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Polar Exploration: Primary Sources in the Manuscript Division

Manuscript Collections

This is a curated list of collections in the custody of the Manuscript Division that contain a wide variety of primary source materials associated with exploration of the arctic regions from the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. Provided below is a short summary of each collection and links to the Library of Congress catalog and the finding aid, which describes the collections in more detail. The list is arranged chronologically by the dates of the collection.

Refer back to the Using Finding Aids page to learn how to search and utilize the finding aids for the collections linked below.

Tissandier Collection on the History of Aeronautics, 1539-1929

Correspondence, graphic material, photographs, writings, printed matter, and scrapbooks pertaining primarily to balloon flights of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Gaston Tissandier (1843-1899) drew plans for the balloon "Le Pole Nord," operated by S.A. Andree for the first attempt to reach the North Pole by balloon. The collection includes schematic drawings of the balloon, balloon fragments, and newspapers clippings about the expedition.

Charles Wilkes Papers, 1607-1959

Correspondence, letterbooks, journals and diaries, autobiography, scientific tracts and notes detailing weather and tidal observations, legal and financial papers, genealogical charts, printed material, and other papers. In the "Expedition File," there are notebooks and scientific data reports that document Wilke's command of an Antarctic expedition from 1838-1842.

Related Collections:

Palmer-Loper Family Papers, 1667-1994

Correspondence, logs and journals, financial and business papers, ships' papers, printed material, and other papers of various members of the seafaring and merchant Palmer and Loper families of Stonington, Connecticut. Most relevant are the papers of Nathanial Brown Palmer relating to his 1820 discovery of the Antarctic subcontinent, including the logbook of the Hero, the ship Palmer took to Antarctica.

A.W. Greely Papers, 1753-1959

Correspondence, letterbooks, memoranda, diaries, speeches, lectures, manuscripts and galley proofs of Greely's books and articles, notes, military papers, biographical material, Greely (Greeley) and Nesmith family papers, financial records, scrapbooks, clippings, printed matter, maps, memorabilia, and other papers relating primarily to Greely's military career and exploration of the polar regions. Some notable pieces are crew member's journal from the Hayes Arctic Expedition (1860-1861) and materials relating to Greely's leadership of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition (1881-1884).

Related Collection:

Harry Payne Whitney Collection of Letters of William Collins Whitney, 1757-1942

Correspondence, legal and financial records, scrapbooks, photographs, genealogies, and printed matter relating chiefly to William C. Whitney's time as secretary of the navy and his work to modernize the United States Navy, including the push towards exploring the polar regions.

Theodore Roosevelt Papers, 1759-1993

On September 12, 1909, Theodore Roosevelt (previously president Roosevelt), responded to W.R. Foran, a journalist, author, and veteran of the British East African service, while he was away on a safari expedition. In his letter, Foran told Roosevelt that both Captain Robert E. Peary and Dr. Frederick A. Cook had reached the North Pole. Peary, on September 6, had cabled the news of his success to his wife and sponsors, which included Roosevelt, who had enthusiastically supported the captain's expeditions. Five days earlier, however, Dr. Cook, a veteran Arctic and Antarctic explorer, had stunned the world by announcing that he had reached the North Pole - before Peary's announcement. Skeptical of Cook from the start, Roosevelt quickly acclaimed Peary's feat. The letter reads,

Dear Foran;

The three cables are at hand; I answer by letter, because I can't get to Mern for a couple of days anyhow; moreover I can explain better than by a mere cable. If the news about Peary's having gotten to the North Pole is unquestionably authentic, and not otherwise, publish the following from me, "I rejoice over Captain Peary's great achievement. Too much credit cannot be given him; he has performed one of the great feats of the age, and all his countrymen should join in doing him honor."

As for the other two cables, I cannot make head or tail out of them. Who is Dr. Cook? What has he discovered? Why is he going to Copenhagen? How does it concern me, anyhow?

Since I last wrote you I have killed two more elephants and Kermit has killed one also, and a rhinoceros. Soon Kermit & I separate, he going towards Lake Hamington, and I across to the Guaso Nyero. Will you tell this to Ward & the Reuter people?

Good luck! Faithfully yours,

Theodore Roosevelt


Theodore Roosevelt. Letter to Robert Foran (page 1). September 12, 1909. Theodore Roosevelt papers. Library of Congress Manuscript Division.
Theodore Roosevelt. Letter to Robert Foran (page 2). September 12, 1909. Theodore Roosevelt papers. Library of Congress Manuscript Division.

