Women of the Polar Archives: The Films and Stories of Marie Peary Stafford and Louise Boyd
Films provide an invaluable record of the expeditions of these two women.
By Audrey Amidon
Motion Picture Preservation Specialist
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
Marie Peary Stafford and Louise Arner Boyd were both women of means who were drawn to the Arctic somewhat by chance. Stafford, the daughter of explorer Robert E. Peary, was born and spent the first months of her life in Greenland. The press nicknamed her the “Snow Baby,” and her mother, Josephine Peary, published a book with the same name. As the daughter of the man credited with being the first person to reach the North Pole, Stafford grew up intimately connected to the region her father had explored. She returned to the Arctic as an adult for the sole purpose of building a monument to her father’s memory.
Louise Boyd, on the other hand, was born in California and reportedly did not see snow until her teen years. Boyd’s intense interest in the Arctic grew after touring Spitsbergen in her late thirties. Her first sight of the pack ice drew Boyd in with its beauty and the prospect of adventure. The object of Boyd’s first self-financed expedition was to have a good time and shoot as many polar bears as possible, but scientific discovery soon became her primary concern. Boyd would dedicate the rest of her life and fortune to learning more about the Arctic through science and the lens of her camera.
The stories of these two women may diverge, but in addition to their strong ties to the Arctic, they have one thing in common: the film records of these self-financed expeditions are part of the National Archives collection of records pertaining to Arctic and Antarctic exploration. The polar archives contain materials donated by American polar explorers and their families to fill in the gaps of the federal record regarding important achievements in Arctic exploration. Together with supporting written evidence, these films provide an invaluable record of the expeditions of these two women.
Building the Peary Monument, Cape York, 1932
When Marie Peary Stafford journeyed to the Arctic in 1932, it was to oversee the building of a monument in honor of her father at Cape York, in northwest Greenland. The Arctic was not a new place for her; she had been born in northwest Greenland on September 12, 1893, while her father was exploring the area.
As a child, Stafford spent additional time in Greenland when she and her mother went to visit Peary on a subsequent expedition. Unlike her contemporaries, Stafford’s motivation to return to the Arctic was not to seek adventure or the thrill of exploration; she was bound by sentimentality and a sense of duty, and she looked forward to the summer voyage during which she and her sons, Edward and Peary, could honor her father and revisit the land where he had spent so many years.
Today, we are able to see the expedition to build the Peary Monument in footage shot by Ed Weyer, a cameraman for Pathé News. Stafford received five reels of edited film footage that shows the trip from the triumphant launch from New York to the happy return to Josephine and the Pearys’ summer home at Eagle Island, Maine. What is not evident in the film can be found in Stafford’s journal of the experience. Together, the two documents create a complete picture of events surrounding the building of the Peary Monument.
Despite being in a remote locale where few would see it, building the monument in northwestern Greenland seemed a perfect fit to the Peary family. As Stafford wrote in her journal: “of all the places where a monument to Dad would be appropriate, we had selected this because it was not so much a memorial to Dad as it was a grateful recognition of the services of the Eskimo people.”
The expedition to build the monument was meticulously planned. Marie and Josephine Peary raised the money for the monument the previous winter and had the plans drawn up by a firm in Boston. In chartering a vessel for the expedition, Stafford looked to Newfoundlander Robert A. Bartlett and his schooner Effie M. Morrissey to carry the crew to the far north. Bob Bartlett had been captain of the Roosevelt, which brought Peary to the northernmost point of Greenland when he made his run for the Pole. For this and other well-publicized expeditions, Bartlett was famous for his knowledge and skill in navigating icy waters. Everything seemed to be in order.
The film shows that the journey began auspiciously enough, with much fanfare and good wishes. Stafford and her two sons excitedly climb aboard and supplies for the expedition are loaded onto the Morrissey. A large crowd of well-wishers wave from the dock. According to Stafford’s journal, a number of distinguished Arctic explorers were among them, including Matthew Henson, Peary’s right-hand man during his Arctic expeditions; Vilhjalmur Stefansson, who organized the Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913–1916; and Louise Boyd, who at that point had three Arctic expeditions of her own under her belt. Boyd even presented Stafford with a plush polar bear and a St. Christopher’s medal to keep with her on the journey. In addition, Stafford was given the honor of debuting the flag of the Society of Women Geographers.
