Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Interpreting Captain Bob Bartlett's AGS Notebook Chronicling Significant Parts of Peary's 1908-09 North Pole Expedition

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Interpreting Captain Bob Bartlett's AGS Notebook Chronicling Significant Parts of Peary's 1908-09 North Pole Expedition

Article excerpt

Admiral Robert Peary's claim that in April of 1909 he was the first person in modern history to "attain" the North Pole was contentious from the start. With national pride, American exceptionalism, and assumptions of racial superiority riding on the question--as well as the promise of personal fame and fortune for Peary himself--the pressures were great to see his claim substantiated (Dick 2013, 6-7). Among these pressures was the expectation of the Peary Arctic Club, a group of wealthy and socially prominent backers of Peary's northern explorations, that he come home from the 1909 trip with the ultimate prize of primacy at the North Pole to justify their investment and to support their nationalistic goals.

Objective, scientifically acceptable evidence to support Peary's claim of success, however, was considered flimsy from the outset, so that "literary techniques of rhetoric and narrative form assumed a particular importance, even in the structuring of the diaries the explorers asserted had been written down in the field" (Dick 2004, 11). Controversy over Peary's claim has flared up again with each new publication, or observation, or document that has been brought to the argument. Captain Bob Bartlett's small-format notebook that recently came to light in the American Geographical Society archives describes significant parts of Peary's 1909 attempt. Even though Bartlett and Peary were apart from March 31 through April 23, including April 6, which was the day of Peary's reputed triumph, the notebook provides some clues to the evolution of Peary's claims for this period. The notebook documents Bartlett's experience from March 30 through August 31, 1909, critical times in the expedition's story. Its role in the evolution of the Peary narrative is, however, not entirely obvious from the document itself, and is especially baffling in its minimal treatment of what were ultimately regarded as key points in the Peary story.


Captain Robert "Bob" Abram Bartlett (1875-1946), a highly respected ice master born in Newfoundland, knew the elusive Peary better than most (Plate 1). Bartlett commanded Peary's ship, the Roosevelt, on two of Peary's most significant northern expeditions, 1905-06 and 1908-09. On Peary's final attempt to reach the North Pole, 1908-09, Bartlett not only captained the Roosevelt between New York and Cape Sheridan on the northeastern tip of Ellesmere Island but also took part in Peary's elaborate system of successive support teams travelling to and from Cape Columbia, the land base from which Peary, much diminished by physical ailments, travelled primarily by sledge to and from his polar goal.

On Peary's final attempt at the Pole, Bartlett proved a hardy and able trekker, often doing the arduous work of breaking trail, and was invaluable as one whose outstanding navigational skills could keep the expedition on track. Bartlett was convinced to take on this work, seemingly below his status as captain, by Peary's promise that Bartlett would go all the way with Peary to the Pole, enjoying the benefits thereof, and in following years Bartlett would captain the Roosevelt on a South Pole expedition (Horwood 1977, 87-88).

Neither promise was kept. It is ironic that North Pole enthusiasts might best know Bartlett as the man who was sent back before the final stage of Peary's quest. Bartlett does not mention in his notebook account exactly when he learned about the decision, how Peary explained it to him, or how disappointed he felt. The reader of Bartlett's AGS notebook first learns of this change in plan with Bartlett's opening statement on March 31' "Today is my last march North. I am in great hopes of getting into the 88th parallel" (Plate 2).

As Bartlett expressed it in his Log, drawing from his interview with a New York Herald reporter immediately upon his return, "It was a bitter disappointment. I got up early the next morning [March 31] while the rest were asleep, and started north alone. …

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