“Captain Bob Bartlett”


"A rugged Newfoundlander as ever sailed the seas, He was born and raised in Brigus in the bay." Bartlett's career as a sealer, then as captain, is told, as is his work with Admiral Peary. "He's resting now at Brigus where his grave o'erlooks the bay."


Robert Bartlett (born 1875 in Brigus, Newfoundland; died 1946 in New York City, but his grave and monument are at his home in Brigus) is now remembered mostly as an arctic explorer -- Robert Peary, the alleged discoverer of the North Pole, took him on three expeditions; in 1913-1914 Bartlett, as commander of the _Karluk_, was wrecked, and saved his expedition by a sledge trip to Alaska; in 1926, he was on the ship that carried Robert Byrd's plane to Spitzbergen for Byrd's flight toward the pole, though Bartlett was not to be in the plane. But it appears that he was known in Newfoundland even before that; several of the poems in Ryan/Small, including those supposedly written before Peary's explorations, mention him.

It is possible that some of this is by confusion with his uncle John Bartlett, who also worked with Peary for a time, or his cousin Sam Bartlett, who carried Josephine Peary north to meet her husband Robert in the arctic in 1900; he took the young Bob Bartlett as mate on that expedition (see Bryce, p. 212; for bibliography, see the notes at the end of the article). There was also a cousin, Moses Bartlett, who went on three arctic expeditions and whom Bryce, p. 294, says "had a fabulous reputation as an ice pilot, and like many of the Bartletts from Brigus, Newfoundland, including his second cousin, Bob, he had an equal reputation as a hard drinker." Ironically, Moses Bartlett would captain the ship that took Frederick A Cook, Peary's great rival, to the arctic on the trip where Cook claimed to reach the North Pole (Bryce, pp. 298, 849).

Finally, there was Bob's uncle Isaac Bartlett, who in 1871 had captained the _Tigress_ and rescued the survivors of Hall's ill-fated _Polaris_ According to Loomis, p. 265, Isaac Bartlett told the story of the Hall rescue story so often to young Bob that the youth snuck away whenever Isaac showed up -- but Bob still went on to become a sealer and arctic explorer. (For more on these expeditions, see the notes to "Hurrah for Baffin's Bay.")

The song's mention of Bartlett and Peary is significant. Bartlett figures very strongly in the question of Peary's 1909 trip to the pole. Bartlett served as commander of the _Roosevelt_, Peary's ship, and the explorer gave Bartlett much credit for keeping the ship afloat in his 1905 expedition, when the ship barely made it home with her hull badly damaged.

But Bartlett wanted to be part of the group that made the Pole. Peary developed a system -- really, the only possible system at the time -- of working with a large support crew that wasn't intended to reach the Pole; they just shuttled supplies. In 1909, using this system, he made one more attempt for the Pole. (He had made several failed attempts in the past, but this was almost sure to be his last; Peary was too old and broken-down, and his financial backers too tired of the whole business, for him to have much hope of another chance if the 1909 expedition failed.)

When Peary reached up his northermost supply stop, Bartlett was with him, and expected to be one of those on the crew that went to the Pole. But Peary left him behind -- disappointing the young captain so much that he actually started to set out for the Pole himself, on foot, before coming to his senses.

The fact that Peary left him behind is highly indicative. There are few good witnesses to the last part of Peary's journey. As noted, Peary dropped off various men along the way, resupplying the remaining sledges from theirs.

As the party reached the final stages, only three men were left who could read a sextant and hence measure the latitude: Peary, Bartlett, and Ross Marvin. Marvin was dropped at the next-to-last stop, leaving Peary with a signed statement of his position -- but he never made it home; apparently he was murdered by the Inuit (see Bryce, p. 698; Henderson, pp. 218-219). Then Peary got rid of Bartlett. Peary's final crew consisted of "Commander" Peary himself (whose correct Naval title was not "Commander" but merely "Civil Engineer"), his servant Matthew Henson, and a handful of Inuit. In other words, by leaving Bartlett behind, Peary had made sure that no one could verify his claimed position.

