Friday, May 22, 2020

Not to Worry

Five-page letter from Maurer to his mother
In 1922, Viljahlmur Stefansson had the idea to send a small group of explorers to settle Wrangel Island. Wrangel was uninhabited, and strategically located to control an important swath of the Arctic Sea above the Bering Strait. Years earlier, the survivors of the Karluk stayed there awaiting rescue after the ship was crushed by ice. There was plenty of wildlife, so Stefansson thought it could be inhabited. It fit perfectly with his ideal of the "Friendly Arctic."

So he sent four young men and Ada Blackjack, an Inupiat seamstress from Nome, to claim Wrangel Island for Canada. A year later, only Ada remained alive. It is a horrible story of Anglo-American hubris being shattered by ice and the harsh reality of the Arctic climate.

Detail of letter text about "Vic" the cat
We have all of the correspondence related to planning the Wrangel Island Expedition. It is full of optimism so it is difficult reading when you know the end result. But the worst is a letter we found from Frederick Maurer to his mother written just days before he left Alaska for Wrangel. He tells of finding "Vic," the kitten they brought along, his recent hastily arranged marriage, and his hopes for the expedition ahead and the rewards to be reaped with its success. Like a good son, he first reassured his mother not to worry:
I could not be very comfortable feeling that you were at home worrying over my safety when it is so unnecessary. You know that we are well equipped and although we are going to Wrangel Island, we are going to be living in comfort compared to the last experience up here.
Then he prophetically ties his success to Stefansson's reputation:
My going North is not for adventurous reasons as it was before, instead we are planning on commercializing the resources of the island along with exploration. It is possible that its developments may prove well worth while and as far as my investment is concerned it is as safe as Stefansson's reputation.

Fredrick Maurer on Wrangel Island
The resulting catastrophe took Maurer's life and seriously damaged Stefansson's reputation. His mother had every reason to worry.

To see the letter, ask for Stef MS-98, box 9, folder 7.