Captain Robert “Bob” Abram Bartlett (1875 – 1946)
Captain Robert Bartlett and Robert Peary, standing on ship, Battle Harbour, Labrador in 1909. Wikimedia Commons
was born in Brigus, Newfoundland, the oldest of ten children and heir to a seafaring tradition. By age of 17 he had mastered his first ship. Over his life he led over 40 Arctic expeditions to the Arctic, more than anyone has before or since. He spent more than 50 years mapping and exploring the waters of the Far North.
In 1913-14 Captain Bartlett and Inuk hunter Kataktovik trekked over 700 miles of Chukchi Sea ice, across Siberia, and on to Alaska to mount an expedition to rescue the survivors of the Canadian Arctic Expedition. For his outstanding bravery he received the highest award from the Royal Geographical Society.
The Peary Expedition
Among his many Arctic voyages Captain Bartlett was selected by American Rear Admiral Robert Peary to command his 184 foot, 1,600 ton transitional steamship Roosevelt for his 1908 expedition to reach the North Pole. Bartlett was awarded the Hubbard Medal by the National Geographic Society being the first person to sail north of 88° N. Among others who were awarded this distinction were Richard E. Byrd, Charles Lindbergh, and Orville Wright.
An Arctic Hero
The Canadian Arctic Expedition (1913–16) was organized for scientific and geographic exploration under the leadership of Canadian-born anthropologist Vilhjalmur Stefansson. The expedition left Esquimalt Harbour on June 17, 1913. The expedition’s flagship HMCS Karluk, a brigantine formerly employed as a whaler, was commanded by Bartlett.
In January of 1914 while sailing to a rendezvous at Herschel Island the Karluk found herself trapped in the ice. Stefansson and a small party left the ship intent on hunting for caribou. Meanwhile the ice carried Karluk westwards across the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, far from the hunting party who found it impossible to return to the ship. Stefansson reached land and continued to devote himself to the expedition’s scientific objectives, leaving the crew and staff on board the ship under Bartlett’s command. The Karluk eventually sank and Bartlett led an 80-mile (130 km) march across the ice to Wrangel Island. Conditions were difficult and dangerous and two four-man parties were lost on the trek.
Karluk, fast in the Arctic ice with a umiak hanging in slings below her bowsprit. August 1913 about 15 miles west of Manning Point, Alaska,. The last voyage of the Karluk : McLelland, Goodchild & Stewart, Toronto 1916
Bartlett and his Inuk hunter Kataktovik then embarked a 16-month 700 mile trek over treacherous Chukchi Sea ice to the Siberian Coast then east to Emma Harbour. Bartlett was picked up by Captain Pedersen on the Herman in May 1914 and taken back to Alaska where he arranged for the rescue of his stranded party. Before their rescue in September 1914, three more of the party had died, two of illness and one in violent circumstances. Bartlett finally met up with the survivors just off the coast with the US Bear.
Bartlett received the highest award from the Royal Geographical Society for his outstanding heroism.
In 1917, Bartlett rescued the members of Donald Baxter MacMillan’s ill-fated Crocker Land Expedition, who had been stuck on the ice for four years.
From 1925-1945, in command of his own schooner, Effie M. Morrissey, Bartlett led many important scientific expeditions to the Arctic sponsored by American museums, the Explorers Club, and the National Geographic Society. He also helped to survey the Arctic for the United States Government during World War II.
A scene from The Viking
In 1931, Bartlett starred as Captain Barker in the film The Viking (scrub to the six minute mark) about a sealing ship in Newfoundland. The film was shot on location and during the filming of several action scenes, the ship that filming was taking place on exploded, killing 28 men. Despite this, the film was still released. In it, Bartlett plays the captain of the sealing vessel The Viking who is proud of his reputation for having never lost a man.
Author Eric Walters documented some of the aspects of his journey to find Arctic islands in the historical novels Trapped in Ice and The Pole.
Bartlett and Kataktovik’s journey through Chukotka, Siberia is recounted as an episode in Chukchi author Yuri Rytkheu’s novel A Dream in Polar Fog.
Captain Bartlett died at 70 in a New York City hospital from pneumonia and was buried in his hometown of Brigus, Newfoundland and Labrador.
Awards and Honours
In 1909, Bartlett was awarded the Hubbard Medal by the National Geographic Society for distinction in exploration, discovery, and research. In 1927, the Boy Scouts of America made Bartlett an Honorary Scout, a new category of Scout created that same year.
He was awarded an Honorary Fellowship from the American Geographical Society in 1918, and its Daly Medal in 1925. In 1944, he was awarded the Peary Polar Expedition Medal. The Canadian Coast Guard vessel CCGS Bartlett is named for Bartlett. Canada Post featured Bartlett on a Canadian postage stamp released on July 10, 2009.
Hawthorne Cottage, Bartlett’s place of residence in Brigus, is a National Historic Site of Canada.