Ernest de Koven Leffingwell

Mapping the Arctic Coast of Alaska

Ernest de Koven Leffingwell was a joint commander, with Ejnar Mikkelsen, of the 1906-1908 Anglo-American Polar Expedition, which established that, contrary to long-held myths and stories, there was no land north of Alaska. Self-described as “the forgotten explorer,” as his efforts went largely unrecognized in his own time, Leffingwell is credited for later mapping about 150 miles of the Arctic coastline, between Point Barrow and Herschel Island, along with the adjacent Brooks Range, between 1906 and 1914.

Leffingwell, Mikkelsen, and the members of their expedition became stranded on the coast of the Arctic Ocean when their schooner, the Duchess of Bedford, became ice-locked near Flaxman Island, 250 miles east of Pt. Barrow, the northernmost point of Alaska.

Ernest de Koven Leffingwell, Captain Eijnar Mikkelsen, and Dr. G.P. Howe, February, 1907, Anglo-American Polar Expedition, Canning District, Alaska. 

While Leffingwell, Mikkelsen, and the ship’s physician, Dr. G.P. Howe, were exploring the coastline in March and April, 1907, the sailors in the expedition used wood from their badly-damaged ship to build a rough but serviceable cabin and other structures on Flaxman Island. For the next several years, Leffingwell stayed at the camp intermittently and conducted mapping projects with Inupiat guides, traveling by dog team in the winter and following the coastline in a small boat during the summer months.

Aerial view of Leffingwell camp from the Duchess of Bedford mast behind Leffingwell’s house, and the wreck of the Duchess of Bedford in the background, looking south, by Ejnar Mikkelsen, 1907. [NPS photograph]

Leffingwell’s cabin and several other buildings on Flaxman Island still stand, and a sign was placed on them in 1971 by geologist C. G. Mull for the Alaska Division of Parks which states: “From this base camp geologist Ernest D.K. Leffingwell almost singlehandedly mapped Alaska’s Arctic coast during the years 1907-1914. He also identified the Sadlerochit – main reservoir of the Prudhoe Bay field.” In 1978 Leffingwell’s camp was listed as a National Historic Landmark.

Leffingwell’s writings include many original journals and related papers from his expeditions. In 1909 he contributed to a book, Conquering the Arctic Ice, authored by his friend and expedition co-commander, Ejnar Mikkelsen (Philadelphia: G. W. Jacobs); in 1915 he wrote an article, “A Communication from Leffingwell,” for the University of Chicago Magazine; and in 1919 he authored a 247-page Professional Paper on the Canning River Region for the U.S. Geological Survey.

In Conquering the Arctic Ice Mikkelsen described buying dogs for the two-month exploratory expedition which he, Leffingwell, and Dr. Howe undertook in the spring of 1907: “Another serious question to be settled was that of the dogs, as several more of our pack had died, and some of those we had bought were useless. We had to get more and were willing to pay any price for them. We began at once to look about us for dogs in the possession of the Eskimos which we knew would stand us in good stead for the ones lost, but we had to pay exorbitant prices for them. For example, one which we bought from Kanara was paid for with two sacks of flour, 25 lbs. beans, 6 lbs. coffee, 20 lbs. dried potatoes, 12 lbs. cocoa, one shot-gun, 250 rounds of ammunition, and one broken-down tent; and another bought from Uxra with two sacks of flour, one sack of cornmeal, 5 lbs. coffee, 20 lbs. dried potatoes, 25 lbs. sugar, 4 lbs. prunes, 4 lbs. malted milk, 200 rounds of cartridges, and one hatchet file. The prices, as said above, were exorbitant, but the dogs were good, and what was more, we needed them.”

Joe Henderson is a dog musher and arctic traveler who has explored the remote regions of Alaska over the past 30 years with his intrepid team of twenty-two Alaskan Malamutes. During the winters of 2006-2008, Joe and his Malamutes made a series of unprecedented solo expeditions in the Brooks Range and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Pulling three sleds in tandem with two tons of supplies, Joe and the team mushed entirely unsupported for up to five months at a time without seeing another human being.

Henderson’s expedition was a tribute to the “forgotten explorer,” Ernest de Koven Leffingwell. Traveling with Leffingwell’s journals as a guide, Joe covered much of the same country, camped in many of the same localities, and experienced some of the same weather and ground conditions that Leffingwell had a century before. On the third year of the expedition, Joe found Leffingwell’s cabin during a whiteout blizzard.

