A Brief History Of Arctic Exploration

Sign at the Arctic Circle
Sign at the Arctic Circle

The Arctic is a sublime region ripe for exploration. One which has awakened the human imagination for millennia. The Greeks believed it to be home to the Hyperboreans, a mythical people who lived beyond the realm of Boreas, the God of the North Wind.

Much later, and inspired by the tales of Arctic exploration covered here, cartoonist Thomas Nast created Santa Claus’ current image, placing him at the North Pole with his reindeer, where it always snows and the Christmas spirit is kept alive all year round.

But it’s the stories of hardships endured by willful and adventurous men hellbent on reaching the North Pole and circumnavigating the Arctic Circle that have enthralled humans since the beginning of travel. Their determination to reach the ‘top of the world’ led them to experience some of history’s most amazing journeys.

Indigenous Inuits
Indigenous Inuits

The Arctic Adventure Begins

While its southern counterpart, Antarctica, is a single continent completely covered by ice, the northern Arctic encompasses permafrost (permanently frozen ground), land and sea. They are covered with varying degrees of snow and ice, depending on the season.

Nor is the Arctic the desolate place that the Antarctic is. The area is inhabited by Inuit indigenous people, who adapted to the extreme weather conditions, hunting seals for food, and wearing clothes made from their fur.

Although their communities are no longer nomadic, when they were encountered by Arctic explorers, they used kayaks and boats to roam and hunt in the water and dogsleds to travel overland. During the winter they lived in igloos (snow-block houses) or semi-subterranean shelters made from stone and whalebone frameworks.

These explorers weren’t just looking to explore a brave new world. Ever since Norse explorer Erik the Red discovered Greenland in 982 AD, European sailors in search of glory and riches have tried to find a way to reach the Pacific Ocean through the Arctic.

The fabled route became known as the Northwest Passage.

Portrait of Captain James Cook
Portrait of Captain James Cook

Early Explorers

One of the first attempts at finding the Northwest Passage for which we have a written record was that of Italian sailor John Cabot, who convinced King Henry VII of England to fund his venture. Although he never made it, he did discover the Grand Banks fishing grounds, where his men caught cod just by lowering buckets into the water and raising them back up again. His expedition became instrumental in England’s claim to the North American territories of Newfoundland and Labrador in what is now Canada.

A little later, in 1610, English sailor Henry Hudson made his attempt to find the Northwest Passage. However, during his fourth expedition he instead guided his ship into what is now known as Hudson Bay, in northeastern Canada. It became stuck in ice for the winter, and with little food and freezing temperatures, the crew’s morale was low. Conflicts arose and soon Hudson’s crew mutinied, taking the ship back to Europe.

Almost immediately after, English navigator William Baffin teamed up with one of Hudson’s mutineers, Robert Bylot, to continue searching for the Northwest Passage. Although they weren’t successful, in their two voyages – in 1615 and 1616 – they were able to map Baffin Island and Baffin Sound, along with Lancaster, Smith, and Jones sounds.

No significant expeditions were then launched until in 1776, when British Captain James Cook left his retirement and sailed with 150 men and two ships to the Northwest coast of North America. He was renowned for his earlier explorations in Antarctica and would attempt to find the Northwest Passage from the Pacific Ocean instead of the Atlantic Ocean. He was following a map by a Russian cartographer, Jacob von Stählin, depicting Alaska as an island separated from America by a wide navigable strait allowing vessels to sail north.

According to his log, on August 11 1778, Captain Cook sailed north along the coast of Alaska and through the Bering Strait into the Arctic Ocean. However, he would not find the Northwest Passage. His expedition’s progress was halted one week later by a wall of ice, which he called Icy Cape.

On their trip back to England, Captain Cook and his crew discovered several territories, including the Hawaiian Islands, which they originally named the Sandwich Isles, where Cook was killed. They mapped large sections of the North American Pacific coastline, down to the Gulf of California (the Baja Peninsula) and were also the first Europeans to visit what is now known as Vancouver Island, after George Vancouver, Cook’s expedition protégé.

Engraving of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror
Engraving of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror

The Mystery of the Franklin Expedition

During the nineteenth century, efforts to find the Northwest Passage redoubled. One of the most famous expeditions was that of Sir John Franklin and Captain Francis Crozier between 1845 and 1848, mainly because it remains shrouded in mystery.

The ships Franklin and Crozier commanded, the Terror and Erebus, had been specially prepared for this voyage, with iron and wood reinforcements for their bows and steam engines to supplement their sails. Everything indicated that this would be a smooth expedition, but it wasn’t.

For reasons that still can’t be fully corroborated to this day, both ships lost contact with England for more than two years, leading to speculation back in Britain that all 139 expedition members had perished. As a result, the government launched one of the largest recovery and rescue missions of the time, with approximately 40 expeditions searching for Franklin and Crozier over the next ten years.

From what historians have gathered through a few items and remains recovered throughout the centuries, as well as from oral accounts of the Inuit indigenous peoples, it seems both ships were forced to winter in Lancaster Sound, where they were last seen.

The mystery of what then happened to these ships and their crew was largely solved in the mid-2010s, when research teams using advanced underwater equipment were able to locate the vessels off King William Island.

It is now believed that both crews were trapped by ice and forced to spend the winters on the island. Researchers believe Franklin died in 1847, while Crozier perished some time in 1848 while searching for help and a way to the Canadian mainland.

