Robert Abram Bartlett

Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum & Arctic Studies Center Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum & Arctic Studies Center

Robert Abram Bartlett

Captain Bob Bartlett, shipmate and comrade of both Robert E. Peary and Donald B. MacMillan, was a steadfast and reliable member of the Arctic expeditions for which he captained the Roosevelt under the command of Peary. Bartlett himself also commanded many successful expeditions on his beloved ship the Effie M. Morrissey. Through these voyages, he contributed immensely to knowledge about the Arctic, since he placed the value of scientific research above that of pure exploration.

Robert Abram Bartlett was born on August 15, 1875 in Brigus, Newfoundland. At the age of fifteen his mother sent Bartlett to a Methodist college to become a minister, but the sea was in his blood. He preferred to work the six long years required to earn the right to captain a ship. After Bartlett was awarded his mariner's papers, his uncle, Captain John Bartlett, asked the new seaman to sign on with him as mate. John Bartlett had been sailing for Robert Peary on his Arctic expeditions since the early 1890s, and in 1898 Robert Bartlett went North for the first time on one of Peary's expeditions. He learned Inuit life and lore, and what is more, he befriended Peary and learned how to survive in the frozen lands.

Bartlett returned very committed to Arctic work. In 1905 Peary asked him to captain his new steamer the S.S. Roosevelt. Bartlett steered the vessel to 82°20', farther north than any ship had gone before under its own steam, but the expedition was nearly a disaster. Peary did not reach the Pole, and the Roosevelt suffered a string of serious mishaps, including terrible storms, fire, dynamite damage, and a broken rudder, that sorely tested Bartlett's ability to bring the expedition members safely back to New York.

1908 saw Bartlett again in charge of the Roosevelt as he accompanied Peary on his final attempt at the Pole. This time, Bartlett commanded the last supporting sledge party to turn back with excess dogs, men, and supplies. His party traveled as far as 87°48', 150 miles from the North Pole despite the fact that Bartlett's face and wrists were frostbitten. In recognition of his strength and determination, which were of great importance to the success of Peary's expedition, Bartlett received the Hubbard Medal, the highest award of the National Geographic Society, in 1909.

In 1913, Bartlett captained the Karluk for Vilhjamur Stefansson on a voyage to the Canadian Arctic via the Bering Strait. This voyage was a complete disaster. The ship became trapped in the ice and most of the able bodied men went off hunting. After months of drifting in the ice the crew was forced to abandon the Karluk before it was crushed. Bartlett led those under his command to Wrangel Island, off the coast of Siberia, and then, after leaving instructions on what to do to survive, traveled, with one Inuit companion, a total of over 700 miles through snow and ice to get help. Bartlett's leadership, courage, and survival skills alone saved the lives of over half of the passengers and crew who had been trapped on the Karluk. In 1917, Bartlett again headed a rescue mission, this time to bring back Donald MacMillan and the other members of the Crocker Land Expedition.

Bob Bartlett acquired his beloved schooner, his "little Morrissey," in 1925 when he bought it from another uncle, Harold Bartlett. From 1926 until his death, Bartlett made twenty voyages into the Arctic collecting specimens, aiding in archaeological surveys, correcting geographical charts, and collecting animals for zoos. Professional cameramen shot hundreds of feet of motion picture film on his voyages. His experiences were as popular with the public as those of the NASA space shuttles. With the Morrissey, he visited some of the least-known areas of the northern hemisphere and loved every minute of it. After a life spent doing what he loved, Bob Bartlett died of pneumonia in New York City on April 28, 1946.

More Information and Links

The Log of Captain Bob Bartlett (1928) is Bartlett's own account of the first forty years of his seafaring experiences. He has also written The Last Voyage of the Karluk (1916) (now reprinted by Cooper Square Press (2001) as The Karluk's Last Voyage), and Sails over Ice (1934) about his exploration and research on the Morrissey. There are two biographies of Bartlett: Bartlett: The Great Canadian Explorer (1977) by Harold Horwood (New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc.) and Mariner of the North (1947) by George Palmer Putnam (New York: Duell, Sloan, and Pierce). William L. McKinlay wrote about the Karluk disaster in Karluk: the Great Untold Story of Arctic Exploration (St. Martin's Press, 1976) and Jennifer Niven describes the Karluk disaster in here recent (2000) book The Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk, published by Hyperion. The Canadian Coast Guard also provides more biographical information and detailed account of the Karluk disaster. Information about more books relating to Robert A. Bartlett can be found at the National Library of Canada. His home in Brigus is now a Canadian National Historic Site. The Bartlett papers can be found in the Bowdoin College Library Special Collections.