Vilhjalmur Stefansson ("the Commander")
Born in Arnes, Manitoba in 1879, Stefansson was the son of
Icelandic immigrants who moved to North Dakota, USA, the year after his birth.
He first experienced the Arctic in 1906 when he travelled to Alaska to join the
Anglo-American Polar Expedition as Ethnologist. Stefansson spent four years in
the western Arctic with R. M. Anderson during the 1908-1912 Stefansson-Anderson
Expedition sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History and the Geological
Survey of Canada. It was during this expedition that he developed a relationship
with Pannigabluk, with whom he had a son,
Alex, born in 1910. His book on this expedition, My Life with the Eskimos
(1913) was published just as his second major expedition was beginning.
The Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913-1918 was due to the
inspiration of Vilhjalmur Stefansson. Initially, Stefansson planned to continue
the anthropological work he had begun in the western Arctic during the earlier
Stefansson-Anderson Expedition. When he decided to include the exploration for
unknown lands in the Beaufort Sea, he presented his plans to Ottawa for support.
Aware of the sovereignty issues raised by the potential discovery of new islands
in the Canadian Arctic, Canadian Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden arranged to
fund the Expedition as a Canadian enterprise. Stefansson declined to accept a
government salary; instead he chose to live from the proceeds of selling magazine
articles and books.
Stefansson was not a successful leader of the new large and
complicated expedition. He was much more successful as an
traveller than as a scientist. Once his objectives focused on new lands, he
contributed little to the scientific objectives of the Expedition. Hundreds of
the specimens and artifacts collected under his name arrived in Ottawa without
information on where or when they were collected. Controversies over Stefansson's
ideas on supplies, techniques of living in the Arctic, and use of expedition ships
and equipment dogged the Expedition before it left Victoria, and continued to
cause problems through to the end. Stefansson
with many of the scientists and crew of the Expedition, but all recognized his
ability to travel and hunt over the ocean ice.
After the CAE
Stefansson suffered a near fatal bout of typhoid fever and pneumonia in 1918 at
the end of his time as leader of the Expedition. After recovery in a Yukon hospital,
he returned to the United States, where his career as author and lecturer began.
He never returned to the Arctic. His book, The Friendly Arctic, stirred
up much controversy among the Southern Party scientists. In it he accused them
of disloyalty and disobedience. Their collective indignant responses in 1921 and
1922 to his published charge created ill feeling toward him, which has lingered
in Canada to this day. Criticism about the tragic Wrangel Island Expedition, which
he organized in 1921, added to it. His failure to prepare an account of the activities
and scientific findings of his Northern Party has left a gap in the CAE Report
Series. Volume 1, the Narrative of the Expedition, and Volume 2, Birds and Mammals,
were never written, partly due to strained relations between Stefansson and Anderson,
the expedition leaders. Stefansson died in 1962 in New Hampshire.
Stefansson was honoured by polar and exploration societies
worldwide and received many honours during his life. He was featured on a U.S.
stamp in 1986. In Canada, eight geographic features have been named in his honour:
two lakes, two creeks, a mountain, a township in Ontario, a large island on the
northeast side of Victoria Island, and the northernmost point of land he discovered
on Meighen Island.