"It's all right while you're exploring. You get used to rotten meat, frozen fingers, lice, and dirt. The hard times come when you get back."
—Bob Bartlett (Log 13)
During the more than 50 years of his seafaring life, Captain Robert (Bob) Abram Bartlett skippered some of the most famous, dangerous, and controversial exploratory expeditions to the Arctic. He travelled further north than almost any other living person, was shipwrecked at least 12 times, survived for months in the inhospitable Arctic after sea ice crushed his ship, and journeyed hundreds of miles by dogsled to reach civilization. Despite these hardships, Bartlett returned to the Arctic whenever circumstance allowed and almost always came back with photographs, film reels, and scientific data that greatly contributed to the world's understanding of the north.
The Bartletts of Brigus
Bob Bartlett was born on 15 August 1875 to William and Mary (Leamon) Bartlett. The family lived in Brigus, Newfoundland and Labrador, where Bartlett's ancestors skippered ships in the cod and seal fisheries for generations. Despite the family's seafaring heritage, Mary Bartlett wanted her eldest son, Bob, to become a minister and in 1891 sent him to the Methodist College in St. John's.
Bartlett, however, enjoyed working at sea and spent each summer vacation fishing and sealing with his father. He commanded his first schooner, the Osprey, after his second year of school and returned from the Labrador fishery with a profitable cargo of codfish. Realizing he wanted to pursue a career at sea rather than in the pulpit, the 17 year old dropped out of school and obtained work as an ordinary seaman with the merchant vessel Corisande, due to leave St. John's that October with a shipment of fish for Brazil. The voyage was Bartlett's first step toward becoming a master mariner, a title applicants could only attain after accumulating considerable experience at sea.
Bartlett spent the next six years aboard merchant vessels in the fall and winter, and aboard fishing and sealing vessels in the spring and summer. By the time he was 22, he had visited Latin America, Europe, the Caribbean, and the Mediterranean on ships carrying bananas, salt fish, seal oil, coal, and other cargo. After accumulating enough time at sea to apply for his master's papers, Bartlett successfully completed examinations at Halifax in 1898. Instead of obtaining command of a merchant or fishing vessel, he accepted an offer from his uncle John Bartlett to work aboard the Windward, the main vessel of explorer Robert Peary's North Pole expedition. The elder Bartlett was the Windward's captain and Bob Bartlett its first mate.
The North Pole
During the next 10 years, Bartlett accompanied Peary on three separate attempts to reach the North Pole, first aboard the Windward, and twice as captain of the steel-hulled Roosevelt (1906-07 and 1908-09). The first two expeditions ended in failure because of storms, supply shortages and injuries – Peary, for example, lost eight toes to frostbite during the 1898 attempt.
Undaunted by these setbacks, Peary, Bartlett, and other expedition members departed New York for a third voyage north in July 1908. They reached Ellesmere Island, northwest of Greenland, on 5 September, and began travelling toward the pole by dog sledge. Favourable weather conditions assisted their progress and by the end of March the team set up camp within 150 miles of the North Pole.
It was from here that Peary ordered Bartlett south by 1 April. Bartlett was devastated. He fully expected to join Peary's skeleton crew on the final leg of the journey because the two men had agreed to such an arrangement in North America. Instead, after weeks of sledging through the cold and ice, Bartlett had to turn back. "It was a bitter disappointment," he later told the New York Herald. "I don't know, perhaps I cried a little" (Horwood 87). Peary took fellow explorer Matthew Henson to the pole in Bartlett's stead, writing in his 1909 publication The North Pole that Henson was a better sledge driver.
The team continued north without Bartlett and reported reaching the pole on 6 April. Peary's announcement sparked much skepticism in the scientific community because he did not produce any data to support his claim. Many people criticized Peary for not taking to the pole a navigator such as Bartlett, who would have been able to verify his claim. Bartlett, on the other hand, defended Peary and stated in his 1928 Log of Bob Bartlett that "Peary's reasoning was sound; and I have never held it against him" (Log 163).
A Hunting Trip
Bartlett received many honours and awards for his third trip north, including the prestigious Hubbard Medal for Arctic exploration, named for Gardiner Green Hubbard, first president of the National Geographic Society. He spent much of 1910 on a lecture tour of Europe, where he accepted an offer from millionaires Harry Whitney and Paul Rainey to captain a fourth expedition north. Unlike Bartlett's previous voyages, this one had no scientific or exploratory value – it was a hunting trip.
The men brought with them into the Arctic more than 100,000 rounds of ammunition and during a single summer killed 59 polar bears and more musk ox, walrus, and caribou than they could count. Bartlett biographer Harold Horwood suggested the expedition "helped to deplete, and probably did permanent damage to" the herds of animals in that part of the Arctic (Horwood 110).
