After taking office in 1977, President Jimmy Carter moved a new desk into the White House. It had been briefly used by President Kennedy, but Johnson moved it out after taking office. Carter’s new desk was known as the Resolute Desk, and was made from the timbers of a British warship that was abandoned in the icy waters of Canada. That was not the ship’s final fate, however.
The ship was originally part of an expedition sent to track down explorer Sir John Franklin, who left England in 1845 to look for the long-fabled “Northwest Passage.” Franklin and his crew were lost, all dying of starvation and exposure, not to mention the seaborne illnesses of the era. But England didn’t know that, and Franklin’s ships weren’t discovered until 2016, so the Royal Navy sent a squadron out to discover the fate of Franklin himself. The HMS Resolute was just one of the ships in that squadron.
The expedition to find Franklin was as disastrous as Franklin’s own expedition. Eventually, the thick sea ice would force the Navy to abandon at least two of the ships, including Resolute. An American whaling crew found the Royal Navy ship adrift in the waters off Canada, crewed her, and took her to New London. Instead of turning her into an American ship, the United States had other plans.
The “special relationship” between England and the United States is a relatively recent development. In the days before the 20th Century, the two countries routinely butted heads and almost went to war on a number of occasions. At this time, the two were embroiled in border disputes, territorial arguments, fishing rights, and whatever else countries can go to war over. The U.S. decided to give the Resolute a complete American overhaul and refit, then present the ship to Queen Victoria as a peace offering. It worked.
The ship remained in England’s home waters until she left the service in 1879. But the wood from Resolute was to become legendary. Three desks were made, the first for the widow of Henry Grinnell, an American merchant from New York who helped search for Franklin’s lost expedition, the second for Queen Victoria herself. The third and largest one was presented as a gift to President Rutherford B. Hayes.
The desk remained in the White House until the assassination of President Kennedy, when Lyndon Johnson allowed it to go around the country on a traveling expedition and then sending it to the Smithsonian Institution. The desk has been modified twice, the most significant was the addition of a door panel in the front which bears the Presidential Seal. Franklin D. Roosevelt had this added to hide his leg braces from the press. That seal is only one of three that features the eagle’s head turned toward the 13 arrows on its talon, instead of the olive branch.