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Women of

The Polar Archives

The Films and Stories of Marie Peary Stafford
and Louise Boyd f By Audrey Amidon

arie 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.

Summer 2010
The stories of these two women may diverge, but in the monument the previous winter and had the plans
addition to their strong ties to the Arctic, they have one drawn up by a firm in Boston. In chartering a vessel for the
thing in common: the film records of these self-financed expedition, Stafford looked to Newfoundlander Robert A.
expeditions are part of the National Archives collection Bartlett and his schooner Effie M. Morrissey to carry the
of records pertaining to Arctic exploration. The polar crew to the far north. Bob Bartlett had been captain of
archives contain materials donated by American polar the Roosevelt, which brought Peary to the northernmost
explorers and their families to fill in the gaps of the federal point of Greenland when he made his run for the Pole.
record regarding important achievements in Arctic and For this and other well-publicized expeditions, Bartlett
Antarctic exploration. Together with supporting written was famous for his knowledge and skill in navigating icy
evidence, these films provide an invaluable record of the waters. Everything seemed to be in order.
expeditions of these two women. The film shows that the journey began auspiciously
enough, with much fanfare and good wishes. Stafford and
Building the Peary Monument, her two sons excitedly climb aboard and supplies for the
Cape York, 1932 expedition are loaded onto the Morrissey. A large crowd of
When Marie Peary Stafford journeyed to the Arctic in well-wishers wave from the dock. According to Stafford’s
1932, it was to oversee the building of a monument in journal, a number of distinguished Arctic explorers were
honor of her father at Cape York, in northwest Greenland. among them, including Matthew Henson, Peary’s right-hand
The Arctic was not a new place for her; she had been born man during his Arctic expeditions; Vilhjalmur Stefansson,
in northwest Greenland on September 12, 1893, while her who organized the Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913–
father was exploring the area. 1916; and Louise Boyd, who at that point had three Arctic
As a child, Stafford spent additional time in Greenland expeditions of her own under her belt. Boyd even presented
when she and her mother went to visit Peary on a Stafford with a plush polar bear and a St. Christopher’s medal
subsequent expedition. Unlike her contemporaries, to keep with her on the journey.
Stafford’s motivation to return to the Arctic was not to In addition, Stafford
seek adventure or the thrill of exploration; she was bound was given the honor of
by sentimentality and a sense of duty, and she looked debuting the flag of the
forward to the summer voyage during which she and her Society of Women
sons, Edward and Peary, could honor her father and revisit Geographers.
the land where he had spent so many years. Yet, from the
Today, we are able to see the expedition to build the Peary outset, Stafford
Monument in footage shot by Ed Weyer, a cameraman had no idea what
for Pathé News. Stafford received five reels of edited film she was getting her-
footage that shows the trip from the triumphant launch self into. What viewers do
from New York to the happy return to Josephine and the
Pearys’ summer home at Eagle Island, Maine. What is Louise Boyd (far left) and Marie
Peary Stafford (right) were
not evident in the film can be found in Stafford’s journal
both captivated by the
of the experience. Together, the two documents create a Arctic.
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

Women of the Polar Archives

not see are the obstacles that Stafford had to only stonemason who would be working on
overcome to assure that the monument was the project was the boss mason they had
built. According to Stafford’s journal, the brought from New York.
problems began in Brigus, Newfoundland, Stafford’s situation seemed to go from
where the party gathered laborers and bad to worse. Adding to her extreme
additional materials. Stafford learned that the discomfort living on the ship, she continued
lumber and tools that had been purchased to feel as though she were being shut out of
were inadequate for the job and that there was the project and the work of the expedition.
no room on the Morrissey for the engine they Stafford felt a growing resentment toward
had bought to help with the work. Captain Bob and Arthur Norcross, the
It was at this point that she had her first wealthy owner of Norcross Greeting Card
inkling that she was not fully in charge Company, who had paid $5,000 to be
of the project. Stafford wrote that when included on the expedition. In return for
she went to Bartlett with these issues, he the fee, Stafford learned, Norcross had been
simply told her not to worry about it and promised authority over game-hunting, the
then “slammed down to the wharf to give ship doctor’s services, and even the movie
[the crew] hell for talking too much.” cameraman. Norcross can be identified in
Worse yet, the laborers they picked up in the film as the man who oddly pops up
Newfoundland did not seem up to the task wearing a beret, horn-rimmed glasses, and
of building a 60-foot monument. Instead a long, striped scarf.
of five master stonemasons, the assembled The film of the expedition shows the
work crew included a bricklayer, two physical hardship of the work as Inuit
stonecutters, a painter, and a carpenter. The dog drivers and their teams pull sledges Above: The launch of the Effie M. Morrissey from New York
of materials up a steep and icy hill, but City, June 15, 1932. Pictured on deck are Peary Stafford,
Arthur Norcross, Capt. Bob Bartlett, Marie Peary
progress on the monument is depicted Stafford, and Edward Stafford.
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 Peary Monument was decorated with flags for