Joe kept a detailed journal of his travels, and he wrote a three-part series of articles for the sled dog focused Mushing magazine which appeared in three issues from 2006 to 2008. An excerpt: “It always amazes me how much ground Leffingwell covered. Leffingwell, along with some local Inupiat assistants, had spent six winters and nine summers surveying, mapping and studying Alaska’s arctic environment. He traveled by dogteam or small boat over 4,500 miles, drew a sketch map of the entire coast between Point Barrow and the Canadian border, triangulated 150 miles of coast, and mapped the geographic features of 4,000 square miles of mainland. He also named several geologic formations, including the one that is the source of oil at the Prudhoe Bay oilfield. He journeyed 20,000 miles by ship, and he mentioned pitching camp 380 times! These are just a few of his extraordinary accomplishments.” [Joe Henderson, Retracing Leffingwell, Mushing Magazine, Nov/Dec, 2008]

Ernest de Koven Leffingwell was awarded the Patron’s Medal by the Royal Geographical Society and the Charles P. Daly Medal by the American Geographical Society, both in 1922. He was awarded an honorary Doctor of Science degree by Trinity College in 1923. Leffingwell Fork, a stream on Alaska’s North Slope, Leffingwell Crags in Canada’s Northwest Territories, and Leffingwell Nunatak in Greenland are named for him. When he died in Carmel, California, in 1971 at the age of 96, he was believed to have been the oldest surviving polar explorer. 

Leffingwell wrote—and was written about—extensively, and there are numerous links to references and further reading at his biographical sketch on Wikipedia. One article which does not appear there was published in Collier’s Weekly magazine, one of the largest selling magazines in the United States at the turn of the century. Titled “Camping Alone by the Frozen Sea,” Leffingwell’s article described the land and the people of the Northern coast of Alaska. The introduction sets the stage:

“Here’s a man who chose three half-fed years of isolation on the Arctic Coast in preference to comrades and food in plenty, and now—on coming home—writes about his experiences with as little elation as though it had been a trip to Liverpool and back. Mr. Leffingwell went out with the Mikkelsen-Leffingwell Expedition to find land in the great Arctic Sea. The rest of the party came back after a year’s try, and when their ship had sunk off Flaxman Island; but Leffingwell stayed on in that silent solitude, three hundred miles from the nearest outpost (Point Barrow); and when he came out, two or three months ago, he brought with him detailed maps of the Arctic Coast line from Beaufort Sea to the Yukon Divide. No doubt Mr. Leffingwell thinks he was moved to remain in the North for the opportunity offering to make maps of unmapped land and geological surveys of unexplored sections, but it sounds to us like the Call of the North. And who can explain it?”

The article by Leffingwell is a unique first-hand report on conditions faced by explorers in the far north at the turn of the century. He begins with a description of the expedition itself: “For many years geographers have been interested in having the Arctic Ocean explored, especially to the north of Alaska. There were many reasons for believing land existed there as well as to the east and west, where numerous islands had already been discovered by the early explorers. Our plan was to explore that area, and both the Royal Geographical Society of London and the American Geographical Society of New York gave their influence as well as funds. The larger part of the money, however, was from private sources. After the usual financial difficulties we sailed in May, 1906, from Victoria, British Columbia, in a small sailing schooner, with provisions for two years. Our outfit was the usual one for Arctic expeditions, with sled, skis, canvas canoes, and furs made in Norway after Nansen’s plans. Our party consisted of eight men, of whom Captain Mikkelsen and I were joint commanders. Our scientific staff was completed by Dr. G. P. Howe of Lawrence, Massachusetts; the rest were sailors.

“The ship was unable to penetrate any farther along the north coast of Alaska than Flaxman Island, about three hundred miles to the east of Point Barrow. Here she was frozen in, but well protected from any pressure by the heavy sea ice. During January and February all our energies were bent upon preparation for our sled trip northward to explore that area. We were away from the ship for two months, and covered about five hundred miles, but failed to find land where it had been reported by whalers and natives. Instead we found the sea to be over two thousand feet deep within fifty miles of shore, which is accepted as very strong evidence against the existence of land in the vicinity. Having finished the exploration of that portion of the Arctic Ocean, and being unable to repair our leaking vessel, the expedition came to an end, and the members, with the exception of the writer, returned to civilization.

“My chief interest lay in geology, and the mountains, which could be seen about fifty miles inland, offered a virgin field. With the exception of a few prospectors, no white man had penetrated the interior, and nothing of its geology or geography is known to the world. Consequently I decided to remain with the Eskimos two years longer and to explore this most attractive region.”

The next few paragraphs describe the geography and weather of the northern coast of Alaska, and while quite informative, it is Leffingwell’s comments about the native populations which provoke historic interest. 

“Along the whole coast of Arctic America, Eskimos, or evidence of their former existence, are found. Judging from the abandoned houses and villages, they were once numerous along the north shore of Alaska. But now their numbers are being fast reduced by the contagious diseases brought in by white men, against which they have developed no immunity. At Point Barrow where a few white men have been engaged in whaling and trading for a quarter of a century, and where there are also a missionary and a schoolteacher, is still a village of two or three hundred Eskimos. Another settlement of much less size has gathered at Herschel Island, where the whaleships have long wintered. In all the five hundred miles of coast between these two villages there are hardly a dozen Eskimos. Inland perhaps a couple of dozen families live in tents and follow the caribou from place to place. 

