Bartlett Robert

Robert Abram Bartlett, one of the most significant Arctic sailing masters of his era, was born in Brigus, Newfoundland, in 1875. As a young man, he shipped out on a series of sealing vessels in the polar regions, where he learned to handle vessels under extreme conditions. In 1898, Bartlett became the first mate on the Windward, the ship that Robert Peary used in his first attempt to reach the North Pole in 1898-1899.

Peary offered Bartlett command of the Roosevelt, Peary's primary exploration ship, in 1905. Bartlett agreed under the condition that he be permitted to accompany Peary on his attempt to the North Pole. The 1905-1906 expedition sailed along the eastern shore of Ellesmere Island to Cape Sheridan, where the group wintered. In February 1906, Bartlett and a crew of Inuit prepared trails and laid supply depots for the push north. They were stopped by the "Big Lead," open water that could not be navigated. Bartlett returned to the United States with the Roosevelt badly crippled and in danger of sinking after a harrowing three-month voyage from Etah, Greenland.

Bartlett traveled again to the north with Peary and the Roosevelt in 1908, reaching Cape Sheridan, Ellesmere Island, at the very end of the sailing season. In February of the following year, Bartlett led members of the expedition north to break trail. When others turned back, he continued to a point only 150 miles from the North Pole before returning. On March 31, Peary began his final attempt of the Pole, taking Matthew Henson with him and informing Bartlett that he would not be permitted to join in the attempt. Historians speculate that Bartlett was prevented from joining the attempt because he might either upstage Peary if they were successful or that Bartlett, a superior navigator, could challenge the accuracy of Peary's calculations and determine whether the North Pole had actually been reached. Bartlett returned to New York at the end of the expedition and spent the following year lecturing in Europe. He did not, at any time, publicly comment on Peary's decision to leave him behind.

In 1913, Bartlett captained the Karluk for Vilhjamur Stefansson on a voyage of three vessels to the Canadian

Arctic via the Bering Strait. In 1913, Stefansson convinced the Canadian government to sponsor an expedition to solidify the nation's claim to its Arctic regions, and to explore and map these regions. The venture was divided into a northern and a southern division, the latter of which Stefansson commanded. Bartlett sailed Karluk from Victoria, British Columbia, with Stefansson, the scientific members of the division, and supplies and equipment. The vessel was beset in ice on August 12, 1913 off the Alaskan coast. Stefansson left the ship on September 20, ostensibly to hunt for meat, and walked with a small group of men to Herschel Island where he met with members of the Southern Division and remained in the Canadian Arctic for five years.

The Karluk remained fast in the drifting ice until it was crushed in January 1914. Four members of the ship's company were lost almost immediately, while Bartlett led the remainder under his command to Wrangel Island, north of the Siberian coast. Bartlett then traveled over 700 miles on foot through snow and ice to get assistance for the Wrangel Island survivors. He succeeded in July 1914. However, an investigation was held after Bartlett's return and he was found to be partially responsible for the disaster. Recent accounts, including that of expedition survivors MacKinlay and Niven, have exonerated Bartlett and instead blamed the disaster on Stefansson.

After returning from the Canadian Arctic Expedition, Bartlett moved to the United States and became an American citizen. During that country's brief involvement in World War I, he worked for the US Navy. In 1917, Bartlett commanded a relief expedition the Crocker Land Expedition, which under Donald Macmillan seeked to attempt to locate the land that Bartlett and Peary believed they had seen in 1906, but with unsuccessful results. Bartlett proposed several other expeditions in the next eight years, but none were financed.

The purchase of a ship, the Effie M. Morrissey, in 1925 by a friend allowed Bartlett to embark on nearly two dozen expeditions and voyages to the Canadian Arctic in the next two decades. The results of these voyages included large amounts of geographical and scientific data. The first of the voyages was to supply Knud Rasmussen at Thule, Greenland. In 1927 and again in 1933, Bartlett explored Foxe Channel and Basin as well as the Fury and Hecla Strait between the mainland and Baffin Island. In 1930, 1931, and 1939, he gathered oceanographic and atmospheric data along the coasts of northeast Greenland for a number of organizations, including the US Navy. Eight trips to Ellesmere Island and northwest Greenland between 1932 and 1941 allowed Bartlett to improve mapping and charting of those areas as well as to gather data on oceanic and atmospheric conditions. His exploits in this period were the subject of a number of essays, including several in National Geographic.

During World War II, Bartlett aided the war effort by supplying military bases in northern Canada and Greenland. He moved to New York City immediately after the war. In 1946, Bartlett caught pneumonia and died on April 28. His beloved Effie M. Morrissey, now named the Ernestina, has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places and is berthed at New Bedford, Massachusetts.


Robert Abram Bartlett was born in Brigus, Newfoundland, Canada, on August 15, 1875. After boarding school in St John's, Newfoundland, he went to sea as a sealer. He was hired in 1898 as first mate on the Windward, one of Robert Peary's ships used in the attempt on the North Pole. Peary purchased the Roosevelt in 1905 and asked Bartlett to be its captain. They sailed to the north shore of Ellesmere Island and Bartlett took the ship back, although badly damaged, to New York the following year. Peary again asked Bartlett to captain the Roosevelt on his next attempt at the North Pole in 1908-1909. Only 150 miles from the pole, Bartlett was informed that he would not be permitted to continue. Bitterly disappointed, Bartlett nevertheless did not complain publicly of this slight. In 1913, Vilhjalmur Stefansson hired Bartlett to captain the Karluk during the Canadian Arctic Expedition.

In 1917, as a US citizen, Bartlett commanded a ship sent north to attempt to find Crocker Land. After a struggle with alcohol, Bartlett was given the Effie M. Morrissey, a schooner that he used to make 20 scientific voyages, beginning in 1925, to the Arctic including several for the US Navy. Bartlett caught pneumonia in New York and died there on April 28, 1946.

Philip N. Cronenwett

See also Canadian Arctic Expedition, 1913-1918; Peary, Robert E.

Further Reading

Bartlett, Robert, The Last Voyage of the Karluk, Boston: Small, Maynard, and Co., 1916

-, The Log of Bob Bartlett: The True Story of Forty Years of Seafaring and Exploration, New York: G.P. Putnam, 1928

-, Sails Over Ice, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1934

Horwood, Harold A., Bartlett, the Great Canadian Explorer,

Garden City: Doubleday, 1977 McKinlay, William Laird, Karluk: The Great Untold Story of

Arctic Exploration, New York: St Martin's Press, 1977 Niven, Jennifer, The Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk, New York: Hyperion, 2000 Putnam, George Palmer, Mariner of the North: The Life of Captain Bob Bartlett, New York: Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, 1947

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