The exploration of the Arctic, as that of most of the world, has historically been configured along Eurocentric lines. Native peoples already lived in the Americas, Australia, Africa, Siberia, and many other parts of the world when Europeans first "discovered" and explored them. Nevertheless, the Europeans tended to produce the first extant written accounts, and such historical documents and texts give some legitimacy to claims of discovery, albeit from the perspective of the West.
The first known description of the European Arctic or Subarctic came from Pytheas, a citizen of Massilia (Marseilles), who, around 325 BC, claimed to have passed Britain and sailed to the island of Thule. Scholars have debated the location of Thule, with various arguments made for Iceland, Norway, and the Faroe and Shetlands islands.
More than a thousand years passed before, in approximately 880, a Norseman named Ottar presented to King Alfred of England an account of a voyage around northern Norway and into the Barents and White seas. Although undoubtedly not the first voyage to these areas, Ottar's was the first recorded one. A century later, Eirikr Thorvaldsson (Eirik the Red) was banished from Iceland for murder and set out westward where he encountered Greenland. Within a decade, a number of colonizing expeditions had founded settlements on that island, although they would disappear before a new series of voyages to Greenland occurred 600 years later.
In 1497, John Cabot, sponsored by Henry VII of England, led the first expedition to seek a route to the Orient around the north of Columbus' newly discovered lands, thereby commencing over 400 years of attempts to navigate the North West Passage. The first major voyage trying to reach the same destination by sailing north over Eurasia—the North East Passage— was also a British venture. However, it ended in disaster in the winter of 1553-1554, when Sir Hugh Willoughby and his entire company of men died in Lapland. Meanwhile, Richard Chancellor, in command of a different ship on the same expedition, made his way to the White Sea, and from there to Moscow, returning the next year with descriptions of little-known "Muscovie."
Attempts to complete both passages continued on and off throughout the 16th century. Martin Frobisher led two North West Passage expeditions in the 1570s, reaching Baffin Island, before his third expedition concentrated on mining for gold. A decade later, John Davis explored parts of the western coast of Greenland and the eastern coasts of Canada. Other explorers began to be led astray by apocryphal reports of two Spanish expeditions led by Lorenzo Ferrer Maldonado and Juan de
Boats in a swell among ice from Sir John Franklin's second Arctic expedition (1825-1827). Drawing by Capt. Back, August 24, 1826. Published May 1828 by John Murray, London. Copyright Bryan and Cherry Alexander Photography
Fuca, each claiming to have followed the "Strait of Annan" far to the west of where they entered it from the Davis Strait. In the 1590s, the Dutch navigator Willem Barents was involved in three North East Passage expeditions. He found Bj0rn0ya, made the first certain discovery of the Svalbard archipelago, and explored much of Novaya Zemlya before dying in 1597 after a brutal winter on the northern coast of that island group.
In the early 17th century, Henry Hudson, Robert Bylot, and William Baffin continued the British exploring tradition near the coasts of eastern Canada. At the same time, a major whaling trade began to develop in the area of Svalbard. Russia was expanding ever eastward into Siberia, and in 1648 Semyon Dezhnev led an expedition that attained the easternmost extremity of Asia and the strait dividing it from North America. However, the importance of Dezhnev's findings was not immediately recognized.
Following the success of a fur-trading voyage to Hudson Bay, in 1670 King Charles II of England granted a charter to what came to be known as the Hudson's Bay Company. The charter bestowed the members of the company with sole rights over a vast area of Canada then named Rupert's Land. The Hudson's Bay Company would hold these rights and continue to exploit this territory until 1870, when it surrendered its possessions to the new Dominion of Canada. The Danes were also interested in what the new lands could offer, and in 1721 Hans Egede headed a Danish-Norwegian expedition to establish a Christian mission and trading colony on the west coast of Greenland. Egede's was the first serious attempt by Europeans to colonize Greenland since the Norse settlements began in 1985.
From 1725 to 1733, Vitus Bering led a Russian exploring expedition to investigate the whereabouts of the easternmost point of Asia. Although he passed through the Bering Strait, a debate continued about whether the continents were connected, and Bering embarked again in 1733 on the Great Northern Expedition. In the next decade, seven semi-independent parties of the Great Northern expedition investigated interlocking areas of the Siberian coast. In 1741-1742, on separate voyages, Bering and his chief lieutenant, Alexei Chirkov, encountered many Alaskan islands, and Bering even reached the coast of the mainland before shipwrecking and dying on Ostrov Beringa.
