Vilhjalmur Stefansson: Arctic Explorer, Reindeer Expert, Iowa Grad

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Courtesy Library of Congress

Vilhjalmur Stefansson in a 1928 portrait by Doris Ulmann.

New York City in 1919 was home to quite a few University of Iowa grads; and on Saturday night, December 27, a reunion was held at the English Tavern on East 41st Street. Vilhjalmur Stefansson was there to join the group in singing “Old Gold” and to hear Dr. William B. Guthrie, president of the New York Alumni Association, welcome attendees.

“We are here in a spirit of unity,” Professor Guthrie said, “representing that vast and embracing thing we call the brotherhood of culture.”

By then Stefansson had become a world-renowned celebrity. At one time he had dreamed of being a poet; but after graduation from the University of Iowa in 1903, his career veered in a very different direction taking him to the Arctic where he explored and studied the language and customs of native people.

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His first expedition took place in 1906, when he became separated from the team he was traveling with and spent the winter living among the Eskimo people. For almost five years he traveled across northern Canada “living off the land.” In 1914 Stefansson made a 600-mile sled trip to Alaska with two other men.

His article in a journal of the Alaska Bureau of Publicity in July 1919 focused on the arrival of reindeer in Alaska in the late 1890s. According to Stefansson, close to 1,300 animals were imported from Siberia and Lapland. He estimated that 140,000 existed in the area in 1919 and that 80,000 had been killed for meat and hides.

Stefansson wrote several books about his experiences and became a popular speaker. He once said, “…man finds it easier to change the face of nature than to change his own mind.”

The famous explorer looked favorably on his time at the University of Iowa. He explained why he chose the Iowa institution for his early education and why he had donated $250 to the university. It was because of “its excellence in the Northern languages and its readiness to give a man credit for what he knew regardless of where he had learned it.” And the university honored its former student in 1922 by conferring an honorary doctorate degree to Stefansson. He never forgot his alma mater.

Courtesy Library of Congress

An Eskimo and captured reindeer in an undated photo from anywhere between 1900 and 1930.

Early in 1934 during the height of the Great Depression when he heard of budget cuts at the university, Stefansson donated copies of his books to the library. And in the fall of that year, Stefansson returned to the university, opening its annual lecture series with an illustrated talk about his career. He spoke about the ten winters and 13 summers he had spent in the polar region. Discussing his expeditions along the Mackenzie River, he talked about living with native people who had never seen a white man. Attendees heard about his 1913 trip with a staff of scientists who discovered four large islands.

Stefansson never pursued his original dream of becoming a poet. However, he believed his work as an explorer gave him opportunities similar to those of a poet. He explained an explorer “needs a mind to see visions no less than he needs the strength to face a blizzard.” And he added, “A law of nature is an imperishable poem.”

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Sources

  • “Book on the Artic Is Published By Graduate of Iowa,” Daily Iowan, Jan. 7, 1922.
  • Iowa Alumnus, Oct 1919: p 16; Jan 1920 , p 118.
  • Selby, John. “The Book Parade,” Daily Iowan, Mar. 31, 1943.
  • “Vilhjalmur Stefansson, Explorer and S.U.I. Grad, Donates Three Books,” Daily Iowan, Apr. 25, 1934.
  • “Vilhjalmur Stefansson Will Open S.U. I. Lecture Series,” Daily Iowan, Oct. 24, 1934.

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