The Anglo-American Polar Expedition (Leffingwell-Mikkelsen) in the Duchess of Bedford 1906-08

by John M. MacFarlane 2012


Plaque on the seawall in the Inner Harbour at Victoria BC

It is difficult now to comprehend that the era of exploration for new lands was still alive and well in the western Arctic in 1906. Mapping was quite incomplete and reports of sightings of ‘Keenan Land’ persisted in the geographical literature. A scientist researching tidal fluctuations north of Alaska came to the conclusion that the behavior of those tides could only be explained by the presence of a land mass near the North Pole.

Duchess of Bedford

The Duchess of Bedford

Two seasoned arctic explorers intrigued by the concept of ‘Keenan Land’ decided to mount an expedition in 1906 with the express purpose of discovering once and for all the land mass that was thought to exist at the top of the world. It was an ambitious undertaking led by Ejnar Mikkelsen who directed the exploration aspects and Ernest De Koven Leffingwell who directed the scientific studies. The rest of the small party was supplemented by Dr. G.P.Howe as medical officer and Ejnar Ditlevsen. Viiljalmur Steffansson was appointed as the expedition anthropologist.

Ernest De Koven Leffingwell (1875-1971) had led the science staff in the 1901 Baldwin-Ziegler Polar Expedition which failed in its attempt to reach the North Pole from Franz Josef Land. On this expedition, he became friends with Danish explorer Ejnar Mikkelsen (1880-1971). Mikkelsen was a doctoral candidate when he left for Alaska in 1906 but apparently did not complete the degree. He had served several years at sea as a Mate and Master including service with the Georg Carl Amdrup expedition to Christian IX Land in East Greenland (1900) and in the Baldwin-Ziegler expedition to Franz Joseph Land (1900–02).

As with any such ambitious journey to the harsh arctic world a sturdy and proven vessel would be required. Such a vessel was the former pelagic workhorse Beatrice renamed Duchess of Bedford in honour of one of the expedition financial sponsors. The ship was constructed in 1879 as a schooner of 66 tons and claimed to have been built from the salvage of a Japanese naval vessel which had been driven ashore in a storm. Her original use over the years was as a fur seal poaching vessel, a pearl fisher and as an opium smuggler in the Far East.

Duchess of Bedford

The Christening of the Duchess of Bedford

The Duchess of Bedford was purchased in 1906 in Victoria BC by Ejnar Mikkelsen for use as a base-ship. As a foreign national Mikkelsen was prevented from owning the vessel so she was sold to the Duchess of Bedford and chartered to the expedition for the nominal fee of six shillings per year to meet legal formalities. She did not have engines installed; she was therefore the last sailing ship without any other means of propulsion – no back up if the wind failed – to leave uncharted territory to explore for unknown lands and to prove or disprove the existence of Keenan Land.

Duchess of Bedford

The Duchess of Bedford

While preparing for the voyage, the city of Victoria adopted the expedition and provided much of the necessary support for the ship. In spite of funding from Leffingwell's father and from New York and British sponsors finances were a continuing problem. A helpful Victoria bank manager they had met at the Union Club advanced them the money as a personal loan to augment the $5,000 ‘impunity reward’ from some American donors.

When they reached Nome Alaska they found themselves in the midst of a gold rush. It was a struggle to keep the crew of the ship from deserting to join the gold rush and to their horror they discovered that some of the crew had signed on in Victoria with that express intent.

Unfortunately for the expedition members, the Duchess of Bedford became locked in pack ice and destroyed but they salvaged the wood to build a cabin (which Leffingwell used intermittently through 1914 in subsequent expeditions and is apparently still in existence). The expedition over-wintered at Flaxman Island Alaska (on the mid-north coast). The members travelled on foot (using dog sleds) after losing the vessel. Stefansson was supposed to have joined the group at Herschel Island YT. But once the vessel was lost it was left to Stefansson to make his own way - so he travelled out of the Arctic across the Mackenzie-Yukon portage and down the Bill River to Fort Yukon.

Travelling over the ice the men routinely bored holes through the ice and took soundings. They found that water increased in depth the farther north they travelled. The pattern of their findings conclusively proved that there was no land mass in the north polar region and established the presence of a continental shelf. They located the continental shelf of the Arctic Ocean 65 miles (105 km) offshore where in 2 miles (3 km) the sea increased from 50 meters (164 ft) in depth to more than 690 meters (2264 ft).

Mikkelsen returned to the United States in 1907 but Leffingwell remained on the arctic coast for another year. Mikkelsen returned to the North Slope 1909-1912. He wintered 1909-10 at Shannon Island, East Greenland and organized an expedition to map out the northeast coast of Greenland and to recover the records and the bodies of Mylius–Erichsen and Lieutenant Hoeg–Hagen who had died on an earlier expedition in Greenland. He then led an expedition to the northeast of Greenland and spent two years waiting for rescue after being abandoned by his crew, his vessel crushed in the ice. In 1913-1914 he worked with one assistant to map 250 km of the arctic coast and the Canning River valley. He eventually became Inspector General for East Greenland 1934–50.

In Mikkelsen's words the scientific results of the expedition "had ascertained the extent of the Continental Shelf, and even if we had not found the land we had so implicitly believed in, it was a consolation for us to know that to prove the absence of land was of as much scientific value as to find it!"

The voyage is commemorated by a plaque erected at Victoria BC by the Royal Geographical Society in 1991. It is also commemorated through geographical place names: Duchess Island (AK); Leffingwell Glacier (AK); Leffingwell Creek (AK); Leffingwell Crags (NT); Mikkelsen Bay (AK); Mikkelsen Islands (NT); Cape Ejnar Mikkelsen (NT). In 2009 the Royal Danish Navy named their second Knud Rasmussen class patrol vessel the HDMS Ejnar Mikkelsen.

To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, John M. (2012) The Anglo-American Polar Expedition (Leffingwell-Mikkelsen) in the Duchess of Bedford 1906-08. 2012.


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