“Throughout Arctic regions travel in winter is with dog sleds. Locally domesticated reindeer have been tried with success, and horses have been used for heavy freighting in mining camps; but on the north coast of Alaska the Eskimo dog is still indispensable. The pure-blooded dogs are large and strong and can stand the climate, but the race is fast deteriorating through promiscuous breeding with dogs brought in from the outside. Eskimo dogs are very playful and affectionate as a rule. They are as well fed as the family and well treated, but never made to mind. Such a thing as coming when called (unless for food) is unknown. The pups are fitted with a harness and tied to a post or to a small log, and in tugging at their chain strengthen and toughten their shoulders and legs, so that when full grown they are very powerful. As soon as they can follow the sled, they are hitched into line with the older dogs for short trips. This they regard as great fun, so they put every ouce of strength into the work. They sleep in the house or tent the first winter, but after that are never allowed inside even in the most severe weather, during which they get what protection they can in the lee of the tent or sled. 

Formerly both natives and white men constructed houses out of snow blocks in which to sleep while traveling in winter-time. Occasionally snow houses are still used, but since it has become possible to secure canvas or boat drill from the traders, a tent is preferred. I have spent months in different kinds of tents and find the one used by Eskimos by far the most comfortable and safe. Willow sticks about ten feet in length are stripped of their bark, bent into a curve and allowed to dry. Fifteen or twenty of these light curved sticks are stuck up in the snow and lashed into a hemispherical form over which two covers of light boat drill are thrown. When snow is shoveled around the margin and well packed down, this low, round tent will stand any wind that blows. The snow floor is covered with caribou skins on top of which the sleeping-bags are placed. There is plenty of driftwood along the coast and willow on most of the rivers, so the traveler need but carry a small sheet-iron stove to cook with and to heat the tent. The air space between the covers makes a great protection against the outside cold, so that while cooking a meal the tent often becomes unbearably hot even with the door open. At night after the fire is out the bodily heat from the people sleeping in such a tent will raise the interior temperature over fifty degrees (F.) above that outside. Hardly any frost forms upon the walls and one is able to sleep comfortably with the head outside the bag. During the worst gales that blow on that coastm one can keep the tent warm and comfortable all day, while residing or smoking at one’s ease, and at night take off all of one’s clothes and sleep with as much comfort and safety as in a steam-heated house. Having had this good night’s rest, he can face the next day’s cold with greater cheerfulness. Contrast this tent with those often used by polar explorers, in which they lay awake most of the night, buttoned inside of a wet sleeping-bag listening to the flapping of the tent and wondering how soon everything will blow to pieces. 

“The permanent houses of the natives are constructed of driftwood heavily sodded over. Formerly they were heated with blubber lamps, but now small stoves have taken the place of the primitive apparatus. They keep the houses too hot for comfort, at least for a white man, but the Eskimos strip to the waist and do not mind it. Many times the temperature was found to be over 90˚ F., and once a clinical thermometer, left in a house where the writer was attending a sick boy, was found to register 108˚ F., the highest temperature it was capable of indicating. In summer these houses become damp, so the people move out of doors into tents. 

“The natives that have come under the writer’s observation are absolutely honest as far as property is concerned, and will go hungry rather than help themselves to another’s cache. On the other hand, they have no idea of any obligation to live up to an agreement any longer than it pleases them. As long as a white man has plenty, they think themselves justified in taking every advantage of him, but as soon as he is in need of assistance they will do all in their power to help him. This is also true of their relations to each other. 

“The sportsman need not go to Africa for large game. Whales ten times the weight of elephants go along the Arctic coast in hundreds and are frequently killed by the natives and white men who hunt them in small boats from the shore. The whalebone in the upper jaw weighs about a ton and sells for over five dollars a pound. The natives are skillful hunters, but as a rule miserable shots, depending upon the repeating powers of the rifle rather than marksmanship, for they will hardly average one caribou for twenty cartridges, and keep shooting long after the game is out of range. 

“There is scarcely any kind of life that has not hardships peculiar to itself. Those of the Arctic seem worse because they are different from those of civilized life. If a man should come into a house with his face all frozen after having walked twenty-five miles against a bitterly cold wind, most people would think something serious had happened, and would perhaps send for a doctor. In the Arctic, the teapot would be set on the stove and lunch prepared while the man was being questioned about game or trapping. A few days later the skin of his face would peel off where it had been frosted much as in a case of sunburn.

“In very few places is our duty toward our neighbor more clearly seen and gladly performed than within the Arctic Circle. Worthy people are allowed to die of cold and hunger amid the plenty of civilization, but in the North no one need starve while there is food in the country. No matter what their personal relations, one man will always shelter another in time of need.”

An interesting note is found in a tribute to Leffingwell printed in the Trinity College alumni newsletter, The Trinity Tripod, Dec. 17, 1912: “In the summer of 1908 Leffingwell returned to spend the winter in the States, suffering at times from the cold! With all-fur clothing he was comfortable during the Arctic winter, and the weight of all his fur garments for out-of-door wear was less than we require here in winter.” 

Article about Leffingwell

Collier’s magazine article, March, 1909 4 

• National Park Service gallery of photos

Trinity College newsletter, Dec. 1912