“One must wear white in stalking Arctic game,” quips author Courtney Letts de Espil (Mrs. John Borden) in her 1928 book The Cruise of the Northern Light, which is a 317-page account of the Borden-Field Museum Alaska Arctic Expedition of 1927.1

Public Excitement As The Expedition Launches

While newspaper accounts at the time described the trip as “nearly five months of excitement, sport, and diversion for a group of wealthy Chicagoans,”2 the expedition had numerous scientific purposes. The ship sailed from San Francisco Harbor on April 21 and explored the coast of northwestern Alaska, penetrating the polar sea as far as Wrangell Island.3 Excitement and interest in the expedition by the public is clear by the extensive news coverage saved by the Field Museum’s Office of the Registrar, in the form of scrapbook clippings.4

 

 

The Passengers and Crew

Northern Light, Wrangell Island in Background

Chicago attorney and founder of the Yellow Cab Company John Borden, also a Trustee of the Museum, organized and financed the expedition, including the construction of a 140-foot yacht, the Northern Light.2

The ship’s crew consisted of Chicago socialites, Sea Scout volunteers, a Boy Scouts of America auxiliary group, scientists and a taxidermist, Ashley Hine, from the Field Museum5.

In addition to experiencing physical hardship on the trip, it was difficult for Letts de Espil to be so far away from her family back at home. President Stanley Field kept the expedition in touch with Chicago through periodic cables and the news from home was sometimes disturbing; the Bordens left their one-year-old daughter in Chicago, and received news of a serious bout of whooping cough, as well as kidnapping threats 4.

Expanding The Borden Museum Collections

Mrs. Borden, Walrus, Guides near Wrangell Island

According to the Annual Report of 1927, the zoological results of this expedition included a number of exceptionally fine large mammals; of the four Peninsula Brown Bears (Ursus dalli gyas) specimens selected, three were collected by women, specifically by Mrs. John Borden, Miss Frances Ames, and Mrs. R.B. Slaughter3. [Note: At the time, big game hunting was still very much in fashion, and it was the usual practice for scientific institutions, including natural history museums, to obtain specimens this way. Museums have since made significant changes in the manner in which scientific specimens are obtained.2]

Anthropology Curator Berthold Laufer expressed his appreciation for the excellent collection of Inuit ethnological material gathered during the expedition [note: Museums have since made significant changes in the manner in which ethnological materials are obtained], as did the Museum’s director D.C. Davies for the plant specimens, “It is found that 106 of the plants are good specimens which will be a most welcome addition to the Herbarium. On the whole they are much better than the usual collections received from Alaska…” 3

A New Chapter

In 1933 the Bordens divorced and Courtney married Felipe A. Espil, Argentine ambassador to the United States (1933-1943). Archives of her correspondence, diaries, writings, clippings, photographs, and other papers “concerning social affairs in Washington and including references to many prominent individuals of the New Deal era” are housed at the Library of Congress. There are also three notebooks that formed the basis of The Cruise of the Northern Light, as well as notebooks about life in Argentina under Juan Perón in the collection.6

Letts de Espil was a prolific author, writing seven books along biographical and historical themes in both English and Spanish, including Adventures in a Man’s World (1933) and a Spanish-language account of her life as a political wife, The Ambassador’s Wife: 10 Years in the Argentinean Embassy in Washington, 1933-1943 (1967). She died April 7, 1995 in Washington D.C.6

Remembering The Expedition

Courtney Letts de Espil On the Northern Light

A reunion of living crew members took place at the Field Museum in January of 1979 for a luncheon and viewing of the silent film of the expedition available here on Internet Archive courtesy of the Moving Images collection of the Field Museum.

“The Borden – Field Museum Arctic Expedition, 1927,” was produced as an educational film by John Borden.  The film chronicles the expedition from April 21, 1927 to September 10, 1927.

The film depicts the various locations visited with an illustrated map, including: San Francisco, Victoria B.C., Ketchikan, Juneau, Unalaska, Bogosolof, Pribilof, Nome, King Island, Diomede Isle, Point Hope, Cape Serdze-kamen, Herald Island, and Wrangel Island.4

 

 

 

 

Author: Gretchen Rings, Library Public Services Manager & Reference Librarian, Marie Louise Rosenthal Library, Field Museum

References

  1. Letts de Espil, Courtney. 1928. The cruise of the Northern Light: explorations and hunting in the Alaskan and Siberian Arctic. New York: Macmillan Company.
  2. Field Museum of Natural History. 1979. Field Museum of Natural History bulletin. [Chicago, Ill.]: The Museum.
  3. Field Museum of Natural History. 1927. Annual report of the Director to the Board of Trustees for the year. Chicago, U.S.A.: Field Museum of Natural History.
  4. Courtesy Field Museum Archives.
  5. Internet Archive [Internet]. Borden – Field Museum Alaska Arctic Expedition (1927) Reel 1
  6. Cited 2019 March 9. Available from: https://archive.org/details/BordenArcticExpedition192735mm118fps
  7. Library of Congress [Internet]. Courtney Letts de Espil Papers, 1925-1994. Cited 2019 March 9. Available from: http://findingaids.loc.gov/db/search/xq/searchMfer02.xq?_id=loc.mss.eadmss.ms007055&_faSection=overview&_faSubsection=did&_dmdid=

Image Credits

  1. John Borden (Courtney), walrus, two Inuit men on ice near Wrangel Island. © The Field Museum, CSZ57999.
  2. The sailing vessel Northern Light in ice, Wrangel Island in background. The Borden Arctic expedition. © The Field Museum, CSZ58001.
  3. The Crew of the Borden Expedition aboard ship in Chicago Harbor before the cruise. Zoology. © The Field Museum, GN82897.
  4. News clippings. Courtesy of the Field Museum Archives.
  5. [Courtney] Borden sitting on ground with rifle, holding her first (specimen) of a great brown bear. © The Field Museum, Z92846.
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