Although Bartlett did his best to bring the men within range of as many targets as possible, he also seemed to have little admiration for their methods: "I don't know as you would exactly call it hunting but our passengers certainly were busy," he wrote of the shooting spree in his 1928 Log. "They didn't waste any time taking pictures or keeping diaries. They were up on deck with their guns at all times of the day and night. Anything that came along on legs or wings they took a potshot at" (Log 251).
In the summer of 1913, Bartlett returned to the Arctic as part a scientific expedition after explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson asked him to captain the Karluk, flagship of the government-backed Canadian Arctic Expedition. The vessel's mission was to take a crew of scientists and explorers north of the Yukon to Herschel Island, where they would search for new land and survey the region's flora, fauna, mineral deposits, and other characteristics.
The Karluk, however, became solidly trapped in sea ice by August 13 and never reached its destination. Helpless, the vessel drifted for five months until the ice punched a hole in its side on 10 January 1914. Fortunately, Bartlett anticipated the sinking weeks earlier when he ordered crewmembers to build igloos on the ice and transfer to its surface most of the ship's supplies.
The expedition was well-equipped and had enough food and fuel to live off for months. Bartlett planned to remain at the camp until the long Arctic night ended in February and then travel south by dog sledge. However, four men in the group disagreed with his plan and decided to immediately journey south on their own; none were heard from ever again.
In February, Bartlett and all remaining crewmembers left the camp and reached the uninhabited Wrangel Island on March 12. From there, Bartlett and one other expedition member made a perilous 700 mile sledge journey to the Bering Strait and reached Alaska on 28 May. Bartlett informed Ottawa of his stranded crewmembers and the schooner King and Winge rescued all survivors on 7 September 1914 – eight months after the Karluk sank.
First World War
Shortly after his return to North America, Bartlett successfully applied for US citizenship, which he hoped would make it easier to attain funding for Arctic expeditions from wealthy American backers. For the rest of his life, Bartlett divided much of his time between New York City, Brigus, and the Arctic.
During the First World War, he worked for the United States Army Transport Command, inspecting vessels and ferrying troops and supplies between American ports. He also served briefly as a Lieutenant Commander with the United States Navy, where he helped rescue an American vessel trapped in ice at the St. Lawrence River. Bartlett, however, considered much of his military service dull and expressed disappointment at not having served overseas: "In a way I am sorry to say I was not one of the thousands of brave Newfoundlanders who went over and died in the trenches," he wrote in his Log (263).
After the war, Bartlett fell into a period of depression when he could not secure enough funding for another Arctic expedition. Although a self-proclaimed teetotaler, he began to drink quite heavily during this period and became, in his own words, a "mangy lion" who drifted from party to party, accepting free dinners in exchange for stories of his adventures north. This continued until 1924, when Bartlett spent three months in hospital after being hit and almost killed by a laundry wagon on a New York City street. In the wake of his near-death experience, Bartlett resolved to never drink liquor again.
The following year, Bartlett's millionaire friend James B. Ford bought him the schooner Effie M. Morrissey and from 1926 until the beginning of the Second World War, Bartlett made 14 trips north. Aside from a 1932 voyage to erect a monument for Peary at Greenland, all of Bartlett's trips were for scientific purposes and paid for by such organizations as the Smithsonian Institute, the American Museum of Natural History, and the New York Botanical Garden.
Recognizing the educational potential of his expeditions, Bartlett donated to various universities, scientific societies, and museums millions of Arctic specimens, including whale skeletons, water samples, and various types of flora and fauna. He also arranged for a photographer to accompany him on most Arctic voyages, producing an invaluable collection of stills and film reels of the seldom seen north.
"Nothing So Satisfying as the Sea"
The American government commandeered the Morrissey during the Second World War for work in the Arctic. Although Bartlett, 65, was by then considering retirement in Brigus, he volunteered to serve as ship's captain until hostilities ended. From 1940 until 1945, he navigated the Morrissey around Greenland and the Hudson Bay, delivering supplies to Arctic bases and breaking a trail through the ice fields for larger ships.
The American government freed the Morrissey from its military duty after the war and Bartlett returned to New York. By then, the 70 year old had visited the Arctic more than 20 times and accumulated a variety of international awards and honours. He published numerous articles in National Geographic and other periodicals, as well as three books: The Karluk's Last Voyage (1916), The Log of Bob Bartlett (1928), and Sails Over Ice (1934). He also appeared in director Varick Frissel's 1931 film The Viking.
Still debating whether to retire or make another trip north, Bartlett contracted pneumonia in the spring of 1946 and died on April 28. His death sparked widespread mourning in both the United States and Newfoundland and Labrador, where he was celebrated as a national hero. Bartlett's body is buried at Brigus and his former home, Hawthorne Cottage, is a National Historic Site of Canada.
Bartlett often wrote of the hardships of his seafaring life, but also affirmed he was never as happy on land as at sea: "On shore a man is always worried because he hasn't twice as much as he has already got," he wrote in his Log. "It's not like that on board ship … you are contented with your life simply because you are living … If I had to do it over again I should be a sailor just the same. There is nothing so satisfying as the sea" (Log 307-310).