The Quest for the North Pole: A Historical Timeline of Arctic Exploration
In the 19th century, explorers were obsessed with reaching Earth’s most unattainable spot: the North Pole. Their expeditions captivated the public, and the adventurers themselves became venerated celebrities. It’s such a fascinating part of history that we decided to make it the subject of our latest podcast, The Quest for the North Pole. Keep track of all the explorers’ progress with the timeline below. (Don't forget to subscribe here, or by clicking subscribe above!)
While trying to sail back to Greenland from Norway, Viking leader Leif Erikson ends up in North America (likely somewhere in present-day eastern Canada). The accidental detour makes him the first known European to set foot on the continent.
English privateer Martin Frobisher sets sail from London in the Gabriel and Michael to find the Northwest Passage. He lands on Baffin Island in what is now Canada, then returns to England.
Frobisher makes a second voyage to the same spot and begins mining what he thinks is gold. He also clashes with Inuit and takes several hostages back to England.
After Frobisher departs for his third and final voyage to what he thinks is the Northwest Passage, his “gold” turns out to be fool's gold. Frobisher returns to England.
Dutch navigator William Barents sets sail in search of a Northeast Passage between Europe and Asia. He reaches the western shore of Novaya Zemlya, a Russian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, but ice prohibits any further progress. He returns home.
Barents tries for the second time to find the Northeast Passage. Again he reaches Novaya Zemlya, and again ice forces him to sail back to the Netherlands.
Barents leads two ships, captained by Jacob van Heemskerck and Jan Cornelis Rijp, due north and discovers an archipelago known as Svalbard today. Rijp sails home, while Barents and van Heemskerck continue further east and spend the winter at Novaya Zemlya. Barents dies in June 1597, but Rijp’s rescue ship eventually saves the others.
Following in Barents’s footsteps, English navigator Henry Hudson sets out in search of the Northeast Passage. He gets as far as Spitsbergen, Svalbard’s largest island.
Hudson sails again, this time reaching Novaya Zemlya. Like Barents, ice forces him to return home.
Under the employ of the Dutch East India Company, Hudson charts a course toward a rumored Northwest Passage—as-yet-unnamed New York’s as-yet-unnamed Hudson River. After about 150 miles of river exploration, Hudson concludes that the river is far from any Northwest Passage and heads home.
Hudson’s last expedition takes him to Canada’s Hudson Bay, which he initially thinks is an ocean. His crew stages a mutiny and forces Hudson (plus his son and some ailing fellow sailors) to sail off in a small boat. The castaways’ fate is still a mystery.
English navigator William Baffin sails to Greenland under Captain James Hall, who is killed by Inuit while there.
Baffin, this time captained by Benjamin Joseph, pilots a whaling expedition around Spitsbergen.
Baffin returns to the Spitsbergen area on another Joseph-led voyage. Though ice impedes their northern progress, Baffin still manages a successful exploration of the coastline.
Together with fellow English explorer Robert Bylot, Baffin sails toward Canada in search of the Northwest Passage. They come upon an unnamed island—which 19th-century explorer William Edward Parry later christens Baffin Island—and follow its southern coast. After reaching the Hudson Bay and determining the path to be a dead end, they return to England.
Baffin and Bylot sail again, staying east of Baffin Island and heading north through the Davis Strait (into what’s now Baffin Bay). Baffin observes three paths that appeared to lead west, but concludes that all three are impassable due to ice. Centuries later, one would prove to be an actual Northwest Passage.
Royal Navy officer Constantine Phipps leads the first official British voyage trying to reach the North Pole. Like others before him, Phipps turns back after encountering ice north of Spitsbergen. Not only does he set a new record for northern progress, but future polar explorers will use his route to plan their own expeditions.
The British Admiralty commissions a polar expedition with four ships, each captained by a different naval officer. David Buchan and John Franklin sail north along Phipps’s trail, while John Ross and William Edward Parry go west. Buchan and Franklin make it to Spitsbergen and return to England after battling ice and stormy weather. Their western companions reach Baffin Bay and head into Lancaster Sound, which had been frozen over when Baffin first observed it. Ross thinks the path is blocked by mountains, so the party turns back.
Parry, disbelieving Ross’s claim about a mountain range, returns to Lancaster Sound and proves that the mountains had been a mirage. Ice eventually halts westward progress, but Parry is lauded for reaching farther west than any other expedition to date.
Franklin takes about 20 British naval men and Canadian voyageurs and two canoes to map America’s northern coastline. The expedition ends in catastrophe—11 men die, and some survivors are forced to eat their leather shoes or suffer starvation. Paradoxically, this earns Franklin a heroic reputation as “The Man Who Ate His Boots.”
Parry sets out again, this time heading west through the Hudson Strait, just south of Baffin Island. He sails north along the coast of the Melville Peninsula and eventually finds what he calls the Fury and Hecla Strait (after his two ships). Second-in-command George Francis Lyon studies the local Inuit culture and sketches the inhabitants. The westward passage is blocked by ice, so the sailors return to England in 1823.
Parry sails toward the North Pole and sets out with heavy, man-hauled sledges across the icy region north of Spitsbergen. Shifting ice floes and southern currents inhibit their progress, but they do set a new record for farthest north: 82°45′N.