the dedication ceremony in 1932. The completed
monument still stands at Cape York today.

40 Prologue
the workers of the specifications for the crash we heard was the main boom which
monument, visiting the building site as was gradually being splintered off as the
frequently as she could and sending notes iceberg without any fuss whatever, forced
when she could not. Stafford continued to its way along.” The film shows the men
insist that the monument be at least 56 feet quickly mobilizing and pushing the ice
tall and that the large marble “P”s marking away using long poles, preventing serious
the top not be eliminated. damage.
Stafford repeatedly expressed her By the time of the ceremonial unveiling
helplessness in her journal, but she learned of the completed Peary Monument,
to be firm in her demands. Despite her Stafford was disenchanted with the entire
frustrations, the monument turned out well expedition and felt that the movie cameras
enough: cement was used, and the metal were just one more intrusion on her ability
cap she had had made shone from the top. to mark the importance of the event. She
We can see in the film that the monument is felt that even the final moment was ruined
a substantial marker on the landscape and is by the presence of the cameraman: “I
easily recognizable by the bright white “P”s turned to draw aside the flag and unveil
from a good distance. the monument but Weyer yelled: ‘Please
Although the rest of the crew were wait a moment while I change my film!’ I
“tremendously thrilled” with the outcome, am thoroughly fed up on movies. You can
Stafford was still deeply disappointed in the have no sentiment or feeling when they are
attitude of the work crew and the changes to be taken. It was a big minute to me after
that were made to the original plans. “If all we have all gone through, actually to
Below: Bob Bartlett and Marie Peary Stafford unveil the you have not seen the original plans, this be dedicating this monument and to be
dedication plaque on the Peary Monument, August 21, 1932.
monument looks fine,” she conceded in her
In addition to enumerating Robert E. Peary’s achievements,
the monument was inscribed “in grateful recognition of journal.
the devoted services of the Eskimo people.” 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

Inuit dog drivers use their teams to move

materials up an icy hill. The Morrissey is anchored
behind them.

Prologue 41
halted just at the climax was like a dash of Although she was seemingly unaware,
cold water.” Stafford was also directing a performance
What Stafford failed to acknowledge when she requested that for the final
throughout all of her anger and frustration is ceremonies, the Inuit who had helped them
that to the other members of the expedition, “wear fur clothing as much as possible” so
the monument itself was not necessarily the that “they looked much more like the old
most important task at hand. It may have time Eskimos of Dad’s.” This, despite the
been unreasonable for her to expect that the fact that it was summer, and they would not
ship and monument crews would care about normally have worn such heavy furs. The
the monument in the same way she did. question of authenticity, it would seem, is
Building a monument in the middle of icy dependent upon the beliefs and priorities of
nowhere that only a small community would the individual.
ever see did not matter as much as getting
paid or creating a film narrative that could Louise Arner Boyd
be shown back in the States to further the Louise Arner Boyd led seven self-financed
mythology of Arctic exploration. Bartlett and Arctic expeditions, published three books
Norcross were in Greenland to play out their of photographs through the American
own parts in this story; building the Peary Geographical Society, chartered the first
Monument was simply a plot mechanism. In private flyover of the North Pole, and
fact, Stafford frequently expressed annoyance was honored with numerous awards and
at the artificial scenes Norcross orchestrated, medals from myriad organizations and
such as dancing on deck (“exactly the cheap governments.
sort of thing you would expect from him”). For a woman with such an impressive Above: Louise Boyd stands on the deck of the Hobby during
résumé, and who contributed so much the 1928 search for Roald Amundsen, who disappeared
while attempting to find the crew of the downed airship
to the knowledge of Arctic geography
Italia. Survivors of the Italia crash were rescued thanks to an
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