Yet, from the outset, Stafford had no idea what she was getting herself into. What viewers do not see are the obstacles that Stafford had to overcome to assure that the monument was built. According to Stafford’s journal, the problems began in Brigus, Newfoundland, where the party gathered laborers and additional materials. Stafford learned that the lumber and tools that had been purchased were inadequate for the job and that there was no room on the Morrissey for the engine they had bought to help with the work.
It was at this point that she had her first inkling that she was not fully in charge of the project. Stafford wrote that when she went to Bartlett with these issues, he simply told her not to worry about it and then “slammed down to the wharf to give [the crew] hell for talking too much.” Worse yet, the laborers they picked up in Newfoundland did not seem up to the task of building a 60-foot monument. Instead of five master stonemasons, the assembled work crew included a bricklayer, two stonecutters, a painter, and a carpenter. The only stonemason who would be working on the project was the boss mason they had brought from New York.
Stafford’s situation seemed to go from bad to worse. Adding to her extreme discomfort living on the ship, she continued to feel as though she were being shut out of the project and the work of the expedition. Stafford felt a growing resentment toward Captain Bob and Arthur Norcross, the wealthy owner of Norcross Greeting Card Company, who had paid $5,000 to be included on the expedition. In return for the fee, Stafford learned, Norcross had been promised authority over game-hunting, the ship doctor’s services, and even the movie cameraman. Norcross can be identified in the film as the man who oddly pops up wearing a beret, horn-rimmed glasses, and a long, striped scarf.
The film of the expedition shows the physical hardship of the work as Inuit dog drivers and their teams pull sledges of materials up a steep and icy hill, but progress on the monument is depicted as an achievement despite the extreme conditions. What one does not see is how Stafford’s persistence kept the monument from becoming just a scaled-down pile of rocks. In her journal, Stafford reveals that because of the difficulty, the work crew cut corners to speed up the work and modified the original plans.
Stafford was living in relative isolation on the Morrissey while the workers were camped at a high point by the monument site. By the time she learned that the shape of the monument had been drastically altered, it was too late for them to change it. When the cement froze in the Arctic temperatures, the crew decided to put the stones up dry and reduce the height substantially. At this, Stafford felt she had to intervene, and she forcefully reminded the workers of the specifications for the monument, visiting the building site as frequently as she could and sending notes when she could not. Stafford continued to insist that the monument be at least 56 feet tall and that the large marble “P”s marking the top not be eliminated.
Stafford repeatedly expressed her helplessness in her journal, but she learned to be firm in her demands. Despite her frustrations, the monument turned out well enough: cement was used, and the metal cap she had had made shone from the top. We can see in the film that the monument is a substantial marker on the landscape and is easily recognizable by the bright white “P”s from a good distance.
Although the rest of the crew were “tremendously thrilled” with the outcome, Stafford was still deeply disappointed in the attitude of the work crew and the changes that were made to the original plans. “If you have not seen the original plans, this monument looks fine,” she conceded in her journal.
As might be expected, there is no hint of any of these difficulties in the official expedition films that were shot and edited by Pathé News. Instead, the footage is focused on light-hearted adventure and demonstrations of the hardship of working in the Arctic, playing into common themes about the region in the popular culture of the time. One sees the arrival of the cow Bartlett brought to his mother in Brigus, a birthday celebration for Stafford’s son, and a playful ceremony in which one of the crew dressed as Neptune shaves the boys’ heads in honor of their crossing the Arctic Circle for the first time. The film also shows the ever-present danger of icebergs when one comes alongside the Morrissey. Stafford described the event in her journal: “[The iceberg] was close in on our stern and the crash we heard was the main boom which was gradually being splintered off as the iceberg without any fuss whatever, forced its way along.” The film shows the men quickly mobilizing and pushing the ice away using long poles, preventing serious damage.