Somewhere in Bryce (I lost my note on this, and the useless index is no help) is Henson's explanation for this: Bartlett was a slow sledger, and had damaged his legs, meaning that he should not continue. There are very strong arguments against this: Bartlett was in good enough shape that he actually started to walk to the pole, and he had broken trail for much of the trip north. On p. 878, Bryce notes that Bartlett made it back from where he parted from Peary in 24 days. Another of Peary's sledgers, Borup, needed 23 days to sledge back from a point more than two degrees further south. And Bartlett sledged just fine during the _Karluk_ voyage. So Henson's explanation simply doesn't hold up.

Incidentally, those notes in Bryce are from Peary, and while Peary noted the positions where the others left, he listed his own return time without listing his own farthest north! It's as if he hadn't yet decided whether to pretend he had reached the Pole. And, once the National Geographic Society had accepted his alleged proofs, he kept them under lock and key; not even a congressional committee was allowed to keep them overnight. And Peary's records, it was noted, show none of the grease and grime one would expect of someone keeping a diary while on a polar trek, eating greasy pemmican and having no way to wash. (Though Bryce, p. 879, notes that Peary's diary is so full of egotistical statements that it's hard to imagine why he would have included them in a fake record. His only explanation is that Peary was unwilling to throw anything away -- unless it argued against his polar claim.)

The map in Morris, p. 141, is strongly illustrative. Peary left land at a northern point on Ellesmere Island, roughly 500 miles south of the North Pole. Bartlett turned back 133 miles south of the Pole -- roughly a quarter of the remaining distance. It took Bartlett 18 days to cover the distance back to land, and six more to return to the _Roosevelt_. Peary, who would have had to cover at least 250 additional miles had he reached the pole, arrived back at the ship two days later (Morris, pp. 142-143).

To manage that Peary, in that last leg he travelled with no other companion who could read a sextant, claimed to cover distances which no other sledging party ever managed; indeed, they were more than twice his own average. For part of the distance, he was claiming fifty miles a day (Morris, p. 148). Morris notes that the best average distance ever recorded on a verified trek was 36.6 miles per day.

And Peary, who had damaged his feet and lost eight toes due to frostbite, made this claim even though he generally had to ride in a sledge rather than operating under his own power (see Bryce, p. 442, Henderson, p. 214); Bryce, p. 852, writes, ?as Henson attested, he was not much more than a load of freight." Any objective observer would say that it was Bartlett, not Peary, who should have made the final run to the Pole. He was fitter, younger, as determined as Peary, and at least as competent. But even if Peary wasn't planning to cheat, he wanted to be the only "white man" to reach the Pole. (Bryce, p. 296. And, yes, he does seem to have been that sort of a racist; in years of travelling with the Inuit, he never learned their language, and some of the things he said about his faithful Black assistant Matthew Henson are frightful -- even though Henson, as his memoirs show, was in many ways a wiser and better man than Peary.)

It must have been truly wearing for Bartlett, who accompanied Peary on many speaking tours -- and was given a bunch of silver medals at the time when Peary was given gold (Bryce, p. 489). Talk about adding insult to injury! If Peary did in fact make it to the pole, then Bartlett certainly could have done so also -- and Peary could not have piloted the _Roosevelt_ far enough to make the run for the pole possible. So who deserves more credit?

It appears Peary had pulled the same trick on Bartlett during his previous (1905-1906) expedition toward the Pole (see Fleming, pp. 340-343). Little is made of Peary's lack of documentation on that trip, since he did not reach the Pole, and apparently had no hopes of reaching it by the time he left the last of his support crew behind. The best he could hope for was a new "Farthest North," to encourage his financial backers -- and even his claim to that is dubious (Bryce, pp. 853-854, who notes also the inadequacy of his equipment).

