Explorers: Historic

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Image courtesy: New Land, Otto Sverdrup

Historic Explorers

Some early expeditions were successful in reaching the High Arctic. The first explorers’ confidence in western methods and the technology of the day, however, did not prepare them for the harsh Arctic conditions. The members of George Nares’ 1876 British expedition developed scurvy and several team members died as they sledged along the northern coast of Ellesmere Island. Five years later a U.S. Army expedition led by Adolphus Greely made the mistake of relying on ships to bring needed food and supplies. When cold weather made the ships unable to reach the expedition, seventeen of the twenty-five team members died of starvation as they tried to retreat. Those who survived did so only by eating the bodies of their dead friends.

Later more successful expeditions understood that success in the High Arctic demanded both respect for the harsh conditions and for the knowledge of the people who had lived there for thousands of years. Norwegian explorer Otto Sverdrup adopted Inuit and Inughuit technologies to explore the High Arctic. Over four years beginning in 1898 he and his team explored and mapped over 100,000 square miles (260,000 square kilometers), an area the size of the state of Colorado, all by dogsled. His maps were so good they were used until the 1950s when aerial photographs replaced them.

Robert Peary and his African-American partner Matthew Henson hired sixty-nine Inughuit men, women and children to help him prepare for his 1909 expedition. Peary and Henson knew their success would depend on the superiority of Inughuit clothing, dogsledding abilities, and survival experience in the High Arctic. Four of the Inughuit accompanied Peary and Henson all the way to the Pole.

It is important to note that while Europeans and Euro-Americans have been exploring the High Arctic for only the last 150 years, the Inuit and Inughuit have explored and lived in the High Arctic for thousands of years.


  1. What lessons can we learn from the legacy of Inuit and Western exploration of the Arctic?
  2. What can we learn about today’s Arctic from the people who live and work there?
  3. How can we combine the knowledge of western scientists with the knowledge of native peoples to give us a better understanding of the Arctic?


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