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 on Knud Johan Victor Rasmussen
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).