Stefanson Willalmoor



An outstanding Canadian polar explorer, ethnographer and writer.

Born in Winnipeg, where his father had moved from Iceland three years before. In Canada, their life was unsuccessful, and the family moved to the USA in 1881. Stephenson's father died when his son was only 13 years old.

Despite the difficult financial situation of the family, the need to earn money to support the mother and younger brothers, Stefanson sought to get a decent education. He was not immediately able to find his direction. He studied at universities in North Dakota, Iowa, and in 1903 he became a theological student.

Faculty of Harvard University, where he became interested in anthropology. In 1905, geologist Ernest Lefinguela drew attention to his article “Icelandic colony in Greenland” in the journal “American Anthropologist”, and this circumstance was a turning point in the life of Stefanson. Lefinguela was preparing the Anglo-American Arctic expedition and invited Stefanson to take an anthropologist position in it. From this began his polar voyages. In the years 1904-1912 led the expedition to Iceland, Alaska, in the Arctic Canada. In the years 1913-1918 explored the Banks Island, Prince Patrick. The famous traveler Robert Peary said: “Stefanson is able to overcome any problem of the North ... Combining immense natural physical and mental abilities with practical common sense, he broke all records ... We, the senior researchers of the XIX century, welcome the researcher of the XX century, who surpassed us. ..". Thus  the period of the polar voyages of Stefanson began. In total, he spent 10 polar winters and 13 summer seasons in the Arctic. Of these, more than five years, Stefanson lived in the Arctic continuously. The Anglo-American expedition was supposed to set sail in the early spring of 1906 on the Datches of Bedford sailboat from the port of Victoria in British Columbia, go around Alaska and sail east along the northern shores of Canada. But Stefanson received permission to join the main squadron in Mackenzie Bay, where he decided to travel by dry road, as well as along the rivers and lakes of Canada. He wanted to get acquainted with the life of the Indian tribes of Northern Canada, the coastal Eskimos and collect interesting samples for science and materials. In the spring, Stefanson arrived by train in Edmonton. From here began his journey along the rivers and lakes. On foot and on the steamers, barges and rafts Stefanson slowly moved to the ocean.

On the road, he listened to the stories of random fellow travelers: industrialists, missionaries, officials of the Hudson's Bay Company, representatives of local authorities. A few months later, Villalmour reached the mouth of the Mackenzie River and for the first time saw the polar sea covered with floating ice. From the mouth of the Mackenzie Stefanson on a whaling ship reached the island of Herschel, where he had an appointment with the Daths of Bedford. However, the sailboat was not there. The young anthropologist found himself in the Far North without money, without equipment, without any supplies. Villalmour made a bold decision to independently study the life of the Eskimos, counting on their hospitality. He spent the whole winter with Eskimo Ovayuk, went hunting and fishing with him, and helped with all the household work. Stefanson learned to build snow huts and perfectly mastered the Eskimo language. It was only in the spring of 1907 that Vilalmoor found out that the sailboat Datches of Bedford had sunk. But the young researcher did not leave hope to get to the island of Victoria. In 1908, the American Museum of Natural History and the Canadian Institute of Geological Research became interested in a cheap but promising expedition to Victoria Island and allocated two thousand dollars to it. Rudolf Martin Andersen unexpectedly joined the expedition as a brilliant geologist and zoologist. In the early spring of 1908, Stefanson and Andersen went north, taking with them two cameras with film reserves, two field binoculars, three guns, two tents, tobacco for the Eskimos, pencils and note paper. They adhered to the path traversed by Stephenson in the spring of 1906. It was assumed that the expedition will last one year, but it lasted for a long five years. In the summer of 1908, Stefanson and Andersen came to Herschel Island, where they hoped to get the things they needed to continue their journey. But they failed, and the researchers went to Cape Barrow, lying 700 kilometers from the island. On the way, they replenished their scientific collections. Stefanson continued compiling the Eskimo dictionary, which now totaled 9 thousand words; besides, he recorded Eskimo folklore. Stefanson preferred to travel light and always hoped for a successful hunt. When he and his dogs had to starve, he ate leather clothing, noting that fresh, raw skin was even tasty if it was fried well; it resembles pork legs ... Villalmur, unlike most other polar explorers, never killed dogs to feed others or himself. In the autumn of 1909, the expedition returned to Herschel Island and proceeded further to Parry Cape, from where it intended to go to Victoria Island.

