Facebook Twitter Tumblr Close Skip to main content
A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

FactCheck Mailbag, Week of March 27-April 2

This week, readers sent us comments about a dispute over ownership of islands near Russia and Alaska, and the need for more letters in the FactCheck Mailbag.

In the FactCheck Mailbag, we feature some of the email we receive. Readers can send comments to editor@factcheck.org. Letters may be edited for length.


Island Ownership

Your story [“Alaskan Island Giveaway?,” March 27] needs considerable revision. It has many misstatements and conclusions. It falsely says that the U.S. has never claimed sovereignty to any of the seven islands. Here are the facts.

1. Wrangell Island became American when, in 1881, the U.S. Revenue Marine (early version of Coast Guard) ship Thomas Corwin sent a landing party (including John Muir) to claim the island for the U.S. Corwin was commanded by Capt. Calvin Leighton Hooper.  About a week later, USS Rodgers did a survey of the island. Vast amounts of reporting to Washington and front page stories. Muir wrote the book “The Cruise of the Corwin” with his own drawings showing the raising of the U.S. flag.

2. Bennett, Jeannette and Henrietta Islands (often called the DeLong Islands after the name of the U.S. Navy Lt. George Washington DeLong who commanded the ship) were discovered and claimed for the U.S. in 1881 during an expedition of USS Jeannette. It was co-sponsored by the U.S. Navy and the famous New York Herald publisher James Gordon Bennett. (Jeannette was his sister, and Henrietta his mother.) USS Jeannette had gotten to a location north of Wrangell at which it got stuck in the ice. The ice flows northwest and the ship was stuck for two years while it traveled about 500 miles, coming upon the three islands. At that point, the ship sank and the crew got off in two lifeboats, and headed south in one of the most heroic feats of history. They reached the Lena River Delta, but got separated. The boat with the Capt. DeLong — most died of starvation, with the deck log clutched in the captain’s arms.  The other boat under the chief engineer was rescued by the Russians. Back in the U.S., there was jubilation in front page stories, congressional hearings, etc. Crew was awarded gold medals from Congress.

3. Copper Island, Sea Lion Rock and Sea Otter Rock were part of the 1867 treaty. The last clause of the treaty article about what territory was being ceded to the U.S. stated that all of the Aleutian chain east of 193 east longitude (167 degrees west) was going to the U.S.  This line runs right between Bering Island on the Russian side and Copper and the two rock on the U.S. side. Nothing could be clearer.

4. Your map has misleading depictions about the maritime boundary line. At the southern end it shows a line going south past the mid-point between Attu and Copper Islands. No such extension was in the treaty. Your map also omits the segment of the line which goes between Bering and Copper and the two rocks.

5. Your story says something about a vague Russian claim to Wrangell in 1926, but does not show how it would overcome the existing U.S. sovereignty.

6. Wrangell was inhabited by Americans from the Lomen Brothers (Carl and Ralph) of Nome, with a settlement for reindeer herding in the 1920s. They had acquired the property from Vilhjalmur Steffanson.

7. Much of the giveaway is outlined in the Alaska Legislature’s resolution in 1999 opposing the giveaway. See our website www.statedepartmentwatch.org.

I urge you to change your answer from “No” to “Yes” and give your readership all the facts.

Carl Olson
Chairman, State Department Watch
Woodland Hills, Calif.

FactCheck.org responds: We don’t agree that any revision to our article is necessary. In our judgment, the evidence is overwhelming, and does not support Mr. Olson’s claims of a “giveaway.” We reviewed all his material thoroughly before posting our findings. Our article provided our readers with a link to the “StateDepartmentWatch” website, should any of them have desired more detail about Mr. Olson’s long-running dispute with the past several administrations.

To address his first statement, as any sensible person knows, raising a flag does not constitute an official claim of territory by the U.S. government, even when done by so notable a figure as John Muir, or by a newspaper. As for some of his other statements: The Soviet claim to Wrangel Island is far from “vague” — and as we stated, it created an international incident when a Canadian tried to claim the island for his own government. The map Mr. Olson refers to as “your map” is from the U.S. Department of State — and in any case, other maps will show Wrangel Island and the others to be far closer to the Russian mainland than to Alaska. As we reported, the Russians would like to think the maritime boundary should be moved closer to the U.S., and that the “giveaway” was done by their own leaders in the dying days of the USSR.


More Letters in the Mailbag

Printing two letters per week is pathetic. The full record of criticisms of your stories should be transparently displayed so people can make up their own minds on how accurate your stories are.

I used to think I could trust you to provide accurate fact-checking, but your measures no longer make any sense, and your inability to print, or respond to criticism is not encouraging.

John McGloin
Staten Island, N.Y.

FactCheck.org responds: We also wish there were more letters published in the mailbag. So, we invite readers to send us more feedback about our work — positive or negative — to editor@factcheck.org.

We aim to include a range of reader comments that are representative of the emails we receive each week, and that are thoughtful and informative.

And as regular readers of the mailbag know, we do respond when appropriate.