ExploreNorth, your resource center for exploring the circumpolar North

Return to the Home Page The ExploreNorth Blog Arctic & Northern Books About ExploreNorth Contact ExploreNorth

Search ExploreNorth



Ernest deKoven Leffingwell


    Ernest deKoven Leffingwell is one of the early explorers whose contributions are overlooked by all but the most serious Arctic researchers or those with a special interest in Alaska's North Slope. Between 1906 and 1914, he mapped about 150 miles of the Arctic coast between Point Barrow and Herschel Island, and the adjacent Brooks Range, and his analysis of the region as a geologist was still being used almost 50 years later.

    Leffingwell was born in 1875. Although he trained as a geologist at the University of Chicago, he had a very broad scientific interest. His first work in the polar regions was as chief scientist for the Baldwin-Ziegler Polar Expedition, which unsuccessfully attempted to reach the North Pole from Franz Josef Land in 1901.

    During that expedition, Leffingwell met Ejnar Mikkelsen, who worked with him to plan the Anglo-American Polar Expedition for the purpose of investigating rumours of land to the north of Alaska's Arctic coast, and to complete the mapping of the known land in the region. In 1906, aided by a $5,000 contribution from John D. Rockefeller and accompanied by phsician Dr. G. P. Howe, naturalist Ejnar Ditlevsen and four sailors, they sailed from Victoria, British Columbia, but only reached Flaxman Island before being caught by the ice. That winter, their schooner, the Duchess of Bedford, was badly damaged by the ice, and was dismantled to build a cabin and other structures on Flaxman Island. As spring neared, Mikkelsen left with a team of sled dogs, eventually reaching Valdez. A passing whaling ship picked up most of the other members of the expedition, but Leffingwell chose to stay and continue his work for another year. Although he left several times, between then and 1914 he and several Inupiat guides made a total of 31 exploratory trips in summer and winter, covering some 4,500 miles by sled and small boat.

    Leffingwell once commented that his work in the Arctic "attracted little public notice" and that he felt he was "the forgotten man." A few years before his death in 1971, however, his work was recognized when large-scale development of the Prudhoe Bay oil field began, as Leffingwell had studied the Sadlerochit Mountains and the related formation which forms the main reservoir of the oil field.

    The cabin and several other buildings on Flaxman Island still stand, with a sign placed in 1971 by geologist C. G. Mull for the Alaska Division of Parks that states: "From this base camp geologist Ernest D.K. Leffingwell almost singlehandedly mapped Alaska's Arctic coast during the years 1907-1914. He also identified the Sadlerochit - main reservoir of the Prudhoe Bay field." That sign, of course, doesn't acknowledge the Inupiat who assisted him during those years and made the journeys possible. On June 2, 1978, Leffingwell's camp was listed as a National Historic Landmark.




Retracing Leffingwell
From 2005-2008, Joe Henderson is following Leffingwell's route through Arctic Alaska - 4,500 miles by dogsled.

Lost in the Arctic
A newspaper report about the supposed loss of the ship Duchess of Bedford.

Scientists and Scientific Research on 19th and Early 20th Century Arctic Explorations
Leffingwell is included in this excellent article by Barbara Defelice.

Early Maps of the Colville Delta
This pdf-format document by H. J. Walker includes 2 maps by Leffingwell.

Leffingwell Collection, Dartmouth College
A listing of the items in the collection, which includes many original journals and related papers from his expeditions.

Leffingwell's cabin on Alaska's North Slope
A photograph by Sverre Pederson.

Publications:
Leffingwell, E. 1919. The Canning River region, northern Alaska. U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 109. 247 pp.
Leffingwell, Ernest de Koven. "A Brief Account of the Baldwin-Ziegler Expedition," File Closer, (June, 1903), 3-18.
Leffingwell, Ernest de Koven. "A Communication from Leffingwell," University of Chicago Magazine, (January, 1915), 76-79.
Mikkelsen, Ejnar. Conquering the Arctic Ice (Philadelphia: G. W. Jacobs, 1909).
Stefansson, Vilhjalmur. The Friendly Arctic: the Story of Five Years in the Polar Regions (New York: Macmillan, 1921)

Place Names:
Leffingwell Glacier - trends from the south side to the east side of Mount Michelson, at the head of Leffingwell Creek in the Romanzof Mountains of the Brooks Range (69° 18' N., 144° 08' W.).
Leffingwell Creek - see above
Leffingwell Ridge - the northern flank of a large east-northeasttrending, west-plunging anticlinorium that forms the range front of the Brooks Range in the eastern Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).
Leffingwell Fork, Aichilik River



Leffingwell's Flaxman Island Base - in use 1909-1911.
Photo by Rear Admiral Harley D. Nygren, Spring 1949, from the NOAA Corps Collection.

An outbuilding at Leffingwell's Flaxman Island Base - in use 1909-1911.
Photo by Rear Admiral Harley D. Nygren, Spring 1949, from the NOAA Corps Collection.

Commander Robert Earle at Flaxman Island Standing at Leffingwell Survey marker from early 1900s.
Photo by Rear Admiral Harley D. Nygren, Spring 1949, from the NOAA Corps Collection.

To Yukon & Alaska Pioneer Biographies