By the time of the ceremonial unveiling of the completed Peary Monument, Stafford was disenchanted with the entire expedition and felt that the movie cameras were just one more intrusion on her ability to mark the importance of the event. She felt that even the final moment was ruined by the presence of the cameraman: “I turned to draw aside the flag and unveil the monument but Weyer yelled: ‘Please wait a moment while I change my film!’ I am thoroughly fed up on movies. You can have no sentiment or feeling when they are to be taken. It was a big minute to me after all we have all gone through, actually to be dedicating this monument and to be halted just at the climax was like a dash of cold water.”
What Stafford failed to acknowledge throughout all of her anger and frustration is that to the other members of the expedition, the monument itself was not necessarily the most important task at hand. It may have been unreasonable for her to expect that the ship and monument crews would care about the monument in the same way she did.
Building a monument in the middle of icy nowhere that only a small community would ever see did not matter as much as getting paid or creating a film narrative that could be shown back in the States to further the mythology of Arctic exploration. Bartlett and Norcross were in Greenland to play out their own parts in this story; building the Peary Monument was simply a plot mechanism. In fact, Stafford frequently expressed annoyance at the artificial scenes Norcross orchestrated, such as dancing on deck (“exactly the cheap sort of thing you would expect from him”).
Although she was seemingly unaware, Stafford was also directing a performance when she requested that for the final ceremonies, the Inuit who had helped them “wear fur clothing as much as possible” so that “they looked much more like the old time Eskimos of Dad’s.” This, despite the fact that it was summer, and they would not normally have worn such heavy furs. The question of authenticity, it would seem, is dependent upon the beliefs and priorities of the individual.
Louise Arner Boyd
Louise Arner Boyd led seven self-financed Arctic expeditions, published three books of photographs through the American Geographical Society, chartered the first private flyover of the North Pole, and was honored with numerous awards and medals from myriad organizations and governments.
For a woman with such an impressive résumé, and who contributed so much to the knowledge of Arctic geography in an era when the necessity for wearing pants for such work was newsworthy, it is remarkable that Boyd’s career is not more widely known. It is likely that her own modesty and distaste for self-promotion contributed to this, but luckily her films have been preserved at the National Archives to tell her story for her. Through the lens of Boyd’s camera, we can see her transformation from adventure-seeker to serious scientist.
Boyd was born in 1887 into a wealthy family in San Rafael, California. Her siblings died young, leaving her the only heir to a rather large fortune. Consequently, unlike most of her male contemporaries, she was in a position to personally finance her pricey hobby of Arctic exploration rather than have to rely on large institutions or benefactors for funding. Boyd’s first major expedition into the Arctic was as a big-game hunter, chartering a Norwegian sealing vessel called, appropriately enough, the Hobby, in 1926. She invited a group of her distinguished friends to join her, and they appear in her film of the trip, posing with the many bears that they bagged. The press reported that Boyd shot 11 polar bears herself; the edited film documenting the expedition reports that the party’s “record” was killing six bears in 17 and a half hours.
According to a contemporary article in the New York Times, Boyd also shot 21,000 feet of motion picture film and 700 photographs while on the trip. The films show that, even at this early point, she was interested in the science of the Arctic. In addition to footage of trophy polar bears, the edited reels of the 1926 expedition provide scientific information about various types of Arctic ice. At this point in her career, traveling in the Arctic was mostly an expensive thrill ride, but she had caught the bug and made plans to return again in 1928.
Boyd’s plans changed drastically when she arrived in Norway and chartered the Hobby for another hunting cruise in 1928. The story of the expedition is told by Boyd herself, through the scenes and intertitles of her edited film of the journey. Prior to her arrival, noted polar explorer Roald Amundsen had disappeared while searching for Umberto Nobile, an explorer who designed and piloted aircraft intended for use in the Arctic. Boyd immediately offered the Hobby and her services to the Norwegian government to aid in the search for Amundsen. The hunting party and the boat’s crew searched tirelessly for 10 weeks.