Louise Boyd visits a marker commemorating

Roald Amundsen, Umberto Nobile, and Lincoln
Ellsworth’s 1926 flight over the North Pole in the
airship Norge. The expedition resulted in the first
verifiable overflight of the North Pole.

42 Prologue
rather than have to rely on large institutions in all. Boyd’s films show the outfitting of the
or benefactors for funding. Boyd’s first vessel to prepare for the expedition and the
major expedition into the Arctic was as a arrival of two planes and pilots to aid in the
big-game hunter, chartering a Norwegian search. Notable in the films is the seemingly
sealing vessel called, appropriately enough, endless ice and scenery as they traveled from
the Hobby, in 1926. She invited a group of Tromsø, Norway, to Spitsbergen, into the
her distinguished friends to join her, and Greenland Sea, to Franz Josef Land, and back
they appear in her film of the trip, posing to Tromsø.
with the many bears that they bagged. Although they found no trace of
The press reported that Boyd shot 11 polar Amundsen, Boyd’s contribution to the
bears herself; the edited film documenting search was significant. Norway decorated
the expedition reports that the party’s her with the order of St. Olaf, First Class.
“record” was killing six bears in 17 and a More important, Boyd came in contact
half hours. with a great number of Arctic explorers and
According to a contemporary article in the scientists and found her calling to organize
New York Times, Boyd also shot 21,000 feet scientific work in a difficult region about
of motion picture film and 700 photographs which much was unknown. What began
while on the trip. The films show that, even as an expensive hobby had evolved into a
at this early point, she was interested in the serious undertaking.
science of the Arctic. In addition to footage Boyd’s 1931 and 1933 expeditions
of trophy polar bears, the edited reels of to the northeast coast of Greenland
the 1926 expedition provide scientific provided the basis for her book The Fiord
international effort, but Amundsen was never found. More information about various types of Arctic Region of East Greenland, which included
recent efforts to locate Amundsen’s remains have also ice. At this point in her career, traveling in
proved fruitless. Below: During that journey, Boyd speaks
the Arctic was mostly an expensive thrill
with Captain Svendsen of the Braganaza and F. J. de Gisbert.
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

Louise Boyd records the attempted rescue mission

with a 16mm movie camera.