Albert James Myer Papers, 1816-1880

Correspondence, letterbooks, memoranda, diaries, reports, legal and business records, and printed matter relating to Myer's role in the founding and development of the U.S. Army Signal Corps and his work in meteorology. Materials in this collection document the establishment of the U.S. Weather Bureau and the United States North Polar Expedition/Polaris Expedition (1871-1873), which was led by the Navy in an attempt to reach the North Pole.

United States Naval Observatory Records, 1830-1900

Official correspondence and administrative records of the offices of the United States Naval Observatory. Most relevant to polar exploration is the documents of Superintendent Matthew Fontaine Maury, who was able to plot winds and currents of the oceans during different periods of the year and was able to suggest the most advantageous courses for ships. Maury then sold these charts and plans to sailors, commanders, and ship captains. In this collection there is documentation of the production and sale of these charts, as well as materials on Henry Grinnell's Arctic expeditions.

George Kennan Papers, 1840-1937

Correspondence, diaries, journals, lecture material, articles, notes and notebooks, biographical material, clippings, printed matter, memorabilia, photographs, and maps relating primarily to Czarist Russia, Siberia, and other Arctic regions, which Kennan explored extensively. Some pieces to notes are drafts of Kennan's book "Tent Life in Siberia," which detail what life was like while he worked on a telegraph line in Siberia, and printed material about the Cook and Peary controversy.

Edwin Jesse De Haven Papers, 1843-1854

Correspondence, diaries (including two from the period 1850-1851 which present a detailed account of being caught and trapped in the ice of the Arctic seas), excerpts from William Parker Snow's "Journal in the Arctic Seas," a scrapbook, and newspaper clippings concerning De Haven's command of an expedition to search the Arctic regions for Sir John Franklin. Franklin was a polar explorer who disappeared in 1845 and, during that rescue expedition, De Haven discovered Grinnell Land (part of an island in Nunavut territory). Correspondents include Robert R. Carter, William A. Graham, and John P. Kennedy.

Related Collections:

Frederick Albert Cook Papers, 1881-1977

Correspondence, writings, diaries, financial and legal papers, genealogical notes, certificates, maps, printed materials, and other papers relating primarily to Cook's expeditions to the Arctic (1891-1892, 1901) with Robert E. Peary and Matthew Alexander Henson, to the Antarctic with Roald Amundsen's Belgian Antarctic Expedition (1897-1899), to Mt. McKinley (1906), to the North Pole (1907-1909), and around the world (1915-1916), and to the controversy surrounding Cook's claim that he discovered the North Pole. Includes papers of Cook's daughter, Helen Cook Vetter, chiefly relating to her efforts to validate Cook's claim.​ Also includes papers relating to Cook's trial and conviction for mail fraud in the Petroleum Producers Association stock issue and papers from his subsequent incarceration in the United States Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, primarily his memoirs and writings for the prison newspaper, Leavenworth New Era, including topics like exploration of the polar regions and the physiological effects of coldness.

Evelyn Briggs Baldwin Papers, Polar Expedition Records, 1893-1915

Evelyn Briggs Baldwin was a meteorologist and Arctic explorer. The Baldwin Papers hold detailed journals, correspondence, and financial records, which contain lists of supplies, receipts, and miscellaneous notations of two expeditions: the Baldwin-Ziegler Polar Expedition (1901-1902) and the Wellman Polar Expedition (1898-1899). There is also typed chapters for an unfinished book that Baldwin wrote in support of Cook's claim for discovering the North Pole in the "Polar Expedition Records" series.

Robert E. Peary Correspondence, 1896-1920

Robert E. Peary was recognized as the first person to reach the North Pole by the United States House Committee on Naval Affairs, discrediting rival explorer Frederick A. Cook. The Library has a small collection of five letters from Peary to various professors and naval officers, dating from 1896-1920.

Leon F. Barnard Papers, 1901-1993

Leon F. Barnard was an explorer who was the secretary for the unsuccessful Baldwin-Ziegler expedition to the North Pole. The Barnard papers consists of his diary kept during his polar journeys, memoranda, agreements, statements, reports, and miscellaneous items concerning the Baldwin-Ziegler Polar Expedition (1901-1902). The papers also include a brief history of the expedition written circa 1993 by his daughter, Alice Barnard Thomsen.

