Edric Lescouflair, Harvard College '03
Stefansson was born on November 3, 1879, in Ames, Manitoba to
Johann Stefansson and Ingibjorg Johannesdottir, who were both
Icelandic immigrants in America. Christened William, he would
eventually change his name to its Icelandic variation. The Stefanssons
lived in a tiny log cabin about a hundred miles north of Manitoba
in an area known as New Iceland because of its immigrant population.
The family moved to North Dakota in 1881 following an 1880 flood
in Manitoba. From the beginning, Stefansson was a rugged character
who felt at home in the wild. Although he went largely without
a formal primary education, he often practiced reading the Bible
and local publications. His father died while he was but a youth,
and he decided to ease the hardships of his mother by moving
in with his sister, and creating a meager income by helping
his brother herd cattle and sell horses.
Stefansson was introduced to secondary education in 1898 at
the University of North Dakota's Preparatory Department, from
which he was forced out in 1902 for supposedly inciting a protest
within the student body. He then enrolled at the University
of Iowa, from which he receive his B.A. in 1903.
a freshman at North Dakota
Before leaving North Dakota, Stefansson had met William Wallace
Fenn and Samuel Eliot, both of whom had seen potential in the
young man to become a Unitarian minister. They offered to fund
his studies at Harvard Divinity School.
Stefansson's passion, however, lay beyond the realm of conventional
studies. After aborting his theological studies upon the completion
of one year, he entered the world of anthropology. In 1906,
Stefansson left the divinity school to join the Anglo-American
Polar Expedition, and traveled to the Arctic. Ever the adventurer,
he neglected to make contact with his colleagues and spent the
winter months among the native Inuit of Tuktoyyaktut, learning
from the people how to hunt and fish.
difficult part of being an expeditionary was funding the voyages.
In 1907 Stefansson traveled to New York to persuade representatives
of the American Museum of Natural History to grant him the necessary
finances for a second expedition. With some help from the Canadian
government, he was able to depart in May of 1908.
a boat sledge (photo courtesy of Geological Survey, Ottawa,
expedition included Rudolph Anderson, a classmate of Stefansson's
from the University of Iowa. This journey took the men to northern
Alaska, where Stefansson continued his study of the natives. For
the next two years he explored the area on his way to Victoria Island
to study an isolated group of Inuit who still used primitive tools
and had strong Caucasian features, and whom some believed were descended
from Vikings. Surviving this trip was far from easy.He notes that
just after the outset, "the group was short of three things:
ammunition, which we all knew was a necessity, and tea and tobacco,
which the Eskimos believed were necessities. When we reached the
mouth of the Horton on our way back to camp, we divided our party
in two... Our troubles began. It took us thirteen days to get to
camp. We were delayed by blizzards, and found the hunting poor along
the way. There was not enough food for the six of us. We ate what
we could, including the tongue of a beached bowhead whale. Four
years dead, the carcass would have been hidden in the snow except
that foxes had been digging into it... The pieces we ate were more
like rubber than flesh."
of this group transformed Stefansson's livelihood into more of an
academic pursuit as he published his findings from this unique group
of Inuit in Scientific American and the Literary Digest.
The culmination of this study was the book My Life With the Eskimo.
then narrowed the range of his studies to the Arctic Ocean, even
living on floating ice with two colleagues for several months.
subsisted on polar bear and seal. Stefansson believed that another
expedition was in order in 1920 and attempted to convince the British
government to fund it, but it refused. This setback caused him to
abandon expeditions and to concentrate entirely on lecturing and
wanted to emphasize the fact that the arctic was not the desolate,
windswept land that it was largely believed to be. The two books
that he wrote to this effect were The Story of Five Years in
Polar Regions and The Northward Course of Empire.
ready to dine at the White House with the King and Queen of Denmark
in 1932 Stefansson began mapping flight plans for the nascent Pan
American Airlines, and in 1933 he actually had the opportunity to
work on Charles Lindbergh's plan for a transatlantic flight. This
occupation precipitated a 1940 request by the War Department that
he educate the head of the Alaska Defense Force as to the conditions
of the Arctic. For the next two years, Stefansson aided in the development
of Alaska and northwestern Canada, particularly in oil prospects
and the mapping of the Alaska Highway.
the many successes, controversy surrounded the explorer's reputation.
His attempt to raise reindeer on Baffin Island failed, and his effort
to create a colony on Wrangel Island in 1923 ended with several
deaths. Furthermore, Stefansson's conflicts over leadership positions
with other explorers are well-documented.
second from right, shows one of the books in his 25,000-volume
library which was purchased by Dartmouth College. With him at
the library are Mrs. Stefansson, Librarian Richard Morin, and
Albert Bradley, whose gift to Dartmouth paid for the purchase.
Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Print Department.
accomplishments are widely recognized. He was the last explorer
to discover new lands in the Arctic, and above all, he recognized
the unique beauty of a culture other than his own and introduced
society to the reality of the Arctic sans the myths and rumors.
10, 1941 Stefansson married Evelyn Schwartz Baird. He subsequently
moved from New York to Vermont, and then to Hanover, NH, where he
and his wife were active in the Unitarian Fellowship and "Stef"
pursued his research, writing, and public speaking at Dartmouth
Stefansson died in Hanover, N.H. on Aug. 26, 1962.
The Autobiography of Vilhjalmur Stefansson (New York: McGraw-Hill,