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Knud Johan Victor Rasmussen

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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Rasmussen, Knud Johan Victor

Knud Johan Victor Rasmussen (kənōōt´ yō´hän vĬk´tôr räs´mŏŏsən), 1879–1933, Danish arctic explorer and ethnologist. Born in Greenland of Eskimo ancestry on his mother's side, he began (1902) 30 years of exploration and of study of the Eskimo. He sought confirmation of his theory that Eskimos are derived from the same stock as the native North Americans, having originally migrated from Asia. In 1910 he established his Thule station at Cape York, Greenland, the base for seven expeditions, five led by Rasmussen himself. He explored (1921–24) some 29,000 mi (46,000 km) of arctic North America and was the first to traverse the Northwest Passage by dog sled when he crossed the ice of Viscount Melville Sound. Rasmussen also disproved the existence of Peary Channel and Independence Bay. In 1932 he went on his last expedition, from Thule to SE Greenland for ethnological and archaeological data. His translated works include Greenland by the Polar Sea (1921) and Across Arctic America (1927) in addition to several studies of the Eskimo.

See P. Freuchen, I Sailed with Rasmussen (1958).

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