Knud Johan Victor Rasmussen

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Knud Johan Victor Rasmussen


Danish Explorer and Ethnologist

Knud Johan Victor Rasmussen was a Danish explorer and ethnologist who participated in several Arctic expeditions through Greenland. He also completed an exceptionally long expedition that began in Greenland, proceeded to Canada, and ended in Alaska. During these expeditions he studied and recorded the migration and culture of the Eskimo.

Rasmussen was born to a Danish missionary father and an Eskimo mother on June 7, 1879, in Jakobshavn, Greenland, located in the west central part of the country. He attended the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, and married Dagmar Andersen; together they had one son and two daughters. From 1902-04, Rasmussen participated in expeditions to northwestern Greenland, where he encountered the Polar Eskimo. His command of the Eskimo language and his familiarity with the culture gave him a clear advantage as he studied them. In 1905, he examined the possibility of raising reindeer in western Greenland. The next two years he lived among the Polar Eskimo again, studying their way of life.

In 1910, Rasmussen built a post which he named Thule Base in Cape York, Greenland. He traded with the Eskimos from this post and used it as a point of departure for his expeditions. In 1912, Rasmussen, accompanied by three comrades, walked across the Greenland ice sheet extending from Thule to the northeast coast of the country. He surveyed the north coast of Greenland from 1916-18, then he commanded an expedition to Andmagssalik in east Greenland in 1919. His book Greenland by the Polar Sea was published in 1921.

Rasumussen's greatest expedition, in which he planned to visit every Eskimo tribe, began in Upernavik, Greenland, on September 7, 1921. He first explored in Greenland and then Baffin Island, then trekked across the arctic coasts of Canada to the Bering Strait. He explored northeastern Canada and reached Point Barrow, Alaska, on May 23, 1924. During this long expedition he mapped Eskimo migration routes and noted the similarities between Eskimo cultures. He also attempted to demonstrate his theory that the Eskimos as well as North American Indians had common ancestors in tribes that migrated from Asia across the Bering Strait. Rasmussen's ability to live and hunt in arctic conditions as the Eskimo did allowed him the opportunity to become close with them in order to study them. He made it his mission to study the Eskimos and examine them in their element before they made extensive contact with modern society. Rasmussen published his findings from this expedition in Myths and Legends from Greenland.

Rasmussen was also able to accumulate a significant amount of Eskimo poetry from the Iglulik Eskimos of the Hudson Bay area and the Musk Ox tribe of Copper Country in Canada. These poems, which were spontaneously sung or chanted during special events or accomplishments such as a bountiful hunt or a marriage, were the chief mode through which the Eskimos transmitted knowledge and traditions.

This expedition is detailed in Rasmussen's book Across Arctic America, which was published in two volumes in 1925, then translated into English in 1927. Rasmussen was the recipient of a number of medals from geological and anthropological societies in Scandinavia as well as other countries. He was also the honorary member of a number of geological societies.

Rasmussen died on December 21, 1933, in Copenhagen, Denmark, from complications stemming from the flu and pneumonia, as well as from a case of food poisoning which occurred on his final expedition.


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Knud Johan Victor Rasmussen

The Danish Arctic explorer and ethnologist Knud Johan Victor Rasmussen (1879-1933) was an authority on the folklore and history of the Greenland Eskimos.

Knud Rasmussen was born on June 7, 1879, in Jakobshavn on Disko Bay in southwestern Greenland. His father, Christian Rasmussen, was a Danish missionary who had been in Greenland 28 years and who had married a part-Eskimo girl. Knud learned both Danish and Eskimo ways and languages. He was sent to school in Copenhagen as a young man and hoped to become a writer.

In 1900 Rasmussen went as a correspondent for the Christian Daily on a trip to Iceland led by Ludwig Mylius-Erichsen and a year later took a trip to Swedish Lapland to gather material for literary works. He took part in Mylius-Erichsen's sledge journey to the Yap York district of west Greenland (1902-1904). Rasmussen became interested in the ethnology of the northern non-Christian Eskimos. His first book about the Eskimos was written in 1905. A book about Lapland, People of the Polar North, appeared in 1908, the year he married Dagmar Anderson.

Rasmussen established a trading station at North Star Bay in 1910 among the northern Greenland Eskimos, also called Polar Eskimos or Arctic Highlanders, and named it Thule, the classical word for the northernmost inhabited land. In 1912, with Peter Freuchen and two Eskimos, Rasmussen crossed the inland ice of Greenland from the Clements Markham Glacier at the mouth of Inglefield Gulf on the west coast to Denmark Fjord on the east coast in what he called the first Thule expedition.

There were seven Thule expeditions in all. Rasmussen's narrative of the fourth expedition is Greenland by the Polar Sea (1921). His books about the Eskimos include Eskimo Folk Tales (1921) and The Eagle's Gift (1932).

The most ambitious of the Thule expeditions was the fifth (1921-1924). It visited all of the existing northern Eskimo tribes. Several scientists accompanied the early part of the expedition to Greenland, Baffin Island, and vicinity, mapping, gathering ethnographic data, and taking movies. Rasmussen traveled across northern Canada and Alaska visiting Eskimo tribes; he always traveled and hunted as the Eskimos did. His narrative of this expedition is Across Arctic America (1927). On the seventh Thule expedition (1932-1933) he got food poisoning, contracted influenza and pneumonia, and died on Dec. 22, 1933, upon his return to Copenhagen.

Rasmussen was an outstanding leader. He had a unique ability for understanding the Eskimo mentality and being able to explain it to non-Eskimos. He did his ethnological studies at a critical time when it was still possible to record primitive Eskimo folklore and history. His mapping of parts of Greenland and crossing of its ice cap were valuable scientific contributions.

Further Reading

The only biography of Rasmussen in English is Peter Freuchen, I Sailed with Rasmussen (1958), which treats only his early years. For general background information consult L. P. Kirwan, A History of Polar Exploration (1960), and Paul-Émile Victor, Man and the Conquest of the Poles (1962; trans. 1963). □

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