Tag Archives: university archives

“To Greenland in 105 Days, or, Why Did I Ever Leave Home”: Henry J. Oosting’s Misadventure in the Arctic (1937)

When Duke professor and botanist Henry J. Oosting agreed to take part in an expedition to Greenland in the summer of 1937 his mission was to collect botanical samples and document the region’s native flora. The expedition, organized and led by noted polar explorer Louise Arner Boyd, included several other accomplished scientists of the day and its principal achievement was the discovery and charting of a submarine ridge off of Greenland’s eastern coast.

Narwhal sketch
Oosting’s sketch of a Narwhal

In a diary he kept during his trip titled “To Greenland in 105 Days, or Why did I ever leave home,” Oosting focuses little on the expedition’s scientific exploits. Instead, he offers a more intimate look into the mundane and, at times, amusing aspects of early polar exploration. Supplementing the diary in the recently published Henry J. Oosting papers digital collection are a handful of digitized nitrate negatives that add visual interest to his arctic (mis)adventures.

Oosting’s journey got off to an inauspicious start when he wrote in his opening entry on June 9, 1937: “Frankly, I’m not particularly anxious to go now that the time has come–adventure of any sort has never been my line–and the thought of the rolling sea gives me no great cheer.” What follows over the next 200 pages or so, by his own account, are the “inane mental ramblings of a simple-minded botanist,” complete with dozens of equally inane marginal doodles.

Musk Ox Steak doodle
Oosting sketch of Musk Ox steak

The Veslekari, the ship chartered by Louise Boyd for the expedition, first encountered sea ice on July 12 just off the east coast of Greenland. As the ship slowed to a crawl and boredom set in among the crew the following day, Oosting wrote in his diary that “Miss Boyd’s story of the polar bear is worth recording.” He then relayed a joke Boyd told the crew: “If you keep a private school and I keep a private school then why does a polar bear sit on a cake of ice…? To keep its privates cool, of course.”  For clarification, Oosting added: “She says she has been trying for a long time to get just the right picture to illustrate the story but it’s either the wrong kind of bear or it won’t hold its position.”

Hoisting a polar bear
Crew hoisting a polar bear on board the Veslekari

When the expedition finally reached the Greenland coast at the end of July, Oosting spent several days exploring the Tyrolerfjord glacier, gathering plant specimens and drying them on racks in the ship’s engine room. On the glacier, Oosting observed an arctic hare, an ermine, and noted that “my plants are accumulating in such quantity.”

Oosting sketch of foot
Oosting sketch of foot

As the expedition wore on Oosting grew increasingly frustrated with the daily tedium and with Boyd’s unfailing enthusiasm for the enterprise. “In spite of everything…we are stopping at more or less regular intervals to see what B thinks is interesting,” Oosting wrote on August 19.  “I didn’t go ashore this A.M. for a 15 min. stop even after she suggested it–have heard about it 10 times since…I’ll be obliged to go in every time now regardless or there will be no living with this woman. I am thankful, sincerely thankful, there are only 5 more days before we sail for I am thoroughly fed-up with this whole business.”

Arctic Hare
Arctic Hare

By late August, the Veslekari and crew headed back east towards Bergen, Norway and eventually Newcastle, England, where Oosting boarded a train for London on September 12. “This sleeping car is the silliest arrangement imaginable,” Oosting wrote, “my opinion of the English has gone down–at least my opinion of their ideas of comfort.” After a brief stint sightseeing around London, Oosting boarded another ship in Southampton headed for New York and eventually home to Durham. “It will be heaven to get back to the peace and quiet of Durham,” Oosting pined on September 14, “I’m developing a soft spot for the lousy old town.”

Veslekari, the vessel chartered by Louise Boyd for the 1937 Greenland expedition

Oosting arrived home on September 21, where his diary ends. Despite his curmudgeonly tone throughout and his obsession with recording every inconvenience and impediment encountered along the way, it’s clear from other sources that Oosting’s work on the voyage made important contributions to our understanding of arctic plant life.

In The Coast of Northeast Greenland (1948), edited by Louise Boyd and published by the American Geographic Society, Oosting authored a chapter titled “Ecological Notes on the Flora,” in which he meticulously documented the specimens he collected in the arctic. The onset of World War II and concerns over national security delayed publication of Oosting’s findings, but when released, they provided valuable new information about plant communities in the region.  While Oosting’s diary reveals a man with little appetite for adventure, his work endures.  As the forward to Boyd’s 1948 volume attests:  “When travelers can include significant contributions to science, then adventure becomes a notable achievement.”

Oosting sketch
Oosting sketch

Rediscovering the Tuscarora Indians through The Trinity Archive

This is a story about how our own digital collections program led us to rediscover an amazing manuscript collection that has been at Duke since at least 1896. The Trinity Archive, now published as The Archive, is a Duke University student literary and cultural journal, first published in 1887 while the college was still based in Trinity, N.C. It is one of the oldest continuously-published literary magazines in the United States. Early editions of the Trinity Archive, held in the University Archives, were digitized through Duke’s digital collections program and are now available through the Internet Archive.

