Exploration and Exploitation: The Use of Dogs and Sledges in Early-Modern Arctic Expeditions

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Editor’s Note: This is the fourth post in Part III of the Visual Cultures of the Circumpolar North series edited by Isabelle Gapp and Mark A. Cheetham.

Between the eighteenth and the nineteenth century, as the world witnessed the Industrial Revolution and post-Industrial era, the new roles available to men in creating their futures evolved alongside the changing role of animals.1 As John Berger puts it, they were first seen as machines, working mostly as draught animals in cities and rural areas (as well as in agricultural roles), then, as automated machines and new technologies were introduced, the concept of the animal transitioned from machine to “raw material.”2

Figure 1: Dogs chained on the ice, illustration, n. d., Farthest North, Vol. I: Being the Record of a Voyage of Exploration of the Ship ‘Fram’ 1893-96 and of a Fifteenth Months’ Sleigh Journey by Dr. Nansen and Lieut. Johansen, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/30197/30197-h/30197-h.htm#p272.

It was also during the nineteenth century that the Europeans showed a renewed interest in the Arctic. During this period the Arctic was simultaneously described as a vast, “under-inhabited” space, and yet, attention was also directed towards navigating its waters (the Northwest and Northeast Passages), and its resources, which included walrus, whale, and seal blubber.3 Interest in exploration also peaked at this time, enticing scientists, explorers, and thrill-seekers alike to venture into its frigid landscape. With this newfound increase in traffic came new methods of transportation, and among them was the dog sledge (although this was only new to foreigners, as Indigenous Arctic communities had been using them for centuries). 

After considering the changing role of domesticated animals within European societies during the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries and taking into account the “newfound” introduction of the dog sledge, new questions arise: if resources such as animal blubber were extracted to be used to benefit industrialisation, could the same be said of the dogs used in Arctic expeditions? Can dogs be considered draught animals, similar to horses and cattle? All of these animals served as tools, in order to directly benefit their human owners and their pursuits. Dogs were also used as tools or equipment, with the added factor of being taken from their place of origin in the quest for Arctic glory. As I propose, the concept of dogs as equipment further comes to light when examining the works of both the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen and British explorer Francis Leopold McClintock, two innovators in the field of nineteenth-century Arctic exploration. 

Figure 2: McClintock, F. Leopold Captain Francis Leopold McClintock’s searching party (combining a dog team and a man-hauling crew) at Cape Herschel, King William Island, May 1859, illustration, 1859, unknown, https://journalhosting.ucalgary.ca/index.php/arctic/article/view/63210/47148.

We know that all of the dogs used in the 1857-59 McClintock Expedition to find the missing Franklin Expedition were acquired from Indigenous communities in the Arctic. They were mostly sourced from Greenland and parts of Northern Canada, with some purchased later from Inuit.4 Many sources called these “Greenland dogs,” or as McClintock and many other explorers called them, Esquimaux dogs.5 It is evident that the worth of the dogs was contingent on their ability to perform tasks given to them by humans. Whenever McClintock mentioned dogs in his various lectures given in 1875, the economic value of the dogs was always at the core of his argument as he advocated for their use. As opposed to men, who would need more equipment and comforts, the dogs would mainly only need harnesses, whips, leads and pemmican. Additionally, they frequently caught their own food, or, as was sometimes the case, became food themselves for the humans and other dogs on the voyage. 

McClintock, also dubbed “the father of British sledging” became known for his contributions to the “British system,” and he seems to have looked beyond the economic advantages of the dogs.6 The physical advantage of the new system can be seen in Figure 1. The dog team in the illustration consists of four dogs and a human driver driving a lightly-packed sledge. This type of sledge is called an “up-stander,” as metal or wooden bars were added on the back to allow for a human to drive the sledge.7 The body language of the dogs (and the driver) does not seem to suggest any great difficulty in pulling the sledge. The dogs’ bodies are quite relaxed, they are not leaning forward to leverage their own body weight against the sledge, instead they are depicted standing upright and walking as if they were taking a stroll on a snowy afternoon. The animals’ ears are pointed upwards, their tails are curled up their backs, their feet are taking light steps forward and their legs are not buckling under the weight of the sledge. Truly, their work seems effortless.