The classic book on this subject, according to Berton, is _Peary at the Pole: Fact or Fiction?_ by Dennis Rawlins. See also Berton, especially pp. 577-582. Rawlins convinced Berton -- and his extremely negative tone may have contributed to Berton's own harsh statements. That violent anti-Peary tone may have lessened the book's effect (Bryce, p. 757). Still, the evidence is strong: Peary never made the Pole. And, unlike other Arctic expeditions, he didn't gather any useful scientific data. Nor did he care.

But that's Peary's story, not Bartlett's. Even in that, and in Peary's war with Frederick Cook over who reached the Pole first, Bartlett stands out (e.g. when Peary tried to destroy Cook's equipment to render his claim unprovable, Bartlett helped hide some of the equipment from Peary's wrath; Bryce, p. 415).

The flip side is, Bartlett in 1910 took another ship, the _Beothic_, north to investigate some of Cook's records (Bryce, pp. 908-909). Bryce thinks Bartlett was doing Peary's dirty work at this point, destroying rather than investigating. Bryce, p. 920, goes so far as to state, "If Peary had a 'co-conspirator' in his fraudulent claim to the North Pole, it was Bob Bartlett, and his autobiography shows that he either was a clumsy liar or had an incredibly poor memory." Bryce, it will be clear, favors the former interpretation. I am inclined to disagree; the impression I get from Bartlett's writings is of a man who often acted before he thought, and suffered for it; this would help explain why Peary was able to lead him around by the nose.

The real key to Bartlett's reputation, and the criticism of the same, is the _Karluk_ voyage. This time, there was no Peary; the expedition was chartered by Vilhjalmur Stefansson, but he abandoned the ship early on, leaving Bartlett in charge of the show. The _Karluk_ was intended to take Stefansson and his scientists to explore the western portions of the Canadian arctic. The ship was trapped in the ice, and Stefansson proceeded to take a few scientists and leave. Bartlett, his sailors, the remaining scientists, and the _Karluk_ and drifted west until they was close to Wrangel Island off Siberia, where the ice smashed the ship's hull. Bartlett managed to get the men on the ice, brought them (or most of them) to Wrangel Island, then set off for Alaska to find rescue.

Not all the men he left behind lived, though. Three scientists and a sailor, who apparently did not trust Bartlett, set off on their own, and vanished. Four sailors, including the _Karluk's_ first and second mates, ended up on the uninhabitable Herald Island; their bodies would not be found for years. Two scientists died on Wrangel Island of dietary diseases, and one sailor died of a gunshot wound (probably murder); nearly everyone else, except for the expedition's handful of Inuit, ended up with severe frostbite and lost teeth or toes or other flesh. Of six scientists, 13 sailors including Bartlett, one trapper, and five Inuit (including a family of husband, wife, and two young daughters) on the _Karluk_ when she sank, only one scientist, seven sailors, the trapper, and the five Inuit lived to return home.

How much of this is Bartlett's fault? It's hard to tell. Mirsky says on p. 289, "Had Bartlett not been there, it is doubtful if any would have come out of that nightmare alive." In his defence, he *did* lead the sledging voyage which eventually resulted in the rescue of the survivors, and this was certainly heroic. Not one man died in his presence, and only four were under his orders at the time of their deaths (and even they were on a sledging trip, and were lost due to an order given by one of the scientists, not Bartlett).

The other side of the coin is, he left his men on Wrangel Island with no proper authority (the only officer left was an engineer, who seems to have had no skill in handling men and who separated himself from the majority of the survivors once they started slipping out of control). Under the pressures of arctic survival, the effect of leaving the men without a real commander was disastrous. And of course those three scientists had decided to set out on their own rather than continue in his presence.

I can't help but note how much the whole story resembles that of the _Jeannette_, told in the notes to "Hurrah for Baffin's Bay" (and more fully in Guttridge). Bartlett and crew also noted the resemblances (see especially Bartlett-Karluk, pp. 93-94). But they did little to avoid it, except that Bartlett made the decision to leave most of his men at Wrangel Island (where their chances of survival were best) and seek rescue on his own; the _Jeannette_ crew, by contrast, had all sought to return to land together, and ended up with even heavier casualties than the _Karluk_.

