Prologue Magazine

Prologue: Selected Articles

Winter 1997, Vol. 29, No. 4

The Arctic Sketches of Russell W. Porter, Part 2
By Mary C. Ryan In 1896 Porter got the chance to see more when he joined Peary's expedition to Greenland. The party spent some time in Umanak, where Porter set up a studio and produced watercolor portraits of the Greenlanders. The next year he returned north with Peary to explore Baffin Island. In 1900 Porter was in Greenland again, this time to bring supplies to Peary, who was making another attempt at the Pole. For this trip, Porter had recruited six students who paid six hundred dollars apiece for the excursion aboard the Diana. He had made similar arrangements with students for the 1897 expedition (at five hundred dollars a head) and was thus able to pay off his entire college debt.

'Eskimo Boy' 'Eskimo Woman'
"Eskimo Boy" and "Eskimo Woman" -- Two watercolor portraits Porter painted in Umanak, Greenland, in 1896. (NARA, Papers of Russell W. Porter, 1893-1949 [XRWP])

The last two attempts Porter made to reach the North Pole took a new route and were much longer journeys. With backing from wealthy businessman William Ziegler, Evelyn Briggs Baldwin was able to mount a major expedition. Russell Porter signed on to the Baldwin-Ziegler Polar Expedition of 1901 as artist and surveyor. Baldwin chose a different route north, starting in Franz Joseph Land, a group of islands north of Russia. The steam yacht America and two other ships carried the forty men, nearly five hundred dogs, fifteen Siberian ponies, and supplies. During this expedition, Porter once became so engrossed in his sketching that he did not notice a polar bear had come near. He tried to fire his gun, but the -35°F temperature had congealed the oil, and there was no response. As he moved away toward the camp, the bear came closer and sniffed the dropped sketchbook. After several more attempts, the gun finally went off, and Porter killed the bear and gained a story that he would retell many times.(4) The Baldwin-Ziegler Expedition failed to reach the Pole, however, and returned home in summer 1902.

'Fast to an Ice Floe' The America. "Fast to an Ice Floe," ink, July 12, 1902. (NARA, Papers of Russell W. Porter, 1893-1949 [XRWP])

The next year, though, Ziegler backed another expedition, this time led by Anthony Fiala, who had been Baldwin's official photographer. Fiala asked the thirty-one-year-old Porter to come along as assistant scientist and artist. The America once more carried the explorers north in May 1903, but it did not return with them. In November the packed ice crushed the ship, leaving the Fiala-Ziegler Expedition alone in the frozen land for two winters, completely cut off from the rest of the world. They had no means of returning home, no radio, and no certainty of rescue. The sense of isolation, the months without sunlight, temperatures down to -62°F, food rationing, and inactivity led to short tempers at times. To combat boredom and raise morale, Porter made a couple of decks of cards for the men and contributed to the camp's newspaper, The Arctic Eagle. The men observed Christmas and New Year's with what feasts they could manage. Porter created illustrated menus and greeting cards for these events. His 1904 notes record: "Tomorrow is Christmas day. . . . All the souvenirs for Christmas and New Years are now ready. . . . After dinner I distributed Christmas greetings to each officer and member of the crew of the lost America."(5) Despite these occasional diversions, Porter was happiest when on the trail with one companion or alone in his observatory.

His readings from the observatory helped determine longitude and were therefore critical to any success the expedition might have of reaching the Pole. Porter worked for two hours or more at a time in the cold without gloves or mittens because of the need to manipulate the delicate instruments. Temperatures reached thirty degrees below zero and lower, and at times he could not even hold a pencil. Even so, this Arctic work led him to his later career in optics: "I think this understanding of how the celestial mechanism behaves . . . was the cause that whetted my curiosity to know more about these instruments of precision."(6)

'Man on Summer Ice' 'Cape opposite lodge'
"Man on Summer Ice""Cape Opposite Lodge"

Arctic Sketches of Russell W. Porter, Part 1
Arctic Sketches of Russell W. Porter, Part 3
Arctic Sketches of Russell W. Porter, Part 4
Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.