Vilhjalmur Stefansson collection

Scope and Content

The collection comprises of diaries by Stefansson relating to the United States Anthropological Expedition [Anglo-American Arctic Expedition], 1906-1907 the United States Canadian Scientific Expedition [Stefansson-Anderson Arctic Expedition], 1908-1912 and the Canadian Arctic Expedition, 1914-1918 (all led by Stefansson), the collection also contains correspondence by Stefansson and papers including his Encyclopedia Arctica

Administrative / Biographical History

Vilhjalmur Stefansson was born on 3 November 1879 in Manitoba, Canada, to Icelandic parents, who moved the family to North Dakota in 1881. He was educated at the State Universities of North Dakota and Iowa before proceeding to Harvard University in 1903 to study theology, later changing his study to anthropology the following year. He became a teaching fellow after two summers of field-work in Iceland between 1904 and 1905, and his knowledge of Icelandic literature led him to publish a paper on Norse colonization of Greenland. In 1906, Stefansson was invited to conduct a study of the Eskimo of the lower Mackenzie River on the U.S. Anthropological Expedition, 1906-1907, giving him his introduction to the people whose customs and way of life were to become a major study. His narrative of the expedition was published in Hunters of the Great North.

Stefansson returned north with Rudolph Martin Anderson on the U.S. Canadian Scientific Expedition (Stefansson-Anderson Arctic expedition), 1908-1912, sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History and the Geological Survey of Canada to study the Eskimos and natural history of Coronation Gulf, Victoria Island, and Banks Island. During these travels, he made a detailed study of the Copper Eskimo, later publishing My life with the Eskimo in 1913. On his return, he began to plan a more ambitious and extended expedition to the Arctic archipelago. Obtaining the backing of the Canadian government, Stefansson led the Canadian Arctic Expedition, 1913-1918, organized to carry out a wide variety of geographical exploration and scientific work in the western Canadian Arctic. The expedition was divided into two parties, the Northern Division, under his command, and the Southern Division, led by Rudolph Martin Anderson. The expedition ship of the Northern Division, Karluk, under Captain Robert Bartlett, was originally assigned the role of establishing a base for Stefansson and the scientists on the northwestern fringe of the Canadian Arctic archipelago. However, after transporting Stefansson to Alaska, Karluk became beset in the ice and sank on 11 January 1914, the survivors later rescued in September 1914. Stefansson subsequently had to conduct the work of the Northern Division without either the ship or his scientific staff. He supported himself and his companions on long and difficult sledge journeys by hunting and fishing, dispelling the myth of a lifeless polar sea and proving that living off the land was possible in the Arctic. His account of the expedition The Friendly Arctic was published in 1921.

After this expedition, Stefansson returned to New York to concentrate on a career of lecturing, writing and consulting. Between 1919 and 1920, he promoted a scheme to introduce reindeer on a commercial scale to Baffin Island, although this venture proved unsuccessful. He gave up exploration after the Ostrov Vrangelya [Wrangell Island] expedition of 1921-1923, which he had organized and supported, resulted in the deaths of four expedition members. Continuing to take a strong interest in the development of the polar regions, he was an early proponent of a road to Alaska, an idea that ultimately led to the Alaska Highway. His personal research library grew to become one of the largest collections of polar literature in the world and became a special collection in the Dartmouth College Library at Hanover, New Hampshire in 1951. His wife, Evelyn, became the first librarian of the collection and Stefansson was appointed consultant to the College's polar studies programme. He died on 26 August 1962 in Hanover, New Hampshire, shortly after completing the manuscript of his autobiography Discovery.


The collection is split into three sub-fonds comprising of expedition material, correspondence and papers respectively

Access Information

By appointment.

Some materials deposited at the Institute are NOT owned by the Institute. In such cases the archivist will advise about any requirements imposed by the owner. These may include seeking permission to read, extended closure, or other specific conditions.


Anyone wishing to consult material should ensure they note the entire MS reference and the name of the originator.

The term holograph is used when the item is wholly in the handwriting of the author. The term autograph is used when the author has signed the item.

Descriptions compiled by N. Boneham, Assistant Archivist with assistance from R. Stancombe and reference to Arctic, exploration and development c500 BC to 1915, an encyclopaedia by Clive Holland, Garland Publishing, London (1994) and Exploring Polar Frontiers, a historical encyclopaedia by William Mills, San Diego and Oxford, 2003 and 'Vilhjalmur Stefansson' (1879-1962) by Richard S Finnie in Arctic volume 35 number 2 June 1982 p336-337 and Polar Record volume 11 number 73 January 1963 p513-514 and Harvard and 'Stefansson Explorer and Scholar' by Alan Cooke in Cahiers de Geographie du Quebec volume 7 number 14 August-September 1963 p232-234

Other Finding Aids

Clive Holland Manuscripts in the Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge, England - a catalogue, Garland Publishing New York and London (1982) ISBN 0824093941.

Additional finding aids are available at the Institute.

Conditions Governing Use

Copying material by photography, electrostat, or scanning device by readers is prohibited. The Institute may be able to provide copies of some documents on request for lodgement in publicly available repositories. This is subject to conservation requirements, copyright law, and payment of fees.

Copyright restrictions apply to most material. The copyright may lie outside the Institute and, if so, it is necessary for the reader to seek appropriate permission to consult, copy, or publish any such material. (The Institute does not seek this permission on behalf of readers). Written permission to publish material subject to the Institute's copyright must be obtained from the Director. Details of conditions and fees may be had from the Archivist.


Further accessions possible