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TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic January 12, 2013 - 11:56 am

Taissumani, Jan. 11

Robert Stein’s Expedition to Ellesmere Island


Robert Stein was an eccentric German-born immigrant to America. Born in Silesia in 1857, he studied for the priesthood at Georgetown University, but was side-tracked from his theological studies and ended up with a medical degree.

He was also quite a linguist, acquiring a knowledge of 12 languages. Stein never married, preferring to devote his time and energy to his passions – historical and ethnological research. He found employment with the United States Geological Survey Office in Washington, as a translator.

Early in the 1890s, Robert Stein became interested in Arctic exploration. He had developed a plan “to establish a permanent station at the entrance of Jones Sound, to be occupied by from four to six white men and several Eskimo families, and from there carry on scientific explorations northward, northwestward, westward, and southward as far as can be done with safety.”

Then, two Swedish adventurers, Bjorling and Kallstenius, disappeared somewhere north of Baffin Bay, and Stein seized on the opportunity to combine his own interests with a rescue of the unfortunate explorers. Presumably their sad circumstance would make it easier for him to raise funds.

And so in 1894 he privately published his “Proposed Expedition to Explore Ellesmere Land… and to Rescue Bjorling and Kallstenius…” Unfortunately, no-one bought into his plans, and Stein remained in Washington.

But Robert Stein didn’t give up easily. Two years later he published an article in Popular Science Monthly, entitled “Proposed System of Continuous Polar Exploration.”  It was essentially the same plan, minus the attempted rescue of the two Swedes; by then they were known to have perished. 

By 1897 Stein had met Robert Peary, and travelled to the Arctic on a summer expedition that year. The following year Peary sailed north again on a chartered ship, the Windward, on an expedition from which he would not return for four years.

The next year, when a relief expedition on the Diana, under Captain Samuel Bartlett, went north with supplies for Peary, Robert Stein began to realize his dream. Aboard was a sort of sub-expedition, led by Stein, who was accompanied by two companions, an American – Julian Warmbath, a taxidermist– and an Austrian, Leopold Kann.

Their expedition was bound for Ellesmere Island, where they intended to explore the interior and the west coast of that island, and make scientific observations.

The Diana landed them in Payer Harbour on Pim Island, south of Cape Sabine, about half way up the east coast of Ellesmere Island, where they built their winter quarters, Fort Magnesia. This curious name was bestowed on the camp in honour of the Keasbey and Mattison Magnesia Company, a business in Pennsylvania that had supplied the insulation for Stein’s quarters.

The winter was uneventful and lonely. At that latitude, the sun disappeared from the southern horizon for 126 days, making the winter very dark indeed for southerners who had never ventured north before.

Stein later wrote, “We went north under express agreement with Peary to have no dealings with the natives…” There was little danger of that – no Inuit lived on Ellesmere Island at that time, except those whom Peary moved in and out of the island as support for his expeditions. The occasional hunting party from Etah visited the camp, as well. 

In 1900 the New York Herald carried a cheery article, “Stein’s Extraordinary Arctic Expedition.” It bore the sub-title “Chances are that the daring explorer and his party have been frozen to death.”

The article went on to claim that Stein, known as an Arctic enthusiast, was in fact “an Arctic crank,” and suggested that, were it not for the possible tragedy of the deaths of Stein and his men, his expedition should be viewed as “pure and unadulterated comedy.”

But the Herald was wrong – Stein and his men had not perished. Kann, however, disenchanted with Stein, had decided to return to Europe. Travelling with Inuit, he sledded to Etah on the Greenland coast, and south from there to Cape York on Melville Bay, where he was picked up by the whaler, Eclipse, under Captain Milne.

He arrived in Dundee on Nov. 8. Stein had accompanied him to Cape York, but declined passage on the Eclipse. He was picked up by the Windward, which had come north again with supplies for Peary, and returned on her to Camp Magnesia.

Stein and Warmbath spent another winter at their base on Ellesmere Island, but they were not as isolated as they had been the previous year. The Windward passed the winter nearby and some Inuit from Etah camped at Fort Magnesia. Warmbath became friends with Josephine Peary and her daughter Marie, who were on the ship through that winter. In the summer of 1901, Stein and Warmbath returned south, either on the Windward or the relief vessel, Erik.
Stein’s Ellesmere Island expedition accomplished nothing. But Stein was nothing if not determined. Back in Washington, with no hope of mounting another expedition north, he modified his interest in the Arctic, marrying it to an equally impractical idea which would have involved a daring feat of diplomacy between Canada, Britain, Denmark, Germany and the United States.

Next Week – Stein’s Proposal for Canada to Annex Greenland
Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).



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