The man-hauling crew at the front, on the other hand, seems to have more difficulty pulling their sledge. This difficulty is suggested by the four men’s postures. The men are placed two-by-two and every single one is leaning forward, using the strength of their own body weight to pull their burdensome sledge. The ropes attached to it are tense, confirming their slow advance. The viewer can almost imagine the fatigue and weariness of these men; how their feet must have slipped at every step, how the rope would have burnt their hands and how the biting wind or flurrying snow must have contributed to slowing their advance. From this we might deduce that the pulling of sledges was done most efficiently by dogs. These dogs could, by association, be considered part of the equipment needed to make this new and improved technology work fully, with this perspective fully aligning with the earlier 18th century association of animals with machines.

Figure 3: My Last Dog, Kaifas, illustration, n. d., Farthest North, Vol. II: Being the Record of a Voyage of Exploration of the Ship ‘Fram’ 1893-96 and of a Fifteenth Months’ Sleigh Journey by Dr. Nansen and Lieut. Johansen, https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/34120/pg34120-images.html#p307.

Farthest North, written by Fridtjof Nansen following his 1893-1896 Arctic voyage, only confirms the theory of dogs as tools and as resources. As Caroline Abbott writes in relation to Nansen in Part II of the Visual Cultures of the Circumpolar North series, “Dogs are many things, and have been assigned many roles in the history of polar exploration — but rarely performed exactly as expected by the humans controlling them. They are disruptors of expectation, dependable companions (and sometimes, agents of chaos), both historically and in the present.”8 It seems as though Nansen, similar to McClintock, had not brought a single dog from Norway to the Arctic, instead he intended to acquire them on-location. He enlisted the help of his friend Baron Edward von Toll and his acquaintances to purchase the dogs necessary for the journey, and to move them to his ship, the Fram.9 Although the breed of the dogs is unclear, Nansen noted that he purchased his dogs from the Khanty and Ket people, the Samodeic (Samoyedic) people, and peoples of Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland). These dogs were clearly treated as resources and “equipment” to be used by Nansen and his team, judging by the methods of acquisition and vocabulary used. What helps validate this theory is the fact that acquisition of the dogs was documented in volume one of Farthest North, in the chapter titled Preparations and Equipment. This chapter, in particular, is dedicated to lists and explanations regarding equipment taken onboard the Fram

It is worth noting that many of the images of the Arctic produced during this period seemed to consciously omit the presence of dogs working alongside men in the Arctic.10 Many artists and explorers clearly expressed their disdain for dogs, with some emphasising that man-hauling was a much nobler pursuit than using dogs to pull sledges, as they preferred conquering the hardships they met along the way, without any aid, rather than reducing the nobility of their efforts via the use of dogs (and Indigenous methods of transportation).11 

Walter William May, a British lithograph artist aboard the Assistance during the Belcher expedition from 1852 to 1854, is one of the artists that consciously omitted the dogs, when it was known that dogs were used in the expedition to relay messages from one boat to another.12 Their omission does not seem accidental, it seems that whoever was publishing the lithographs did not believe that the dogs would “portray the right message.”13 May’s depiction of man-hauling and the belief of its superiority, morally, over the use of dog sledges was later appropriated by other explorers such as Captain Robert Falcon Scott and Sir Clements Markham, albeit these men expressed their prejudice against dogs on paper.14 The illustrations featured here show something different, with the dogs being crucial figures that actually seem to be consciously included.