Boyd filmed throughout the endeavor—a total of 20,000 feet of motion picture film in all. Boyd’s films show the outfitting of the vessel to prepare for the expedition and the arrival of two planes and pilots to aid in the search. Notable in the films is the seemingly endless ice and scenery as they traveled from Tromsø, Norway, to Spitsbergen, into the Greenland Sea, to Franz Josef Land, and back to Tromsø.
Although they found no trace of Amundsen, Boyd’s contribution to the search was significant. Norway decorated her with the order of St. Olaf, First Class. More important, Boyd came in contact with a great number of Arctic explorers and scientists and found her calling to organize scientific work in a difficult region about which much was unknown. What began as an expensive hobby had evolved into a serious undertaking.
Boyd’s 1931 and 1933 expeditions to the northeast coast of Greenland provided the basis for her book The Fiord Region of East Greenland, which included 350 photographs. For these trips, Boyd chartered the Veslekari, a large ship, and brought along surveyors, geologists, and botanists. Boyd served as leader of the expedition and the only photographer, having invested in some very high-end equipment and learned the principles of photogrammetry, the science of taking and interpreting photographs to create models or maps. Her excellent photographs led to the accurate mapping of a remote area of eastern Greenland that was relatively unknown. Subsequently, Denmark named this area “Miss Boyd Land.” The story goes that not only did she not name the land herself, she was unaware of her namesake until she saw it on a map.
The films of the 1931 and 1933 expeditions deviate from those of the 1926 and 1928 expeditions. Rather than crafting a story of adventure, the films appear to be an attempt to simply record in a scientific way what she encountered. Scenery moves past the camera as Boyd shoots from the deck of the Veslekari, showing the rocky coastline and majestic icebergs.
For the 1937 and 1938 expeditions, Boyd again chartered the Veslekari and assembled a crew of scientists to continue their work exploring the east Greenland coast. The photographs and findings of this expedition would eventually be published as The Coast of Northeast Greenland, but the U.S. government requested that the information not be released at that time in the interest of national security. Eastern Greenland is the front line separating Europe from North America, making it a major strategic area as the U.S. contemplated entering World War II. By then, Boyd was considered a foremost expert on the region, and she was more than eager to share her body of knowledge with the government, copying and handing over large sets of photographs.
In short order, Boyd was organizing and financing a trip for the National Bureau of Standards. While not top secret, the exact details of the expedition were not released to the public. A publicity statement issued March 27, 1941, stated simply that Boyd was planning to “conduct an expedition into Arctic waters this summer for the purpose of carrying on radio and geomagnetic investigations sponsored by the National Bureau of Standards.”
She chartered the Effie M. Morrissey, with Capt. Bob Bartlett at the helm. The statement went on to explain that the radio work was investigating “characteristics of the ionosphere,” which is the “electrified portion of the atmosphere from 50 to 300 miles above the earth’s surface” that “makes long-distance radio communication possible.” A confidential document from January 1941 explained that the goal of the trip was to “elucidate the anomalies of radio communication on the U.S.-Europe transmission path,” which was “worth while from the national defense viewpoint.”
While Boyd went off under the guise of one of her usual scientific expeditions, the U.S. government was quietly preparing for an imminent entry into World War II. In addition to financing the scientists who were conducting the radio tests, Boyd received an assignment from the War Department to investigate a possible site for landing airplanes near York Harbor at Baffin Island. This task was carried out in utmost secrecy, and Boyd provided a thorough written report of the physical characteristics of the site, including its exact latitude and longitude, the presence of adequate drinking water and food sources, and wind conditions. She also produced a complete set of photographs of the area.
One might extrapolate from Marie Peary Stafford’s experiences with Captain Bob in 1932 to imagine that Boyd’s relationship with Bartlett was not smooth. While he was chosen to be captain because of his knowledge of the region, Boyd was in charge of the expedition, and unlike Stafford, she was completely accustomed to providing orders and expecting that they would be followed.