Prologue 43
photographs and findings of this expedition This task was carried out in utmost secrecy,
would eventually be published as The and Boyd provided a thorough written report
Coast of Northeast Greenland, but the U.S. of the physical characteristics of the site,
government requested that the information including its exact latitude and longitude,
not be released at that time in the interest of the presence of adequate drinking water
national security. Eastern Greenland is the and food sources, and wind conditions. She
front line separating Europe from North also produced a complete set of photographs
America, making it a major strategic area as of the area.
the U.S. contemplated entering World War One might extrapolate from Marie Peary
II. By then, Boyd was considered a foremost Stafford’s experiences with Captain Bob in
expert on the region, and she was more than 1932 to imagine that Boyd’s relationship
eager to share her body of knowledge with with Bartlett was not smooth. While he
the government, copying and handing over was chosen to be captain because of his
large sets of photographs. knowledge of the region, Boyd was in charge
Louise Boyd with an unidentified man at the outset In short order, Boyd was organizing and of the expedition, and unlike Stafford, she
of the 1928 search for Amundsen. Before departing, financing a trip for the National Bureau of was completely accustomed to providing
Boyd outfitted the Hobby and hired pilots to aid in
Standards. While not top secret, the exact orders and expecting that they would be
the search.
details of the expedition were not released followed.
350 photographs. For these trips, Boyd to the public. A publicity statement Bartlett never revealed the true reason
chartered the Veslekari, a large ship, and issued March 27, 1941, stated simply for the trip to his crew. They believed
brought along surveyors, geologists, and that Boyd was planning to “conduct an that Boyd was merely a wealthy woman
botanists. Boyd served as leader of the expedition into Arctic waters this summer “doing photography” and could not
expedition and the only photographer, for the purpose of carrying on radio and fully understand how she got away
having invested in some very high-end geomagnetic investigations sponsored by with ordering the captain around. Sam
equipment and learned the principles of the National Bureau of Standards.” Bartlett, the captain’s nephew and the
photogrammetry, the science of taking and She chartered the Effie M. Morrissey, crewmember charged with carrying
interpreting photographs to create models with Capt. Bob Bartlett at the helm. The Boyd’s cameras around during the
or maps. Her excellent photographs led statement went on to explain that the radio expedition, learned the vital nature of
to the accurate mapping of a remote area work was investigating “characteristics of the trip many years later from Arctic
of eastern Greenland that was relatively the ionosphere,” which is the “electrified anthropologist Susan Kaplan. According
unknown. Subsequently, Denmark named portion of the atmosphere from 50 to to Sam, Bob Bartlett’s opinion of Boyd
this area “Miss Boyd Land.” The story goes 300 miles above the earth’s surface” that was not rosy: Sam said that the captain
that not only did she not name the land “makes long-distance radio communication stated quite derisively that Louise Boyd
herself, she was unaware of her namesake possible.” A confidential document from was “no Josephine Peary.” He also recalled
until she saw it on a map. January 1941 explained that the goal of Bartlett complaining about having to
The films of the 1931 and 1933 expeditions the trip was to “elucidate the anomalies of improve lavatory facilities on his ship at
deviate from those of the 1926 and 1928 radio communication on the U.S.-Europe Boyd’s insistence, noting that they had
expeditions. Rather than crafting a story of transmission path,” which was “worth while been deemed adequate by Marie Peary.
adventure, the films appear to be an attempt from the national defense viewpoint.” In the press, Boyd was treated somewhat
to simply record in a scientific way what While Boyd went off under the guise of like an anomaly. Contemporary articles
she encountered. Scenery moves past the one of her usual scientific expeditions, the presented her as someone who wore pants
camera as Boyd shoots from the deck of the U.S. government was quietly preparing for when she had to, but who was most assuredly
Veslekari, showing the rocky coastline and an imminent entry into World War II. In not a masculine woman. In fact, they wanted
majestic icebergs. addition to financing the scientists who were readers to know that it was quite surprising
For the 1937 and 1938 expeditions, Boyd conducting the radio tests, Boyd received to learn that the impeccably dressed Louise
again chartered the Veslekari and assembled an assignment from the War Department Boyd would ever have roughed it in the
a crew of scientists to continue their work to investigate a possible site for landing Arctic. In a 1938 New York Times feature,
exploring the east Greenland coast. The airplanes near York Harbor at Baffin Island. Boyd explained herself: “I like the pleasant