Route of Amundsens Voyage through the Northwest Passage
Route of Amundsens Voyage through the Northwest Passage

Finding the Elusive Northwest Passage

The elusive Northwest Passage wouldn’t be found until the early twentieth century, when Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen navigated it for the first time between 1903 and 1906 with a crew of only six men in his small ship, the Gjøa.

Starting from Oslo, Norway, Amundsen and his men sailed west until they reached Canadian waters, passing Baffin Bay, in Greenland, as well as Lancaster Sound, Barrow Strait, and Beechey Island. From there, they followed Sir Franklin’s route towards King William Island and anchored on its east coast.

They stayed for two winters recording magnetic and meteorological observations to fulfill the original objective of their voyage, which was to prove that the magnetic north pole had moved since it was discovered in 1831. Indeed, Amundsen was able to confirm that it had deviated approximately 30 miles north from where it was thought to be. They lived among the Inuit indigenous peoples and learned how to survive in such a harsh and extreme climate, which may well have led Amundsen to success in the race to the South Pole just a few years later.

When Amundsen and his crew decided to set sail again in 1905, their attempts to continue their journey west were constantly thwarted by ice formations which forced them to retreat to Herschel Island. They were finally able to restart their travels in August 1906, but not without other setbacks, which included dealing with heavy fog, a damaged propeller shaft, and a broken sail gaff.

Later on that same month, Amundsen reached the town of Nome, in Alaska, just past the Bering Strait, where he and his crew were publicly celebrated for their achievement. Remembering this historic feat, the Norwegian explorer wrote in his diary:

“The North-West Passage was done. My boyhood dream—at that moment it was accomplished. A strange feeling welled up in my throat; I was somewhat over-strained and worn—it was weakness in me—but I felt tears in my eyes.”

But after all that, the route found by Amundsen and his men was not feasible for trade, because its shallow waters didn’t support navigation by large ships. Nevertheless, it was still a milestone in world exploration.

Peary's Sledge Party at the North Pole
Peary’s Sledge Party at the North Pole

The Race for the North Pole

With the Northwest Passage now identified, the next great challenge was conquering the North Pole. Several attempts were made during the second half of the nineteenth century, but no explorers so far had the drive and determination of Rear Admiral Robert Peary and physician and explorer Frederick A. Cook (no relation to Captain Cook). Both claimed to have been the first to arrive at the North Pole.

Peary had worked with the United States Navy Civil Engineers Corps, overseeing works in Florida and even Nicaragua, in Central America. In 1886, he obtained leave to explore the Greenland Ice Cap. At age 30, this would be the first of eight expeditions he led over a period of 23 years.

Cook had just graduated from New York University’s Medical School, but he was also grieving as his wife and newborn baby were lost in childbirth. He sought comfort in the tales of adventurous men exploring faraway lands.

In 1891, when Peary announced that he was seeking volunteers for his second expedition, Cook immediately signed up. The men bonded when Peary broke his leg on the ship and Cook set his bones and oversaw his recovery. Their friendship would be short lived, however. After three years of voyaging, deep differences in the way the men viewed indigenous peoples, along with their increasing search for public recognition, would irreparably break their friendship.

Nevertheless, Cook continued participating in expeditions. In 1897, he joined the Belgian Antarctic Expedition, where he met Roald Amundsen and saved the crew from scurvy (vitamin C deficiency) and depression caused by long nights in inclement weather. When the crisis broke in June 1898, Cook was authorized by the captain to take over running of the ship.

From that moment, he only allowed the crew to drink water (rather than alcohol) and eat fresh penguin and seal meat. He also made the men stand naked three times a day in front of a large fire. Cook called this the “baking treatment,” and probably never imagined the impact it would have on modern medicine. His initiative is currently viewed as the first experience with light therapy, used to treat depression and seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Portrait of Frederick A. Cook
Portrait of Frederick A. Cook

After returning from Antarctica, Cook participated in three more expeditions, including a relief mission in 1898 to find Peary, who had been gone for two years without writing a word. His sponsors set up a steamer named the Erik and asked Cook to join the search party because of his connection with Peary.

Peary was found safe and sound in Etah Harbor, Greenland, with his wife and daughter. He refused to return to civilization with Cook and the rest of the relief team, sending them back empty handed. He finally made the voyage home in 1902. Cook went on to organize his own expeditions to Mt. McKinley – recently renamed Denali – in Alaska, in 1903 and 1906. He claimed to have been the first to reach its summit in 1906.

The following year, Cook organized a voyage to the North Pole, which he allegedly reached on April 21 1908. But Cook and his company were trapped by ice and had to overwinter in the area, a setback which delayed his announcement until he reached the Shetland Islands on September 1, 1909.

The news was printed on the front page of the New York Herald. A week later, however, The New York Times would print a front page announcing that the North Pole had been reached by Peary on April 6, 1909. When Peary learned that Cook claimed to have reached the North Pole almost a year before him, he launched a relentless campaign – which included a US congressional inquiry – to discredit his former partner and position himself as the sole victor in the last great exploration feat of the twentieth century.

What began as an inspired friendship ended in an insane competition between two brilliant men seeking the greatest fame and glory of their time. To date, there are still doubts as to whether either of them actually made it to the ‘top of the world.’ But their tales are sure to have triggered the imagination of those who did in later years.

(Editors Note: Ian Packham also contributed to this post).

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