But the polar night has come. Stefanson and Andersen spent it with the Eskimos, engaged in hunting and replenishing stocks of meat, hides and blubber. In April 1910, scientists moved east. Following along the shore of the Dolphin and Union Strait, the travelers found traces of sledges and soon found themselves in a village consisting of snow huts. Stefanson called the inhabitants of this village copper Eskimos. They met the expedition cautiously. But, having made sure that before them were living people, and not spirits, they invited them into their dwellings and began to treat them. On May 15, the expedition went further north to where, according to the copper Eskimos, people who had blue eyes and red hair lived. About his unforgettable meeting with the residents of the village located on the other side of the Lolphin and Union Strait, on the very shore of Victoria Island, Stefanson wrote: "They stood in front of their snowy houses and animal skin hut ... I saw them, I thought that I was on the threshold of a major scientific discovery ... Looking at these people, I realized that I had stumbled upon the last chapter of one of the historical tragedies of the distant past, or in front of me a new mystery that still needs to be solved: why are these people like Europeans if they don’t European roiskhozhdeniya"? Visiting Victoria Island, the expedition turned back to the west. At first, the detachment moved along the seashore. Near Point Stevens, extensive excavations of ancient settlements and tombs were made. Stefanson and Andersen managed to find a lot of arrows, spears and harpoons with copper tips, as well as various products from whalebone, walrus bone and deer antler, copper bowlers and light vessels. Researchers have extracted from the excavations a large number of clay shards. The last find put an end to numerous disputes of scientists about the presence of pottery in the Eskimos. For five years, travelers traveled several thousand kilometers, mostly over still unexplored territories. Thanks to the friendly attitude towards the Eskimos, knowledge of their language and customs, Stefanson managed to collect invaluable ethnographic material. In the autumn of 1912, a passenger steamer delivered Stephanson from the port of Alaskan Nome to the port of Seattle. The events of his second polar expedition, Villalmour, were described in the book "My Life with the Eskimos" (1913). Soon Stefanson organizes a Canadian Arctic expedition to explore the then little-known Beaufort Sea. In the spring of 1913, participants in the Canadian Arctic Expedition set sail on three ships. It consisted of geologists and anthropologists, biologists and zoologists, oceanographers and meteorologists.

The expedition was divided into several groups. She lasted five years. Stefanson led a geographic detachment based on the ship "Karluk", whose captain was Robert Bartlett. On July 27, 1913, "Karluk" stepped out of Nome, but already at the end of August, off the northern coast of Alaska, he went into a drift, which ended for the ship with "Karluk" ice captivity frozen into ice in Harison Bay. When stocks of fresh meat came to an end, Stefanson, along with anthropologist Jenes, meteorologist McConell, photographer Wilkins and two hunters, went hunting for a nearby island. They took with them a small supply of food, two old sleds and six dogs. On the second day of the journey through the ice hummocks, Stefanson and his companions reached the island, located on the way to the mainland. The next day, the observer noticed how Karluk turned in with ice and turned around and slowly drifted upwind from the east. After another day the ship disappeared from view. Later it turned out that"Karluk" sank. Of the 25 people on board at that time, only 17 survived. Stefanson and his companions had to return to the main base of the expedition on foot. The journey back was long and difficult. Six months this unusual polar robinsonade lasted. All these half a year there was no news from the brave souls, and the expedition already considered Stefanson and his companions dead. There were reports in the press that one madman and deceived people went across the sea ice to the north for the purpose of suicide. And one of the polar explorers wrote: “There was every reason to consider him dead. He did not return to the coast of Alaska and, of course, could not get his food on the ice; Stephanson's intention to reach Banks Land against wind and drift also seemed to us impracticable; if he got there, he probably died of hunger ... ". But the energy, will and knowledge of Stefanson helped the small group with honor to get out of all the tests: the scientist led his companions to the intended place, having completed the entire research program. A detachment of Stephanson made a 93-day ice transition, partly on ice, partly on a drifting ice floe from Cape Martin (in northeastern Alaska) to Banks Island, where he wintered. In 1915, travelers traveled to the sled to the north through the McClure Strait to Prince-Patrick Island and completed its survey. Even in these icy deserts, Stefanson was able to feed himself and his companions by catching seals and hunting birds. In the second half of July, hunter Storkerson saw the Borden Land northeast of Prince Patrick. Together with Stefanson, they landed on its southwestern coast, and then crossed the bay to another part, later called the island of Mackenzie King.