In Arctic Canada, Ross hunts for the Northwest Passage in Prince Regent Inlet, which connects to Lancaster Sound from the south. He meets local Inuit, the Netsilingmiut, whose companionship helps the explorers live through more than two years with their ship stuck in ice. They’re finally rescued by a whaling vessel in 1833 after four winters in the Arctic.
Franklin leads a massive expedition toward Lancaster Sound to search again for the Northwest Passage. The ships disappear seemingly without a trace, catalyzing a slew of missions to find out what happened.
American physician Elisha Kent Kane sails from New York City for northwestern Greenland in search of the Franklin expedition. He doesn’t find them, but he does find a large open passage (now known as the Kane Basin) between Greenland and Canada’s Ellesmere Island.
Hudson’s Bay Company official John Rae learns from Inuit on the Boothia Peninsula—south of Lancaster Sound—that several dozen explorers had died from starvation near the area during the late 1840s. The Inuit present Rae with artifacts that came from Franklin’s expedition.
American newspaper publisher Charles Francis Hall sails to Hudson Bay and, accompanied by two Inuit friends, Taqulittuq and Ipirvik, spends several years investigating Franklin’s disappearance.
Hall uncovers a skeleton and other artifacts from the Franklin expedition on King William Island.
Hall sets out on a new voyage on his ship Polaris, following Kane’s route through the basin and hoping to reach the North Pole.
In northern Greenland, Hall dies from a sudden illness. Since there had been enmity among the crew, some believe he was poisoned.
A storm separates the Polaris from some of the crew, who are forced to survive on an ice floe. They drift south from Greenland over a thousand miles until being rescued six months later.
British naval officer George Strong Nares heads toward the Kane Basin on a very expensive, highly anticipated voyage to the North Pole. Though the expedition beats Parry’s record for farthest north, a devastating scurvy outbreak forces Nares's two ships to head home prematurely.
American explorer George W. De Long sails from San Francisco and heads to the North Pole via the Bering Strait. His ship, the USS Jeannette, sinks after getting crushed by ice in the East Siberian Sea in 1881. When the wreckage shows up in Greenland a few years later, explorers begin wondering which ocean currents carried it there.
American army officer Adolphus Washington Greely leads an expedition to collect scientific data in Lady Franklin Bay on Ellesmere Island. They build a base camp called Fort Conger. Most men die after resupply ships failed to bring more rations, but Greely and several remaining crew members are rescued in 1884.
Norwegian zoologist Fridtjof Nansen becomes the first white person to traverse the Greenland ice cap, which he and his companions accomplish mostly by ski.
American naval officer Robert Peary and explorer Matthew Henson—Peary’s companion for future polar expeditions—explore Greenland and collect data to support the claim that the land mass is an island.
Nansen sails his self-designed ship the Fram to the New Siberian Islands and intentionally gets it trapped in ice. He’s hoping the currents that carried the Jeannette will carry his ship straight to the North Pole. Southern ice drift makes that impossible, but Nansen does reach a new northern record by foot.
Peary and Henson head to Greenland again and scout the area of Cape York. They traverse the Greenland ice sheet to Independence Bay and return to Etah on the west coast.
Peary and Henson set sail from New York to the Kane Basin on their first definitive attempt at the North Pole.
Peary runs into Otto Sverdrup (Nansen’s captain from the Fram expedition) near Kane Basin. Sverdrup is there mainly to study the area, but Peary still considers him a competitor in the race to the North Pole.
Peary’s party reaches Fort Conger, built on Ellesmere Island by Greely, and Peary loses seven toes to frostbite.
On an expedition helmed by Italian mountaineer Luigi Amedeo, Duke of the Abruzzi, naval officer Umberto Cagni treks north on Franz Josef Land and reaches 86°34’N—beating Nansen’s previous farthest north record.
Peary returns home, frustrated after failing to reach the North Pole—or even reach a new farthest north—after four years in the Arctic.
Peary and Henson sail again from New York—this time in the Roosevelt, a ship he modeled after Nansen’s Fram—and heads back to Ellesmere Island.
Peary, Henson, and their Inughuit companions trek north by sledges, and Peary claims to have reached a new record—87°6’N—during the trip. (Without any other record of their position, that assertion is still technically unverified.)
Dr. Frederick Cook, a surgeon from Peary’s 1891 expedition, allegedly reaches the North Pole with two Inughuit guides (though his purported triumph is also unverified). Peary won’t find out about the claim until the following year.
Peary and Henson depart New York for Greenland and Ellesmere Island, determined to reach the Pole.
Peary’s team finally reaches the North Pole (or so they believe). Henson, who usually drives the lead sledge on their expeditions, later asserts that he, in fact, was the first member of their party to set foot on the spot.
Peary's expedition learns of Cook's claim, and a long controversy over who was first at the Pole ensues.
Minnesota insurance salesman and recreational adventurer Ralph Plaisted heads to the North Pole on a snowmobile. The ice isn’t solid enough for him to make it all the way there, so he turns around.
Plaisted tries again, departing from Canada’s Ward Hunt Island. This time, he and his team do reach the Pole, which a United States Air Force aircraft confirms.