Bartlett would eventually publish two books of his experiences, _The Last Voyage of the Karluk_ (cited here as Bartlett-Karluk) and _The Log of "Bob" Bartlett_ (1928). Both are highly dramatic; Bartlett-Karluk begins "We did not all come back," while the _Log_ tells us that "I have been shipwrecked twelve times. Four times I have seen my own ship sink, or be crushed to kindling against the rocks. Yet I love the sea as a dog loves its master who clouts it for the discipline of the house." Several of the _Karluk_ survivors (and one of the dead scientists) left journals; the one surviving scientist, William Laird McKinlay, also produced a heavily-researched book praising Bartlett.

On the whole, the impression I have of Bartlett is of a man of some skill but rather greater enthusiasm. He saved the _Roosevelt_, he rescued many of the men from the _Karluk_ -- but if he had not gotten into such fixes in the first place, he wouldn't have had to save anything.

Stories from Bartlett-Karluk may illustrate this. In chapter III, Bartlett saw a polar bear and actually took the _Karluk_ off her course to shoot it. Shooting at bears was pretty natural at the time -- a seal hunter certainly had no worries about ecology! -- but it was a waste of time and fuel with no particular reward except that he had a hide to take home and a little extra food for the dogs. (And it's worth remembering that the _Karluk_ was wrecked because the ice trapped her before she had made enough distance east. Anything that delayed her added to the disaster.) Similarly, in chapter VII, he reports refusing treatment after a bad skiing accident lest everyone realize that he was "such a duffer." Perhaps my favorite, though, is from chapter IX, where he decided to clean out his clogged cabin stove by firing it with flashlight powder. He ended up blowing pieces of the stove all over the room. There is also a story of a reporter feeding Bartlett dinner to try to get his opinion on whether Peary had reached the Pole in 1909. Bartlett thought he probably had, or near enough -- but his language in describing being left behind was so salty that he was kicked out of the club where they were dining (see Fleming, p. 384).

When it came to describing how the _Karluk_ was lost (Bartlett-Karluk, chapter 11), Bartlett is surprisingly reticent; he devotes a single paragraph (p. 88) to the subject, simply noting that the ice crushed the ship's side and the pump. No explanation of why the _Karluk_ was so damaged when few other ships suffered such damage in Arctic exploration (the Arctic was a graveyard of ships, but few were destroyed solely by ice; usually they were trapped and abandoned). Niven (pp. 117, 123) shows that the _Karluk_ stayed afloat for about 21 hours after her hull was breached, without help of pumps; was it not possible that the ship could have been saved? Why, after months on the ice, was the ship not better prepared to be evacuated? Much that was useful went down with the vessel. And why, why, why did he not make better command arrangements when he left the crew behind to seek rescue? The troubles on the island were almost solely due to bad leadership -- plus the fact that the people who knew something about survival in the arctic (the Inuit and the trapper John Hadley) had no authority.

Some of this was initially the fault of Viljalmar Stefansson, the expedition commander who had purchased the _Karluk_ as part of his arctic expedition, but who then had bought many of the wrong supplies and caused them to be loaded in an extremely haphazard manner. He also assembled most of the inadequate crew. But Stefansson had abandoned the expedition shortly after the _Karluk_ was frozen in, giving Bartlett the opportunity to straighten things out. So why the mad rush at the last moment? And why did he have so much trouble with so many members of the ship's company?

To be fair, Bartlett seems not to have liked speaking ill of anyone. He never publicly questioned Peary's claim to have reached the Pole, and in the _Last Voyage_ he does not say much about the problems he had with the scientists. Maybe the ship's problems were worse than he lets on. Niven, pp. 8-9, notes that Bartlett considered the _Karluk_ completely unsuitable for the voyage, demanded (and got) many repairs done on her, and had repeatedly told Stefansson that he would need additional equipment.

I'm truly not sure what to think. Given those shipboard frictions, perhaps it's not a surprise that not everyone wanted to follow Bartlett back home. But his record is certainly more contradictory than these poems would indicate -- or than Bryce's blanket condemnation would allow.

