No one knew that Sir John Franklin, an experienced explorer and a member of the Royal British Navy, would never return when he left Britain in 1845 to explore the Arctic. Nor did they know that his disappearance would lay the foundation of a great American tradition.
The British government wasn’t about to let any of their own men vanish without a trace. Three years after Franklin’s two ships, the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, unwittingly struck ice, England deployed forces to go and look for the crew…
Among the fleet of ships sent out to look for the poor desperate sailors was the the HMS Resolute, which had been purchased by the British Navy in 1850. Resolute never discovered the lost ships, but it did come across the remains of a camp that the sailors had built in the east Arctic.
Above you can see President John F. Kennedy working at the Resolute Desk, which was named after the HMS Resolute.
In 1852, the HMS Resolute was sent out on another Arctic rescue mission. This time, tragically, it would suffer the same fate as the boats it was sent to rescue. It became badly trapped in the ice, and the crew was unable to free it.
Caroline Kennedy and Kerry Kennedy play inside of this historic desk.
In 1855, an American whaling ship spotted the HMS Resolute, and it was able to help free the ship from its icy trap. The whaling ship divided its crew, and half of them went about the business of kindly returning the HMS Resolute to England.
Above is a model of the Resolute Desk at the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum.
Once the ship was returned to England, it continued to serve the British navy until it was decommissioned in 1879. The ship’s lumber was made into three different desks on the orders of the Queen.
One of those desks—the Resolute Desk—was given to American President Rutherford B. Hayes by Queen Victoria herself. The Queen wanted America to have one of the desks as a token of appreciation for their help during the Arctic searches.
Above, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and United States President Jimmy Carter admire the desk’s inscription.
The desk was designed and constructed by cabinet makers in England. The original designs were made on September 9, 1879. Now, the designs are kept on display in the National Maritime Museum. Here you can see the intricate details that are only part of what makes this desk so special.
President Franklin Roosevelt was the first to order a modification of the desk in its history. He asked for a front panel at the kneehole in an effort to conceal his legs, which were withered from polio. Meanwhile, the two other desks made from the HMS Resolute‘s timber still exist.
Above, President Barack Obama works from the Resolute Desk.
The second desk is called the Grinnell Desk. It was presented to the widow of Henry Grinnell in 1880 as a gift of gratitude for her husband’s contribution to the search for Sir John Franklin. The third desk was kept by Queen Victoria and is on display at the Royal Navy Museum.
Who knew that the history behind the desk sitting in the Oval Office was so fascinating? What an amazing legacy, and how perfect that it still gets used every single day!
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