Bartlett never revealed the true reason for the trip to his crew. They believed that Boyd was merely a wealthy woman “doing photography” and could not fully understand how she got away with ordering the captain around. Sam Bartlett, the captain’s nephew and the crewmember charged with carrying Boyd’s cameras around during the expedition, learned the vital nature of the trip many years later from Arctic anthropologist Susan Kaplan. According to Sam, Bob Bartlett’s opinion of Boyd was not rosy: Sam said that the captain stated quite derisively that Louise Boyd was “no Josephine Peary.” He also recalled Bartlett complaining about having to improve lavatory facilities on his ship at Boyd’s insistence, noting that they had been deemed adequate by Marie Peary.
In the press, Boyd was treated somewhat like an anomaly. Contemporary articles presented her as someone who wore pants when she had to, but who was most assuredly not a masculine woman. In fact, they wanted readers to know that it was quite surprising to learn that the impeccably dressed Louise Boyd would ever have roughed it in the Arctic. In a 1938 New York Times feature, Boyd explained herself: “I like the pleasant things most women enjoy, even if I do wear breeches and boots on an expedition, even sleep in them at times. I have no use for masculine women. At sea I don’t bother with my hands, except to keep them from being frozen, but I powder my nose before going on deck, no matter how rough the sea is. There is no reason why a woman can’t rough it and still remain feminine.”
While it is possible that Boyd was being completely honest in her opinion, it is worth noting that she was frequently put in the position of having to justify her masculine actions, which makes her accomplishments all the more remarkable. Certainly her success would not have been possible if she had not been able to self-finance her expeditions, but that does not mean that the work itself was any less difficult. To have led seven Arctic expeditions and contributed so significantly to the body of scientific knowledge about the region is an astounding achievement.
Perhaps equally remarkable is the large amount of motion picture footage that Boyd left behind as a record of her work. In 1974 the Center for Polar Archives at the National Archives acquired 150 reels of Louise Boyd’s motion picture films from the San Rafael Elks Lodge, which had purchased the Boyd home prior to Louise’s death. By 1980 all of the deteriorating nitrate reels had been copied to new safety film stock. The films cover Boyd’s early tourist travels in the United States and Europe through all of her major Arctic expeditions. Boyd shot all of this footage herself.
Focus on Preservation
The five 35mm reels that document the 1932 expedition to build the Peary Monument came to the National Archives in 1964 as part of the larger collection of Robert E. Peary’s papers, photographs, and drawings, donated by his family.
Probably because they were intended for Marie Peary’s personal use at home and for lectures, the films were printed on a diacetate safety stock rather than the flammable nitrate base that was the norm of the time. While safety films do not have a fire risk, they suffer from their own unique manner of decay. The film base breaks down over time, with the noticeable by-product being acetic acid, or vinegar, which is easily recognizable by its strong odor. When the five reels of film documenting the erection of the Peary Monument came to the National Archives’ motion picture preservation laboratory, staff found that they suffered from vinegar syndrome, were highly shrunken, and were also heavily scratched from multiple projections. In order to preserve the images, the reels needed reformatting to new polyester film stock. Staff used a specialized printer to run the film and unexposed film stock through a tank of perclorethylene at the point of exposure. Perclorethylene, having the same refractive index as the film base, temporarily “fills in” the scratches on the film base while the raw stock is exposed. The result is a new film copy lacking the base-side scratches of the original.
In addition to having new, optically improved preservation copies of the films, a small amount of sound was discovered at the start of the first reel. The five reels were meant to be viewed without a soundtrack, but printed into the edge at the beginning of the film is an introduction where Capt. Bob Bartlett introduces Stafford and her two sons. A previous 16mm print made for the National Archives research room did not include the sound from the first reel, but in the most recent preservation work, we are able to hear Captain Bob, in his Newfoundlander accent, tell Edward and Peary that they would have a “grand trip” and would “come back two inches higher and almost as big as I am!”
Originally published by Prologue 42:2 (Summer 2010), the United States National Archives and Records Administration, to the public domain.