Thursday, 6 February 2014




"I have been shipwrecked twelve times. Four times I have seen my own ships sink, or be crushed to kindling wood against the rocks. Yet, I love the sea as a dog loves its master who clouts it for the discipline of the house."
-Captain Robert Abram Bartlett

Every couple of years, I visit my 200-year-old family home in Newfoundland, and explore the creaky old attic upon my arrival. Surrounded by family mementos and various household objects, is a 75 year old bearskin coat that somehow always lunges off the wall into my direction causing me to jump out of my socks! This frightening coat was worn by my maternal grandfather during his expeditions through the Arctic with his first cousin, Captain Bob Bartlett (1875-1946). For this particular post, I would like to talk about Captain Bob and one of his noteworthy expeditions. 

Samuel Bartlett and Bearskin Coat
Samuel Bartlett in his glorious bearskin coat, courtesy of Jane Clifton

Captain Robert Abram Bartlett

He was born in the town of Brigus, Newfoundland to a family of traditional seafarers. Despite his mother’s insistence on becoming a minister, he perpetuated family traditions and obtained his mariner’s papers before the age of 23. He travelled to the north for the first time in 1898 with his Uncle, Captain John Bartlett on an expedition led by Captain Robert Peary. Thus began his love affair with Arctic exploration. What makes his life so remarkable, is the number of times in which he sailed through the frigid environment of the north (and survived): over 40 expeditions! Not to mention, he was the first person to sail as far as 88°47’ north, only 150 miles away from the North Pole!

Captain Robert Abram Bartlett
Captain Bob navigating with a sextant.

An expedition to Greenland on the Effie M. Morrissey

One story that my grandfather shared with me, many years ago, was the expedition that forced Captain Bob to travel across the icy region of Siberia for 700 miles. In 1913, he led an ill-fated expedition to the Canadian Arctic across the Bering Strait on the Karluk. The unruly northern waters trapped the ship in an icy path thus leading it aimlessly adrift for months. One evening, the Karluk sustained a large puncture to the hull and subsequently forced the crew to abandon the ship. They worked tirelessly overnight to salvage as many supplies as they could before the ship was crushed by the ice and sucked into the freezing waters. My grandfather told me that his cousin played Chopin’s Funeral March on a phonograph as a final goodbye to his beloved ship, before he fled for safety. 

The Karluk Captain Robert Abram Bartlett
The Karluk

After sending the surviving crew members to Wrangel Island, he set out with Kataktovic, an Inuit hunter whom he had employed for the expedition. Hoping to find help along the Siberian landscape, the two men travelled for 37 days via dogsled and eventually on foot after they ran out of food for their dogs. They eventually came across a hospitable Chukchi village within the remote Russian region. From there, they travelled to Emma Harbour where Captain Bob sailed to Alaska with a whaling crew. Upon arrival, he sent a radio message to the Government of Canada informing them of the predicament of his crew. An American walrus-hunting ship rescued the 14 remaining survivors (nearly 6 months after taking residence on the island), before meeting up with Captain Bob, who had travelled to the region on a US Maritime enforcement ship. He was both praised and criticized for his handling of the mission, despite his relentless commitment to his crew. Click here to read a detailed account. 

Captain Robert Abram Bartlett Dogsled in Siberia
Dogsled team that travelled across Siberia

Whenever I come across my grandfather’s bearskin coat, I am reminded of his thrilling tales of Captain Bob and of his own Arctic adventures. His coat is a testament to the affective nature of artifacts as it carries authentic cultural knowledge and complex memories. By exploring the past, we can better understand our own identities and subsequently reconstruct the valuable heritage that shapes us.  

* If you would like to read a detailed log, written by Captain Robert Bartlett himself, click here for publication details.


  1. This is such a beautiful story, Jaime! Thank you for sharing. And indeed an object's authenticity is so much tied to the individual who owned it, especially when you are talking about something as personal as a coat (with such a glorious history!)

  2. Thanks Irina! I'm glad that you enjoyed it. This is why I value oral history/intangible heritage so much because without my grandfather's stories, I would not be aware of his authentic and valuable perspective of this history.

  3. Love the personal story you brought to the blog this week Jaime! These things are always so much more interesting when someone is able to share their own "inside scoop" on how history happens. I stand by what I said to you earlier, I would love to see that bearskin coat ;)

  4. Glad you enjoyed it Brittney! I will try to find a picture for you! :-)

  5. Yeah bring the bearskin coat to Toronto! Or we can feature it on "Object of the Week"!

  6. Haha! That would be great! I'll see what I can do!

  7. Well written Jaime! I'm so glad to see that you are interested in your family history with all the seafaring Captains as your ancestors! The bearskin coat is still hanging in the attic of our 200 yr old family home in Brigus, NL. It's a little dusty and a little scary but still in one piece! Picture of the coat is on its way to you! Jane (Bartlett) Clifton

  8. The picture above of my Dad wearing the bearskin coat was taken in the early 1940''s. I'm amazed by the quality of the colour! JC

  9. Loved this post, Jamie. You have a wonderfully warm writing style and include delightful details.

    Lynne Deachman
    (Your Uncle Stu;s friend)

  10. My wife's Great Grand-uncle was Robert A Bartlett and I've been finding out as much about him as possible, I read 'The Log of Captain Robert 'Bob'Bartlett' fascinating read. He sounded like a true gentleman and quite fearless.

  11. My wife's Great Grand-uncle was Robert A Bartlett and I've been finding out as much about him as possible, I read 'The Log of Captain Robert 'Bob'Bartlett' fascinating read. He sounded like a true gentleman and quite fearless.

  12. hello i hate to interject on such personal literature but i happen to have obtained a tusk of some type either mammouth oe elephant im not sure but its signed and numbered by Bob Barttlet 1908 kane basin i will try to take a picture for you and send it to you for authenticity verification. Im not sure who else could verfiy the authenticity. I hope to hear back from you