Dakota Datebook

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

Wednesday, November 3, 2004

Today is the birthday of famous Arctic explorer, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, who was born in 1879 to Icelandic immigrants living in Manitoba. When he was two, the family moved to the Icelandic community of Mountain, in northeastern North Dakota, where Vilhjalmur spent the remainder of his younger years.

Stefansson was a rugged boy who loved the outdoors. His father died when Vilhjalmur was just a boy, and to ease his mother’s hardship, he lived with his sister and helped a brother with his cattle and horses.

Vilhjalmur had only occasional access to education as a boy, but he managed to put himself through college at the University of Iowa. He had first attended UND, but he was kicked out for organizing a student protest. It was this “bull by the horns” attitude that would later define much of his life as an explorer.

Stefansson was very interested in other cultures and, starting in 1906, spent several years exploring the Arctic and living with the native Inuit of Tuktoyyaktut. He later wrote articles for Scientific American and the Literary Digest, along with a book My Life With the Eskimo, in which he emphasized that the Arctic was not the desolate, windswept land it was believed to be.

In 1908, Stefansson and Canadian zoologist Rudolph Anderson explored Herschel Island, Cape Parry, and the south side of Victoria Island. On this journey, they discovered a previously unknown group of Inuits who used copper tools. Stefansson was fascinated with the “Copper Inuit,” because many had European features, and several had blue eyes. He stayed with the tribe for four years and later put forth a theory that their lineage was mixed with early Norse explorers or from the lost expedition of Sir John Franklin. Stefansson’s theory was not accepted by the scientific community, but it did give him a quite a bit of notoriety.

Stefansson’s explorations were not without controversy. In one early expedition, he failed to stay in contact with his colleagues for many months. A later attempt to raise reindeer on Baffin Island failed, and his effort to create a colony on Wrangel Island in 1923 ended with several deaths.

Stefansson’s greatest gift was perhaps his greatest problem, too – his independence. In 1913, he was appointed to head a Canadian scientific expedition that sailed from Seattle, WA, in an old seal-hunting ship named Karluk. Of the crew Stefansson signed on, only two had polar experience. In August, the ship got stuck in the ice north of Alaska. After a time, Stefansson and a small group struck out to hunt for food, but they never returned to the ship. The Karluk slowly drifted west with the ice, which eventually crushed the ship near Siberia. The ship’s captain rescued the survivors after traveling 700 miles by dogsled for help. Eleven men died.

Meanwhile, Stefansson’s group drifted on ice floes, subsisting on polar bear and seals, and for the next five years, they explored Northern Canada. When Stefansson finally returned in 1918, he was accused of deserting the Karluk and its crew. Stefansson protested, saying the ship had drifted with the ice floes and was lost to them. It turned out to be his last expedition.
Stefansson was the last explorer to discover new lands in the Arctic. He introduced to society the reality of the polar region, freeing it from myths and rumors. But perhaps his greatest contribution was his recognition of the unique beauty of the Inuit culture.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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