It is also to be noted that at the beginning of his journey, Nansen similarly showed disdain for his team of dogs (even though he understood their importance);15 he complained of their infernal yapping, ferocious fights amongst each other, cowardice in the face of other Arctic predators (and their general demeanor). Moreover, he often referred to them as “wretches,”16 but this sentiment gradually changed into empathy and care for these creatures. This change is evident in figure 2, where I could not help but notice a sense of camaraderie and companionship between Nansen and Kaifas. 

Figure 4: The stern of the “Fram.” Johansen and “Sultan.”, from a photograph, June 16, 1894, Farthest North, Vol. I: Being the Record of a Voyage of Exploration of the Ship ‘Fram’ 1893-96 and of a Fifteenth Months’ Sleigh Journey by Dr. Nansen and Lieut. Johansen, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/30197/30197-h/30197-h.htm#p499.

Contradictory values are conveyed by the texts written by both McClintock and Nansen and the visual conventions of the time, which complicates the images featured in this essay, as the dogs seem to be at the heart of most of them. As Abbott writes, “Where the human gaze turns away from the realities of other-than-human communities in service to the settler-colonial project, the visual record which exists is vital.”17 This truly makes me wonder if the presence of the dogs in these images was solely contingent on their value as tools or resources used to contribute to the mission of furthering their leaders’ exploits. Despite this complication, one thing is for certain: without the use of sledge dogs, Arctic exploration would not have been possible. This moving quote by McClintock is a reminder of the hard work accomplished by dogs to make their masters’ dreams come true:

To sledging we are indebted for almost all our modern Arctic achievements. To sledging we owe many thousand miles of coast-line discovered and explored. […] And to sledging we shall owe the principal share of whatever work may be accomplished by the brave men who have now gone out.

F. Leopold McClintock (1874-75), 474.


[1] John Berger, “Why Look at Animals?,” in About Looking (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2009), 10–11.

[2] Ibid, 10-11.

[3] Jason Edwards, “The Vegan Viewer in the Circum-Polar World; Or, J. H. Wheldon’s The Diana and Chase in the Arctic (1857),” in Thinking Veganism in Literature and Culture: Towards a Vegan Theory, eds. Emelia Quinn and Benjamin Westwood (Springer International Publishing, 2018), 88.

[4] William Barr, “The Use of Dog Sledges During the British Search for the Missing Franklin Expedition in the North American Arctic Islands, 1848-59,” Arctic 62, no. 3 (September 2009): 259, https://doi.org/10.14430/arctic146.

[5] F. Leopold McClintock, “On Arctic Sledge-Travelling,” Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of London, 1874-1875 19, no. 7 (1874-75): 475, https://www.jstor.org/stable/1799697.

[6] Michael Pearson, “Sledges and Sledging in Polar Regions,” Polar Record 31, no. 176 (1995): 7-8, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0032247400024827.

[7] Barr, “The Use of Dog Sledges,” 260.

[8] Caroline Abbott, “We Turned Our Eyes Away”: A Visual History of Nansen’s Dogs,” 19 January 2023. The Otter, Network in Canadian History and Environment (NiCHE).

[9] Fridtjof Nansen, Farthest North, Vol. I: Being the Record of a Voyage of Exploration of the Ship ‘Fram’ 1893-96 and of a Fifteenth Months’ Sleigh Journey by Dr. Nansen and Lieut. Johansen (New York and London: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1897), 75, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/30197/30197-h/30197-h.htm.

[10] Eavan O’Dochartaigh, Visual Culture and Arctic Voyages: Personal and Public Art and Literature of the Franklin Search Expeditions (Cambridge University Press, 2022), 172, https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108992794.

[11] Lisa Bloom, Gender on Ice: American Ideologies of Polar Expeditions (University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 121-122,

[12] O’Dochartaigh, Visual Culture and Arctic Voyages, 172.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Nansen, Farthest North, 271-272.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Abbott, “We Turned Our Eyes Away”: A Visual History of Nansen’s Dogs,” n.p.

Feature image: Illustration of two men breaking up a dog fight, as other dogs watch on. Image taken from the second volume of Farthest North by Dr. Fridtjof Nansen.
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