Although numerous western European nations embraced interests in the Arctic, the British lead exploration after the middle of the 18th century, with a large part of their involvement centered on the whaling trade and expeditions by the Hudson's Bay Company. In 1770-1772, Samuel Hearne of the Company set off on his third attempt to explore northwest of Churchill for copper deposits and a North West Passage. Hearne traveled with Chipewyan Indians and, on July 18 1771—the day after his companions massacred Eskimos fishing at Bloody Falls—he reached the sea, becoming the first white man to stand on the north coast of America, and demonstrating that there was no hope of a low-latitude North West Passage.
Five years later, James Cook left Plymouth on his final expedition, in an attempt to find a North West Passage starting in the Pacific Ocean. After almost two years, Cook reached the west coast of North America, and then sailed north, searching for the entrance to the Passage. The ships Resolution and Discovery reached
Alaska, and sailed along the south coast of the Alaska Peninsula. In August 1778, Cook's team attained the northwestern extreme of North America at Cape Prince of Wales, from where he sailed across Bering Strait and sighted the eastern tip of Asia. Sailing northeast, Cook encountered an impenetrable barrier of pack ice, and soon headed south to winter in Hawaii, where he died in 1779.
In 1783, fur traders from Montreal established the North West Company, which soon became a powerful rival of the Hudson's Bay Company in the fur trade of the Canadian Subarctic. The same year, G.I. Shelikov led an expedition that represented the first attempt by the Russians to colonize and establish permanent trading posts in the Russian-American islands of Alaska. In the succeeding decades, such traders would open up major new tracts of land across the American Arctic and Subarctic.
The year 1818 marked a renewal of interest in the Arctic by the British Royal Navy. The moving spirit behind the British expeditions was John Barrow, the Second Secretary of the Admiralty, who viewed exploration as a means of occupying officers and men free from duties following the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Barrow also viewed national pride, the quest of scientific knowledge, and potential commercial profit as reasons for exploration. The Navy sent two expeditions that year. One, under David Buchan, attempted to sail from Svalbard to Bering Strait via the North Pole. His attempt proved unsuccessful, reaching only 80°34' N. The other expedition, led by John Ross, attempted to navigate the North West Passage. After exploring Smith and Jones sounds, Ross entered Lancaster Sound, but decided that it was enclosed by land and turned back.
Disappointed with Ross's results, the next year the Admiralty dispatched another expedition, under the figure who had been Ross's second-in-command, William Edward Parry. Parry began the true opening of the North West Passage, as he sailed through Lancaster Sound into the totally unexplored Canadian archipelago. He discovered Cornwallis, Bathurst, Byan Martin, and Melville islands, the last of which he wintered at in 1819-1820, the first deliberate Arctic wintering by British naval ships. Parry then explored the local area, with a party of men pulling a cart, before returning home.
The same year, another British naval expedition— under the command of John Franklin—was sent to explore the north coast of America east from the Coppermine River to Hudson Bay. Franklin, surgeon John Richardson, and their companions moved slowly along the rivers and lakes of north Canada, finally reaching the mouth of the Coppermine in July 1821. The return was a disaster, as the men starved and
Robert Hood, one of two Royal Navy midshipmen, was murdered by a voyageur. Of the 20 original men in the party, 11 died, but Franklin returned to Britain a hero and was knighted. From 1825 to 1827, Franklin undertook a second journey to extend his survey west of the Coppermine. Parry also conducted sequels, leading two North West Passage expeditions (1821-1823 and 1824-1825) before attempting to reach the North Pole using boats fitted with sledge runners from Svalbard. On this trip, Parry established a farthest north that would remain a record until 1875.
In the same period, 1820-1824, the Russians began to improve their knowledge of Siberia, as a two-prong expedition under Ferdinand von Wrangell and Peter Anjou carefully explored the north coast of eastern Siberia as well as the New Siberian Islands.
John Ross tried to restore the reputation that had been damaged in his first North West Passage expedition when he led an attempt funded by the distiller Felix Booth in 1829. Although traveling in Victory, a ship with the first steam engine used in polar exploration, Ross and his party were frozen in and forced to spend four winters in the ice. Going out from the ship, in 1831, his nephew James Clark Ross became the first explorer to reach the North Magnetic Pole. Finally, in 1833 they abandoned the ship for open boats and a whaler soon rescued them.