44 Prologue Summer 2010

things most women enjoy, even if I do wear Focus on P reservation
breeches and boots on an expedition, even The five 35mm reels that document the 1932 expedition to build the Peary Monument came
sleep in them at times. I have no use for to the National Archives in 1964 as part of the larger collection of Robert E. Peary’s papers,
masculine women. At sea I don’t bother photographs, and drawings, donated by his family.
with my hands, except to keep them from Probably because they were intended for Marie Peary’s personal use at home and for lectures, the
being frozen, but I powder my nose before films were printed on a diacetate safety stock rather than the flammable nitrate base that was the
going on deck, no matter how rough the sea norm of the time. While safety films do not have a fire risk, they suffer from their own unique manner
is. There is no reason why a woman can’t of decay. The film base breaks down over time, with the noticeable by-product being acetic acid, or
rough it and still remain feminine.” 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
While it is possible that Boyd was being
laboratory, staff found that they suffered from vinegar syndrome, were highly shrunken, and were
completely honest in her opinion, it is worth
also heavily scratched from multiple projections. In order to preserve the images, the reels needed
noting that she was frequently put in the
reformatting to new polyester film stock. Staff used a specialized printer to run the film and unexposed
position of having to justify her masculine film stock through a tank of perclorethylene at the point of exposure. Perclorethylene, having the same
actions, which makes her accomplishments refractive index as the film base, temporarily “fills in” the scratches on the film base while the raw stock
all the more remarkable. Certainly her is exposed. The result is a new film copy lacking the base-side scratches of the original.
success would not have been possible if In addition to having new, optically improved preservation copies of the films, a small amount of
she had not been able to self-finance her sound was discovered at the start of the first reel. The five reels were meant to be viewed without a
expeditions, but that does not mean that soundtrack, but printed into the edge at the beginning of the film is an introduction where Capt. Bob
the work itself was any less difficult. To Bartlett introduces Stafford and her two sons. A previous 16mm print made for the National Archives
have led seven Arctic expeditions and research room did not include the sound from the first reel, but in the most recent preservation work,
contributed so significantly to the body of we are able to hear Captain Bob, in his Newfoundlander accent, tell Edward and Peary that they
scientific knowledge about the region is an would have a “grand trip” and would “come back two inches higher and almost as big as I am!”

astounding achievement.
Perhaps equally remarkable is the large
Note on Sources
amount of motion picture footage that Boyd
left behind as a record of her work. In 1974 The National Archives Gift Collection of Materials Relating to Polar Regions, 1949–1976 (Record
Group [RG] 401), contains all of the material that was originally accessioned as part of the Center for
the Center for Polar Archives at the National
Polar Archives. The polar archives were established to provide a centralized location for Arctic and
Archives acquired 150 reels of Louise Boyd’s Antarctic materials to reside and to actively solicit new donations from American polar explorers to fill
motion picture films from the San Rafael in gaps in the federal record. Louise Boyd’s complete film collection and the Robert E. Peary Family
Elks Lodge, which had purchased the Boyd Collection are part of RG 401. Also in the Peary collection, researchers can find Robert E. Peary’s
photographs, drawings, and correspondence as well as expedition logs and diaries.
home prior to Louise’s death. By 1980 all
Three record groups contain information about Louise Boyd’s 1941 expedition for the National Bureau of
of the deteriorating nitrate reels had been Standards: RG 59, Records of the Department of State, Central Decimal Files, 1940–1944; RG 165, Records
copied to new safety film stock. The films of the War Department and General and Special Staffs; and RG 167, Records of the National Institute
cover Boyd’s early tourist travels in the of Standards and Technology, National Bureau of Standards: Blue Folder File, 1902–1952. The publicity
statement and confidential letter from Lyman J. Briggs, director of the National Bureau of Standards, to C.
United States and Europe through all of her J. Mackenzie, president of the Canadian National Research Council, as well as other sources used to detail
major Arctic expeditions. Boyd shot all of Boyd’s trip to gather information for the U.S. government, were found in RG 59, Records of the Department
this footage herself. P of State, Central Decimal Files, 1940–1944,
031.11 Boyd, Louise A.
Marie Peary Stafford’s personal papers are
held at the Maine Women Writers Collection
To learn more about at the University of New England. The full text Audrey Amidon is a preservation
exploration in the Arctic region of Marie’s diary of the 1932 Peary Monument specialist in the Motion Picture
of North America, consult past expedition was transcribed and is available at Preservation Lab at the National
issues of Prologue. Archives in College Park, Maryland,
• For an article about an artist Very little has been written about Louise where she and her co-workers assess
who went on polar expeditions, go to www. A. Boyd, but more information was found in and preserve the Archives’ vast motion picture holdings. contemporary New York Times articles and She previously worked with the Donald B. MacMillan
• For an article about how the Archives is Women of the Four Winds, by Elizabeth Fagg film collection at the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum
preserving photographs of the Alaskan Olds. Sam Bartlett’s story came from Susan in Brunswick, Maine. Among other projects, Amidon
frontier, go to Kaplan, director of the Peary-MacMillan Arctic researched and reconstructed a MacMillan film lecture,
prologue/2009/Winter/. Museum in Brunswick, Maine. titled The Far North.

Women of the Polar Archives Prologue 45