It turns out that the Duke University Archivist, Valerie Gillispie, enjoys reading digitized issues of the Trinity Archive. While perusing the December 1896 edition, she found an interesting article: “The Removal of the Tuscarora Indians from North Carolina.” Written by Sanders Dent, then manager of the magazine, the article aims to “arrange some facts found in the old papers of General Jeremiah Slade and, thus, preserve an interesting bit of North Carolina history for her future historian. General Slade was one of the Commissioners appointed by the Legislature in 1802 to settle the affairs of the Tuscarora Indians and from his letters we get most of the material for this sketch.” Dent’s article recounts the history of the Tuscarora in North Carolina in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Following the end of the Tuscarora War in 1713, many Tuscarora fled to upstate New York and joined the Iroquois Confederacy as the Sixth Nation. Those that remained in North Carolina were granted land in Bertie County, but by the late eighteenth century they too were being forced to lease their land to the whites and leave the state for New York.

Dent’s article liberally quotes from letters held in the Jeremiah Slade Papers. Between 1803 and 1818, Slade served as an agent for the Tuscarora, managing their land leases in North Carolina and tracking money owed them by their white tenants. The papers include letters, receipts, and legal documents between Slade and the Tuscarora in Niagara, New York, with several documents signed with an X by the chiefs representing their tribe. Dent adds in a footnote that Slade’s “papers are now in the possession of the Trinity College Historical Society.”

A power of attorney sent to Jeremiah Slade in 1817, signed by Tuscarora chiefs and warriors
A power of attorney sent to Jeremiah Slade in 1817, signed by Tuscarora chiefs and warriors

Thanks to Dent’s footnote, Val found that the Jeremiah Slade Papers were now held in the Rubenstein Library (but under his son’s name, as the William Slade Papers). It was an exciting connection to our Rubenstein Library ancestors, the Trinity College Historical Society. Founded by Trinity College students and professors in 1892, TCHS sought to “collect, arrange, and preserve a library of books, pamphlets, maps, charts, manuscripts, papers, paintings, statuary, and other materials illustrative of the history of North Carolina and the South.” It was a history club and a museum and a library all-in-one, and many of the library’s oldest Southern collections were acquired by TCHS before being transferred to Duke’s manuscript department in the early twentieth century. (You can read more about the TCHS here and here.)

Undated letter to Slade from the Tuscarora, asking for transfer of funds and telling him they intended to “prosecute their claims” to the N.C. Legislature

How and when the Slade Papers first came to the Trinity College Historical Society is still a mystery. The TCHS records, held by the University Archives, are incomplete for that period. A clue lies in the Slade Papers, with an 1884 item from J.D.B. Hooper, a professor at the University of North Carolina. Hooper writes that “I have consented to receive from Mr. William B. Slade, a Box of Scraps, culled by him, from newspapers, magazines, &c. with a request that I will endeavor to have them received into some library, public or private, where they may, at some future time, become useful…” He goes on to write, “I think that they may furnish materials for interesting Scrap books, when they shall fall into the hands of a person of leisure and literary taste.” Um, sure. Thanks Professor Hooper! (His papers are held at UNC.) The only other hint I have found as to the initial transfer of the Slade Papers to Duke lies in this undated clipping from the collection:

Undated clipping announcing the transfer of Slade's scrapbooks to the Trinity College Library
Undated clipping announcing the transfer of Slade’s scrapbooks to the Trinity College Library

But I can find no record of Slade scrapbooks in our accession logs or catalog records from the 1890s. I can only assume that with the scrapbooks came the box of papers that Hooper mentions. It all must have arrived sometime before 1896, when Dent wrote the Trinity Archive piece.

Since this all came to light after Val’s browsing of the Trinity Archive, we decided to revisit the Slade Family Papers, update their housing, and enhance the collection’s description to reflect contemporary descriptive standards and scholarship interests. The original catalog record had no mention of the Tuscarora, and there was no finding aid or other web presence for the collection. It was really fun to re-process such an old collection and see its contents firsthand. The Tuscarora documents, while fascinating, are only a small piece of the Slade story. The majority of the collection documents the nineteenth-century operations of the Slade plantations, farms, and fisheries around Williamston, N.C. Plus, each generation of the Slade family had many children, so there are a lot of letters between all the siblings and cousins discussing their activities, family life, education, politics, and entertainment. There are also extensive legal and financial documents, including receipts, account books, land deeds, court cases, and other items. I was amazed at the amount of documentation discussing slaves; items recording student life at different North Carolina colleges in the early nineteenth century; letters detailing life in the Confederacy during the Civil War; and materials about postwar recovery and politics, including the new business arrangements between the Slades and their former slaves, now freedmen.

Slave valuation, 1820, in the Slade Family Papers
Estate inventory including slave valuations, 1820, in the Slade Family Papers

It’s always wonderful to see what sort of research can happen as a result of digitization and online access to our collections. But the re-processing and new finding aid for the Slade Family Papers was special. It is one of those rare projects where it all came full circle: because the Trinity Archive was available online, we rediscovered this collection, and along with it, further evidence of the work of the Trinity College Historical Society. The TCHS acquired the Slade Family Papers, among many other things, over 120 years ago for future historians to study and use. We are active participants in that legacy today.