Saturday, May 22, 2010

Baldwin: Hero or Villain?

Evelyn Briggs Baldwin is surely one of the least well-known of Polar explorers, and according to some historians, his obscurity is richly deserved. To them, he is a man whose poor judgment was pivotal in the failure of two major Polar expeditions: that of Walter Wellman's in 1898, as well as in the richly-supplied but poorly planned Baldwin-Ziegler expedition of 1901, which he commanded. And yet there is at least some evidence that this blame may be misplaced, and that Baldwin's seeming failures were, in fact, evidence of a wise and hard-earned sense of caution.

Baldwin got his start working as a meteorologist with Robert Peary in Greenland in 1893-4. He apparently caught the Arctic bug, and in 1896 published a weighty tome, The Search for the North Pole. Or, Life in the Great White World. On the title page of this book, which was sold by subscription, he listed himself as a "Member of the Chicago Academy of Sciences, Member of the National Geographic Society, Non-resident member of the Geographical Club of Philadelphia," and "formerly Assistant Observer, United States Weather Bureau." It was a slender portfolio, but his enthusiasm was enormous; the book opened with a ferocious defense of the value of Polar exploration, and continued through accounts of every explorer from the Vikings to Franklin to Peary. Some of the funds thus earned apparently helped him undertake a personal voyage to Spitzbergen in 1897, but his real test came when he was engaged by Walter Wellman as second-in-command of the magnate's first Polar attempt (and his only by land) in 1897. There, he led an advance party through truly horrific ice conditions in order to establish depots and a forward camp, while Wellman stayed back at the expedition's comfortable headquarters, known as "Harmsworth House." After enormous hardships, Baldwin succeeded in establishing the forward camp, and left two men there to await the arrival of the full expedition the following spring.

William Mills, in his reference work Exploring Polar Frontiers, blames Baldwin for leaving the men with inadequate supplies, and says that "Wellman himself was horrified" when they arrived to find one of the men dead and the survivor sleeping next to his corpse. Yet as my good friend P.J. Capelotti notes in his book By Airship to the North Pole, Wellman's orders to Baldwin were numerous, contradictory, and in some cases impossible; it was these orders, and not Baldwin's efforts to follow them, that were most to blame. Wellman ignored Baldwin's letters expressing concerns about supplies and conditions; he possessed an optimism as vast as his experience was limited, and complained that Baldwin was "too prone to look on the dark side of things." Neither man, in any case, knew that one of the two left in the camp, Bentzen -- a veteran of Nansen's voyage on the Fram -- had slipped into delirium not long into the winter, forcing the other man, Bjoervig, to care for him for eight weeks before the sufferer finally died. Capelotti has published Baldwin's detailed journal of this expedition, and it's hard to read more than a few pages of it without being overcome by a desire to go back in time and give Wellman a sound thrashing.

Mills seems to think that rumors surrounding the earlier incident would have followed Baldwin to his next expedition, and the only one he was to command. The Baldwin-Ziegler expedition of 1901 had the finest equipment money could buy, and supplies that were lavish when compared to those to which Peary or other polar veterans were accustomed. Not one but three ships were placed at its command, and its base station -- fixed up in the shadow of the Duke of Abruzzi's earlier camp -- boasted solid wood-frame buildings unparalleled since the days of Greely's Fort Conger. Here again, Baldwin had the task of establishing forward camps, and by all accounts did so capably. Mills harshly blames Baldwin's decision to avoid the added weight of tents and sleeping bags for the forward team, as several members suffered from frostbite -- but this was only after they had become lost and disoriented. When the heavily-laden resupply ship failed to reach the base camp, Baldwin did as he'd been told and released a series of message balloons, none of which was found until years later. Receiving no response, and concerned over the dwindling supplies of coal, Baldwin decided to retreat back to safety. His unexpected appearance in Tromsø without results infuriated Ziegler and cost him his command -- but it may well have saved the lives of many of his men.

In later years, Baldwin never tired of telling his accounts; as Capelotti notes, he was a meticulous record-keeper, and his papers are a goldmine of information. Late in life, he set about petitioning the U.S. government for some recognition and financial support in return for his service, but never received either; at the age of 71 in 1933, he was struck and killed by a passing motorist in Washington, DC. A copy of his book -- long ago de-accessioned by a local library, and missing its spine and back cover -- was given to me by a student, and I had to confess that, when I first browsed through it, I had no idea who Baldwin was.


  1. I first heard from E. W. Baldwin in a document of the AMNH (possibly one Annual report of 1894-1900, I don'tremember), where it was reported on his meteorological work with Peary. He is certainly one of the less known explorers, and possibly considered one of the less competent (maybe jointly with those of the "Crocker Land" expedition). I think he is neither a hero nor a villain, simply one of those many hard working explorers that had no luck in his expeditions, but that in any case contributed to our knowledge of the Arctic.

    Here a couple of links providing some additional information on this man:

  2. Rutger, many thanks for your post, and the links.

    I hadn't realized that Baldwin had been on the Chautauqua lecture circuit, but it doesn't surprise me. Many other explorers, among them J.W. Goodsell, Bob Bartlett, Sir Hubert Wilkins, and many lesser Polar luminaries gave lectures on this circuit, which barnstormed from town to town erecting its tents. It's too bad there's nothing like this today, unless you count such things as iTunes University.

  3. Thanks for the post I just found his headstone today and went in search of info and found your blog post. Thanks for the information.