In 1845, the British Admiralty sponsored the largest and most lavishly equipped North West Passage expedition in history. Under the command of Franklin, it left England to great expectations and sailed into Lancaster Sound in July. However, nothing was heard from Franklin's expedition again, and by 1847 the British public began to worry about the 129 men who had disappeared into the strange, cold world of the North. In the following years, numerous expeditions were sent by the Admiralty to search for Franklin, and many of the searchers became legends themselves, James Clark Ross, Horatio Austin, Sherard Osborn, Edward Belcher, Richard Collinson, and Robert McClure among them. McClure was credited with being the first through the Passage when, having sailed from the west to Mercy Bay, Banks Island, where his ship Investigator was beset, after two winters the crew was transferred to HMS Resolute at Melville Island and thence by sledge to Beechey Island.
Others entered the search as well. Lady Jane Franklin, Franklin's wife, sponsored several expeditions and public subscription was applied to efforts to find her husband. In the United States, the merchant Henry Grinnell sponsored two expeditions, the first under Edwin Jesse De Haven and the second under Elisha Kent Kane. Nevertheless, virtually nothing was found until, in 1854, while surveying the Boothia Peninsula, John Rae of the Hudson's Bay Company received evidence that the bodies of many white men had been found on King William Island. Rae shocked the western world by announcing that the members of Franklin's expedition had engaged in cannibalism to prolong their existence. The possibility of such barbarism grew into an object of huge debate at the same time that the searches were suspended due to the British involvement in the Crimean War. When that war ended, Lady Franklin sent yet another expedition to the north. This one, under Francis Leopold McClintock, found two notes left by members of Franklin's expedition and sufficient skeletons and relics to provide an explanation of its fate: how Franklin had died aboard Erebus in 1847, the men had left the ships in April 1848, and they had died as they attempted to walk to the Canadian mainland.
The Franklin searches explored and charted vast tracks of the Canadian archipelago and had also proven the difficulty of navigating the North West Passage. Although occasional searches for additional Franklin relics or pieces of information continued sporadically for several decades—such as those of Charles Francis Hall (1860—1862 and 1864—1869) and Frederick Schwatka (1878—1880)—the emphasis of the major expeditions shifted to exploration of other parts of the Arctic and to reaching the North Pole. In 1867, the United States purchased Alaska from Russia, and major scientific and geographical study of Alaska began by different parts of the US government.
The last great Arctic expedition sponsored by the British government attempted to reach the North Pole via Smith Sound in 1875—1876, under the command of George Strong Nares. After wintering near the north of Ellesmere Island, in April 1876 sledging parties were dispatched, one of which, under Albert Hastings Markham, attained record latitude of 83°20'26". The expedition returned home a year earlier than planned due to massive outbreaks of scurvy. A subsequent American expedition, financed by James Gordon Bennett Jr., the owner of the New York Herald, and led by George Washington De Long, was even more disastrous. Only 13 of the 33 members of the expedition on Jeannette survived after the ship was crushed and sank north of Russia, and the men were forced to retreat to the Lena Delta in three open boats. The relief ship Rodgers also burned off the coast of Siberia.
Meanwhile, modern scientific study of the north had been initiated by the Swedish glacial geologist Otto Torell, who led a major expedition to Spitsbergen in 1861. In the next decade, one of Torell's colleagues, Adolf Erik Nordenskiold, successfully combined scientific study with geographical exploration and commercial development as no one before had done. The culmination was the voyage of Vega, 1878—1880, in which Nordenskiold became the first person to navigate the entire North East Passage.
Another great believer in science as the most important part of exploration was Karl Weyprecht, one of two leaders of the Austro-Hungarian Exploring Expedition (1872-1874), which discovered Franz Josef Land. Upon his return, Weyprecht helped establish the International Polar Year (1882-1883), an international effort that hoped to strip the glamor from polar exploration and concentrate on scientific matters. Of the 14 expeditions of the International Polar Year, the most memorable was the US expedition to Lady Franklin Bay on north Ellesmere Island (1881-1884), under the command of Adolphus W. Greely. The party attained a farthest north (83°24') and carried out its scientific work, but failed to get relief from inclement conditions. Facing a third winter, Greely led his men south, but they had to winter in terrible conditions and 18 men died, mostly from famine and scurvy, although one committed suicide and another was executed.
In 1888, Fridtjof Nansen of Norway led a six-person party that became the first ever to cross the Greenland icecap. Five years later, Nansen—conjecturing that the current that had brought some of the relics from De Long's Jeannette all the way to the shores of Greenland could be used to explore the Arctic Ocean—stuck his purpose-built ship Fram in the ice north of the New Siberian Islands. A year and a half later, with only one companion, Hjalmar Johansen, Nansen abandoned the ship and skied and sledged to a farthest north of 86°13'06". Nansen and Johansen retreated to Franz Josef Land where, after wintering in a makeshift hut, they met the British explorer Frederick George Jackson, who sent them home on his supply ship. Meanwhile, the ice eventually released the Fram, under the command of Otto Sverdrup, and it returned to Troms0 only one day before Nansen, having completed major scientific studies.
