Historic Ship Leads Arctic Expeditions

Schooner Ernestina - Effie M. Morrissey 1894

The 1894 schooner Ernestina (ex. Effie M. Morrissey), the official sailing vessel of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, played a major role in Arctic expeditions.

Her career began as a traditional Grand Banks fishing schooner. She was designed by George McClain of Gloucester to provide extra speed and stability against the North Atlantic gales. After twenty years as a fisher, she was purchased, in 1914, by Harold Bartlett of Brigus, Newfoundland. He converted her to a freighter where she was used for hauling salt and coal from Sydney, Nova Scotia and along the coast of Labrador. She remained a freighter, and an occasional fishing vessel, for several years. Her days of being a Grand Banks fishing schooner were over, but she was about to embark on a new chapter in her life. She was about to become part of the Arctic expeditions led by Captain Bob Bartlett.

From Fishing Schooner to Arctic Explorer

Captain Robert Abram “Bob” Bartlett was used to sailing in the Arctic. He was known worldwide as the ice navigator and skipper for Admiral Peary’s ship, Roosevelt, during the North Pole expeditions from 1905 through 1909. After World War I, Bartlett was looking for a vessel and funds to continue his explorations. He discussed the needed funding for an expedition that involved a drift across the Arctic Sea. Bartlett’s family told him he could have the schooner for $6,000 so, in 1924, he acquired the ship through a gift from James B. Ford, Vice President of the U. S. Rubber Company.

“Captain Bob” now had the schooner but still needed a sponsor to fund his proposed expeditions. Meanwhile, during the summer of 1925, he did some fishing along the coast of Labrador and noted since his “little Morrissey,” as he called her, did not have an engine, she barely missed being wrecked by icebergs. The following year, publisher George Palmer Putnam agreed to fund an expedition to Greenland. Before the schooner could travel to the Arctic, she was brought to the McWilliams’ shipyard on Staten Island and refitted to withstand the dangers posed by ice and bitter cold. With the addition of a diesel engine, a radio, coal for the galley fire, and a hull sheathed with a Central American hardwood called greenheart, Effie M. Morrissey was ready to begin her new career as an Arctic explorer.

Arctic Expeditions Yield Scientific Discoveries

The first, of what was to be twenty years of Arctic expeditions under Captain Bob Bartlett, left Rye, New York in mid-June, 1926. The sponsor’s fourteen-year-old son, David Binney Putnam, was aboard. He wrote David Goes to Greenland (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1926) which captured the interest and imagination of boys to join Captain Bob’s expeditions. Bartlett took over a hundred boys, in total, on these expeditions. He felt that this was a good way to help them appreciate new places and respect “the honest experience of the sea.”

During this first expedition, Bartlett and crew chronicled the ecological destruction of the Eskimos’ habitat as a result of modern technology. Bartlett had many friends among the Eskimos from his days with Admiral Peary. Two polar bears were captured and given to the New York Zoo. Bartlett and crew were congratulated by Teddy Roosevelt.

The sponsor, George Palmer Putnam, was so pleased with the 1926 expedition that he organized another the following year. This time, it would be under several organizations: the American Geographical Society, the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences. The purpose was to map Baffin Island, the fifth largest island in the world, which had not been explored since the 1600s. The results were the excavation of houses of stone, artifacts of bone and ivory over 1,000 years old, and Eskimos untouched by Western civilization.

The longest voyage was in 1928-29 for twenty-five thousand miles from Sydney, Nova Scotia, through the Panama Canal, to Alaska and the Arctic Ocean, and returning to New York. This was under the American Museum of Natural History to search for the Aleut mummies. The explorers found a mummy with a nose ring of amber beads. These beads were identified as being found only in Asia which confirmed that the American Eskimo had crossed the Bering Strait from Asia. The mummy is kept in the American Museum of Natural History.

Organizations Sponsoring Bartlett’s Expeditions

The list of organizations requesting Bartlett’s Arctic explorations grew steadily, including the Smithsonian Institution, the Field Museum, the Chicago Zoological Society, the Navy Department, New York Botanical Gardens, and the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences. The subjects ranged from mapping ocean currents to plant and animal specimens, from ancient civilizations to current inhabitants. Bartlett’s voyages took him within 600 miles of the North Pole and many were filmed. These expeditions continued until the outbreak of World War II which created another chapter in the schooner’s career. She would be carrying supplies and surveying the Arctic for the United States Government.


  1. Houston, Laura Pires and Michael K. H. Platzer, Ernestina / Effie M. Morrissey, Commemorative Edition, published by Friends of the Ernestina/Morrissey Committee, New York, 1982.