Returning to Bank Island, they crossed the central part of this large island for the first time, and then wintering on the northwest coast of Victoria. In the spring of 1916, Stefanson circled the western part of the Borden Land, finding that it was an island (Brock), but took the strait (Wilkins) for the bay and therefore merged the northern part (Borden Island) from the south (Mackenzie King Island). In June, far to the northeast, Stefanson discovered and circled the island of Mien. On the way back in July, he completed the discovery of Findlay Land. Stefanson proved that this land is a small archipelago, in which the largest islands of Lohid and King Christian are separated from each other by the wide Maclaine Strait. From Lochid Island in the fall, he crossed over to the east coast of the future Mackenzie King, examined its southern and western shores, and in the spring of 1917 the east coast. The third polar expedition provided Stefanson with the opportunity to develop his theory, described in the famous book “Hospitable Arctic”, and later in the “Polar Book”. The experience of the five-year expedition showed: without burdening themselves with a heavy load that impedes their movement, participants in a hike on land and ice in the Arctic quite successfully can feed themselves on the hunt for a sea animal. Stefanson proved in practice the correctness of the theory advanced by him. In 1918, while on Herschel Island and working with Storker Storkerson on preparing for an expedition on the ice of the Beaufort Sea, Stefanson became seriously ill first with typhoid, then pneumonia. October 31, he arrived in New York. In those days, newspapers warmly greeted the brave traveler, whose death they reported twice. Stephanson was called the most prominent polar explorer of modern times, many scientific societies expressed a desire to hold ceremonial meetings in his honor. The New York club of researchers elected him as its president; several geographic societies of the country awarded the scientist with gold medals. The National Geographic Society awarded him the Hubbard Gold Medal.

In 1921, Stefanson founded a settlement of five colonists. On the island of Wrangel, he raised the flag of the United Kingdom on it and smashed the island with the property of Great Britain. For two years, the colonists lived on the island without communication to the outside world. Several ships, which during this time tried to bring provisions and equipment to the island, could not pass through the ice. And only in August 1923, the only survivor, the 25-year-old Ada Blackjack, who had lived in absolute solitude for the last six months, was rescued from the island. The rest of the colonists died.

On August 20, 1924, a Soviet expedition led by B.V. Davydov in the gunboat "Red October" organized on the island a Soviet settlement, headed by G.A. Ushakov and put an end to foreign claims on Wrangel Island.

Returning from his last expedition, Stefanson went on to research. He dreamed of collecting and summarizing all the documents of all the Arctic expeditions and materials on the study of the Arctic. Stefanson followed the achievements of Russian scientists with special attention. He wrote: “In the late twenties and the early thirties, under the influence of the continually increasing success of the Northern Sea Route, our eyes began to gradually open.” In 1946, Stefanson embarked on the creation of a multi-volume Arctic Encyclopedia.

With his characteristic energy and activity, he attracts scientists from various fields: geographers, oceanographers, meteorologists, historians and ethnographers, zoologists and botanists. But calmly working on this colossal work was not given to Stefanson. The unfolding campaign of the Cold War froze all the scientist's undertakings - in 1950, the Arctic Encyclopedia lost its government subsidy. Stefanson had to disband employees and stop orders from scientists. Full of strength, energy and ideas, a man of unique knowledge was forced to retire. With its huge arctic library of 25 thousand volumes and 45 thousand brochures and manuscripts, Stefanson moved from New York to provincial Hanover in the state of New Hampshire. He was then 70 years old. 12 years about the scientist almost nothing was known. In 1962, the world learned about the demise of the oldest polar explorer. Shortly after the death of Stephenson, the Canadian geographer Leburde published his biography. This book is called "The Messenger of the North." There are such lines in it: “If Stefanson was born in Russia, he would have found there a wide field for applying his talents and energy ... Not a single book is capable of giving a full portrait of such a complex person ... Stefanson will undoubtedly be written many books as scientists realize and appreciate the impact on our era of his professional foresight and the broadest outlook. By the vastness of the Arctic space he studied, Stefanson surpassed all his predecessors in the Canadian North. His success was explained by the fact that he knew Eskimo, lived as an Eskimo. Stefanson is one of the most prolific writers among polar travelers".  

He died in the small town of Grafton, New Hampshire. Buried in the Pine Knoll Cemetery.


Stephanson Island

(view from space)


An island near the northeast coast of Victoria. Before the Canadian State Arctic Expedition of 1946-1950 this island was considered by part of the  Victoria Island.

Cape in the north of the Strait of Mien in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.


Return to the main page