Did My Ancestor go to Antarctica
in the Heroic Age?


The Enduarance in pack ice."Dear CoolAntarctica, there is a family story that Great Uncle Bill went to the Antarctic to help rescue Shackleton, is this true? His name was Bill Smith."

    Ok, so I've simplified the question a bit, but this is similar in essence to many emails I get from people, naming Shackleton or one of the other expedition leaders of the Heroic Age (1900 - 1922) of Antarctic Exploration.

    I have listed the major expeditions on this site with the crews named as far as I have information about them, if the name is not here then I have no other records to check on. As soon as I am aware of anyone additional who sailed on any of the ships during the heroic age, they are added to this site.

So if their name is not already here, then they didn't sail on those ships?

    The lists on this site and other such readily available lists have the names of:

    1 - Those who wintered in Antarctica
    2 - The "officers and gentlemen" who were part of the ships' crews.

    They do not generally have the names of the ordinary seamen who sailed the ships, so they are often incomplete.

What are the chances that <insert name of ancestor> really did sail with <insert name of famous Antarctic hero> then?

    If there is a tale, then it must have arisen from somewhere and there may be  a chance.

    The ships sailed from the country of origin (usually in Europe or Scandinavia) to Antarctica, sometimes crew would join or leave at a port en route, there were often 2 or 3 stops before Antarctica. There were many who were hired for part of the journey only.

    The ships would also not usually winter in Antarctica, the shore/wintering party would be left behind while the ship headed north for the Antarctic winter, calling at a southern hemisphere port in Australia, New Zealand or South America. The ship would then return the following spring, there may have been three visits in a two year / three Antarctic summer expedition. There also may have been relief ships that were used to transport men, stores and equipment though weren't part of the expedition proper.

    There were many opportunities therefore for a crew member to sail with an expedition for a part of the time without actually being a part of the expedition proper. Such crew members were regarded as short-term labour and were generally not included in lists of crew as they may have only served for two or three months with that time being largely spent at sea.

Is there any chance that my ancestor may be an unsung hero?

    It's pretty unlikely that your man will have played any particularly significant role without you having found out so far, if he had you will be able to find out very easily on this site or the wider internet. The Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration is very well documented in the main. So hero, almost certainly not, unsung, maybe.

This doesn't mean that there isn't any point in trying to find out if there was a role that may well have been interesting in its own way. Even the smallest role on a ship in the Heroic Age is to have an identifiable part in Antarctic history and can be a fascinating part of your family or community story.

People have a tendency to exaggerate tales and the importance of an individuals role seems to grow down the years, the chances are if you have got this far without finding anything of much significance already, your man won't have had a particularly large part to play.

There was a lot of activity by whalers and sealers in and around Antarctica at that time too, both of which were rather grimy, un-glamorous jobs, it is not unknown for men involved in such activities to add a little more sparkle to what they were really doing by telling their friends and families they were "off to the South Pole" so sowing the seed of the family legend.

For a record of an ordinary sailor who doesn't appear on any official lists of expeditioners or crew members, see Bert Lincoln's diary.