Fleming, p. 422, sums up the later part of his life as follows: "Robert Bartlett never got over his experience with Peary. He returned to the Arctic again and again. Some of his voyages were sucessful but others -- like the _Karluk_ expedition -- were harrowing failures. He wrote a few books, the last of which sold so badly that its earnings failed to cover his tobacco allowance.... He died on 26 April 1946."


In writing this summary, I have relied primarily on the following books:

Bartlett-Karluk: Robert A. Bartlett (as set down by Ralph T. Hale), _The Karluk's Last Voyage_ (originally published 1916 as _The Last Voyage of the Karluk_; I used the 2001 Cooper Square expedition with a new introduction by Edward E. Leslie). This, I think, gives a pretty good feeling for Bob Bartlett the intense but slightly loopy officer. Instead of a new introduction, it could really have used an index!

Berton: Pierre Berton, _The Arctic Grail:The Quest for the north West Passage and the NorthPole, 1818-1909_ (Viking, 1988). This is almost snarlingly negative, but it is a solid, widely-respected summary of exploration of the Canadian Arctic.

Bryce: Robert M. Bryce, _Cook & Peary: The Polar Controversy, Resolved_ (Stackpole, 1997). Its thousand-plus pages spend more time on the political and legal jousting between Cook and Peary than anything else, and the index is pitiful in reference to its size, making it very hard to use, but the sheer bulk means that it contains a lot of information.

Fleming: Fergus Fleming, _Ninety Degrees North: The Quest for the North Pole_ (Grove, 2001). A bit informal, but a thoroughly readable account of the various Polar expeditions.

Guttridge: Leonard F. Guttridge, _Icebound: The Jeanette Expedition's Quest for the NorthPole_ (1986; I used the 2001 Berkley edition). This doesn't even mention Bartlett in the Index, but given that the _Karluk's_ story was so close to the _Jeanette's_, it's a useful control on any arctic exploration story.

Henderson: Bruce Henderson, _True North: Peary, Cook, and the Race to the Pole_ (Norton, 2005) is an attempt to demonstrate that Frederick Cook beat Peary to the North Pole. It doesn't do much for Cook's case, it seems to me, but it has quite a bit about Peary and Bartlett.

Loomis: Chauncey Loomis, _Weird and Tragic Shores: The Story of Charles Francis Hall, Explorer_ (I used the 2000 Modern Library edition, which has some new introductory work not by the author but which is essentially unchanged from Loomis's 1968 edition). This is the story of Hall, not Bob Bartlett, but it gives some information on Bartlett's family background.

Mirsky: Jeannette Mirsky, _To the Arctic: The Story of Northern Exploration from the Earliest Times to the Present_, revised edition, Knopf, 1948. It's much too kind to the various wackos who headed for the North Pole, but it's also pretty comprehensive up to the 1920s. In an interesting note, Bryce, pp. 721-722, notes how the legal wrangles between the Peary and Cook factions actually caused portions of this book to be modified for publication; it still ended up in court.

Jan Morris, _Great Exploration Hoaxes_ (Sierra Club, 1982; I use the 2001 Modern Library edition with an Introduction by Jan Morris) covers much more than arctic exploration, and is perhaps a little one-sided in situations where balance might be better, but it has much useful information on Peary and Cook.

Niven: Jennifer Niven, _The Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk_ (Hyperion, 2000). Much more coherent than Bartlett's own accounts, though I often felt that Niven just didn't quite understand the Arctic. (She is a Californian, and clearly doesn't understand ice, snow, or cold -- she doesn't even know the difference between a "sled," a "sledge," and a "sleigh.") - RBW

Historical references

  • 1875-1946 - Life of Robert Abram Bartlett

Cross references


  1. Ryan/Small, pp. 83-84, "Captain Bob Bartlett" (1 text)
  2. BI, RySm083


Author: Otto Kelland?
Earliest date: 1961 (Kelland, Anchor Watch)