Sverdrup followed in Nansen's footsteps by taking Fram on an expedition to the Canadian archipelago from 1898 to 1902, on which Axel Heiberg, Ellef Ringnes, and Amund Ringnes islands were all sited and Ellesmere Island was further explored. Several other major Scandinavian expeditions also took place around the fin de siècle. In 1897, Salomon August Andrée of Sweden and two companions attempted to take a balloon from Dansk0ya to the North Pole. The balloon ultimately landed on the ice far from the Pole, and Andrée and his two companions walked to the little-known island of Kvit0ya where they died. Historians knew nothing of their fate until 1930, when evidence of Andrée's final camp was found. From 1903 to 1906, the Norwegian Roald Amundsen led a seven-person party on the tiny ship Gj0a, becoming the first ever to navigate the entire North West Passage.
At the same time that Sverdrup was on Ellesmere Island, so was the American explorer Robert E. Peary, who was leading his first North Pole expedition. Peary had already led five expeditions to Greenland before turning his sights toward the North Pole. Obsessed with reaching the Pole, and following his next expedition (1905-1906), Peary claimed to have attained a farthest north of 87°06', breaking the record set in 1900 on an expedition from Franz Josef Land led by Luigi Amedeo di Savoia, the Duke of the Abruzzi.
In 1908-1909 Peary traveled north again, and, following his return, he claimed to have attained the North Pole. The same claim had been made only days before by the American physician Frederick Cook. The Western world catapulted into a long and bitter debate about which man had reached the Pole, a debate that continues in some forms until the present day, although most unbiased polar scholars now feel strongly that neither man attained the North Pole. That honor was reserved for Roald Amundsen. Following his completion of the North West Passage, Amundsen had planned an attempt on the North Pole, but after Cook and Peary claimed to have reached it, he turned south and led the first party ever to reach the South Pole (1910-1912). Amundsen then led a drift in the Arctic Ocean on the ship Maud, in the process navigating the North East Passage. In 1926, Amundsen and Lincoln Ellsworth led an expedition in the dirigible Norge, which flew over the North Pole and the entire Arctic basin, going from Svalbard to Alaska. Initially, Richard E. Byrd received the credit for being the first to fly to the Pole; Byrd claimed to have flown there just days before Amundsen. However, Byrd's claims have since been proven false.
Two years after Amundsen reached the North Pole, his pilot on that journey, Umberto Nobile, led a similar dirigible flight. On the way back from the Pole, however, the airship Italia crashed, instigating a major search that lasted almost seven weeks and during which Amundsen, searching for Nobile, disappeared forever into the frozen North.
The first documentation of a figure to actually stand on the North Pole came in April 23, 1948, when three Soviet planes carrying 24 men—including the scientists Pavel Senko, Mikhail Somov, Mikhail Ostrekin, and Pavel Gordiyenko—landed at the Pole. A decade later the US submarine Nautilus reached the Pole while submerged, and the following year, 1959, the US submarine Skate surfaced at the North Pole.
The most recent ambitious explorations of the Arctic occurred in 1968 and 1969. The American insurance agent Ralph Plaisted led a party of four that attained the Pole on snowmobiles in 1968, before being evacuated by plane. Meanwhile, Wally Herbert and three companions began the first crossing of the
Arctic basin by dog sledge. Leaving from Point Barrow, Alaska, in February 1968, Herbert's party finally reached the North Pole on April 5, 1969, and then continued to Svalbard, where a ship evacuated them.
See also Amedeo, Luigi, Duke of Abruzzi; Amundsen, Roald; Andrée, Salomon August; Baffin, William; Barents, Willem; Barrow, Sir John; Bering, Vitus; Bylot, Robert; Cook, Frederick A.; Cook, James; De Long, George Washington; Dezh-nev, Semyon; Eirík the Red; Egede, Hans; Franklin, Sir John; Frobisher, Sir Martin; Greely, Adolphus W.; Grinnell, Henry; Hearne, Samuel; Hudson, Henry; Kane, Elisha Kent; Markham, Sir Albert H.; McClintock, Francis Leopold; Nansen, Fridtjof; Nordenskiöld, Adolf Erik; Parry, Sir William Edward; Peary, Robert E.; Rae, Sir John; Sverdrup, Otto; Torrell, Otto; Weyprecht, Karl; Wrangell, Baron Ferdinand Petrovich von
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