William H. Littlewood Papers, 1904-2007

Correspondence, memoranda, cables, dispatches, oral history interview, journals, writings, reports, reference materials, planning files, printed matter, clippings, maps, ephemera, photographs, and other papers relating chiefly to Littlewood's involvement as chief oceanographer in the U.S. Navy's scientific expeditions to Antarctica, particularly in Operation Deep Freeze between 1955 and 1959 and the International Geophysical Year (1957-1958). Subjects include glacial movements, hydrography, marine life, and weather systems of the polar regions, as well as the Operation Nanook;(1950), Operation Chiper (1959), and the Japanese Antarctic Research Expedition (Nihon Nankyoku Chiiki Kansokutai) of the late 1960s.

Wayne W. Parrish Papers, 1912-1976

Correspondence, memoranda, reports, speeches and writings, commemorative programs, airline insignia, logos, schedules, tickets, and other aeronautical memorabilia, photographs, and printed matter documenting Parrish's role as founder and president of American Aviation Publications (AAP). Includes correspondence with airline executives, aircraft manufacturers, and pilots relating to political, technical, labor, and business issues in aviation. Parrish was a journalist who reported on international aviation. He reported on and kept records of the Rockwell International flight to both poles in 1966.

Bernt Balchen Papers, 1913-2005

Correspondence, diaries, logbooks, autobiographical notes, research files, scrapbooks, photographs, and other papers relating to Balchen's career in aviation and exploration. This collection provides material that documents Balchen's service as a pilot for expeditions with Richard Evelyn Byrd (1927-1930) and Lincoln Ellsworth (1933-1935). There are also diaries and logs from Balchen's World War II service with the U.S. Army Air Corps, including rescue operations in Greenland. Some pieces of particular interest relating to polar exploration history include writings on Byrd's 1926 North Pole expedition and the controversy surrounding it, Balchen's 1926 log about the trimotor Josephine Ford, and drafts of his 1958 autobiography, Come North with Me: An Autobiography.

Lewis Varick Frissell Papers, 1917-1970

The papers of Lewis Varick Frissell (who was known throughout his life as Varick Frissell) span the years 1917-1970, with the greatest portion of the material dated 1925-1931. The diary, correspondence, writings, and business papers of these Lewis Varick Frissell Papers 3 years reflect a short but intense career of arctic exploration, writing, and documentary and feature film making. Much of the general correspondence and most of the business papers, as well as the scripts and related papers in the collection, pertain to the two feature films produced by Frissell. The Great Arctic Seal Hunt (1928), a silent documentary, was written, produced, and photographed by Frissell while he worked as a sealer off the Labrador coast in 1927. The Viking (1931), the first feature-length sound film produced entirely on location, was written and produced by Frissell and was directed by George Melford. In addition to the papers related to motion pictures, the writings contain numerous articles on Labrador and the Arctic, reflecting Frissell's interest in the promotion and development of the region.

John J Bayer Papers, 1928-1956

Correspondence, diaries (1928-1930), autographs, newspaper clippings, and a photograph album pertaining to Bayer's service as a member of the scientific team on the supply ship City of New York during the first Byrd Antarctic Expedition (1928-1930). Correspondents include Richard Evelyn Byrd and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Walter Sullivan Papers, 1929-1997

Correspondence, memoranda, lecture files, writings, reviews, wire service reports, notes, book files, alphabetical files, research files, maps, prints, photographs, digital files, and other papers pertaining chiefly to Sullivan's career as a journalist for the New York Times. Documents his years as a correspondent in China and Antarctica as well as his work as a science writer and editor. Sullivan wrote the book Quest for a Continent about Antarctic exploration. In this collection, there are notes from his own expeditions to Antarctica, as well as files about Operation Highjump (an American expedition to establish an Antarctic research base); and correspondence with Richard Evelyn Byrd.

Finn and Edith Ronne Papers

Correspondence, diaries, journals, photographs, reports, clippings, maps, ephemera, and other papers relating to the expeditions of Finn Ronne. This collection spans the various expeditions that Finn Ronne went on, with the bulk of the collection from the 1947-1948 Ronne Antarctic Research Expedition (RARE) with Finn's wife, Edith "Jackie" Ronne, and Jennie Darlington, the first women to winter over in Antarctica. Other expeditions highlighted in this collection are the second Byrd Antarctic Expedition (1934-1935), the U.S. Antarctic Service Expedition (1939-1941), and the Antarctic expedition for the International Geophysical Year (1957-1958).