Fram Museum Oslo


Balto, Samuel Johannesen (1861-1921)

Balto was one of the two Sami who skied with Fridtjof Nansen over Greenland in 1888.

Samuel Johannesen Balto (1861-1921)

Samuel Johannesen Balto Samuel Johannesen Balto (Nansen wrote the middle name in this way, in other sources Johansen is used.) was born in Karasjok, north Norway 5 May 1861 and was a river Sámi, not a reindeer Sámi as Nansen had wanted for his Greenland expedition.

When he was chosen for the expedition he was 27 years old, and Nansen described him as being of medium height and “not so Lapp-like in his appearance”. Nansen’s opinion was that the river Sámi usually were taller than other Sámi because they had a strong element of Finnish blood. Balto had apparently mostly done forest work before joining the expedition, as well as several years of fishing. He had worked for a period for the mountain Sámi helping with the reindeer herds. According to Nansen he had also worked for a short time in service for Ravna.

Nansen had actually wanted two mountain Sámi whom he reckoned would be particularly suitable for a long skiing trip over ice and snow. However, he was satisfied with Balto whom he described as handsome, lively, bright, very enthusiastic in everything he did and thereby quite different from Ravna. He had good staying power and was always willing to help with anything necessary and was most useful. With his ready tongue and broken Norwegian he became an important humour spreader. He got a good scolding from Nansen, however, for being a pitiful coward in the period before they reached the east coast, when he complained time and again that they never had enough coffee or food.

Balto wrote his own book after the expedition: “Med Nansen over Grønlandsisen i 1888 - Min reise fra Sameland til Grønland” [With Nansen over the Greenland Ice in 1888 – My Journey from Sámiland to Greenland]. He tells how he had heard in advance that Nansen was not a nice person and that he lost his courage on the way south to Kristiania (Oslo). However, their first meeting was a great success and Balto thought it was an indescribable pleasure to meet Nansen. The two Sámi were taken to a reception and they were sceptical to this as, so Balto said, they were not used to the way nice people ate and drank. However, also this meeting was a pleasant experience.

The expeditioners left for Iceland in May 1888 where they were to wait for the sealing ship Jason, which was to take them on to Greenland. On a skiing excursion to Glámujøkull they all had to use the Norwegian ski type, which the Sámi were not used to. This resulted in a pulled tendon for Balto. It was now the end of May and it seemed as though Balto would have to be replaced by an Icelander. However, Ravna would not continue on the expedition as the only Sámi and no Icelander volunteered, so Balto was not left behind in Iceland after all.

The dangerous voyage on the ice floes southwards along the east coast of Greenland was a particularly hard trial for the two Sámi. According to Roland Huntford in his Nansen biography Balto was scared stiff when it was his turn to keep watch at night. One polar bear had already visited them and he was afraid more would follow. He apparently promised never to drink again if he survived the journey and he explained that he had been drunk when he agreed to join the expedition. As long as they were caught in the ice he was an eager reader of Ravna’s Sámi New Testament. When they finally got ashore on the east coast the meeting with the Inuit was a mixed experience, but the Sámi were glad to get new sennegrass (an arctic sedge grass used by the Sámi and others instead of socks) from the Inuit.

On the way over Greenland Balto had a new emotional explosion when he pointed out that Nansen had asked them in Kristiania how much they each could pull and they had replied 50 kg. But they were now expected to pull 100 kg. In addition both the Sámi suffered from snow blindness for a while, a painful experience which at that time was treated with cocaine drops in the eyes. Luckily the last part of the skiing was more fun, when they raced over the snow behind the sledges that had wind sails up. Balto wrote that they did not even have time to eat, it was such fun to ski. He was at this point the first of the group to sight something dark on the horizon, which turned out to be bare land - the longed-for sign that they had crossed the inland ice cap. The winter in Godthaab was also a good experience for Balto, who got on well with the Inuit and became, for example, accomplished at kayak paddling.

When Nansen became engaged to Eva in summer 1889, Balto was one of those who received a personal letter from Nansen with the news. In November he wrote to Nansen commenting that he had read in the newspapers that Nansen was planning an expedition to the North Pole and he would really like to join it. The Greenland expedition had brought honour and publicity with it and this had caused some jealousy back home in Karasjok. Balto did not really want to stay there anymore. Later on, however, both Balto and Ravna were politely rejected as participants on the Fram expedition.

Balto stayed in Finnmark, north Norway for a few more years and participated, amongst other jobs, in the border clearing between Norway and Finland in 1897 with his own packhorse. A year later things changed. Together with 113 other Sámi and others from Finnmark he was contracted by Dr Sheldon Jackson to work with reindeer in Alaska. Jackson (1834-1909) was a Presbyterian missionary who originally worked in western US, but from 1877 devoted himself to Alaska. Together with Captain Healy on the U. S. Revenue Cutter Bear he made several trips to Siberia to fetch reindeer from the Chukchi in order to give the Alaskan Natives a new source of food and other resources, and a new trading possibility. Sixteen reindeer were fetched the first year as a test project and in summer 1892 171 more were fetched together with five Chukchi who were to teach the Yup'ik and Inupiaq reindeer herding. In the course of a few years a total of 1300 reindeer were imported to Alaska. The Chukchi did not get on with the Alaskan Natives and were replaced with Sámi from Kautokeino in 1894. The Sámi worked on two or three year contracts and were then replaced by others. Some of them chose to stay in Alaska at the end of their contract time.

Samuel Balto signed on as a reindeer herder for two years and travelled with the other 113 on the steamship Manitoba. When gold was discovered in the Nome area in 1898 the reindeer became even more important, both as meat for the miners and as transport animals. A postal route was established between St. Michael and Kotzebue in 1899 and reindeer were preferred to dogs as they were cheaper and could graze their food on the way. Once the gold rush died down and there was less demand for reindeer, Balto started as a gold-digger himself. He took out three claims, including one called Balto Creek. He was offered $1000 for this claim, but would not sell.

Balto died in Karasjok in 1921. He was married, but had no children. In 2011 the Karasjok County council is working to erect a memorial bauta to Samuel Balto and Ole Ravna. A husky sledge dog named after Balto became famous in USA in 1925 when it led a dog sledge with diphtheria medicines in to Nome, Alaska. A statue of the dog stands in Central Park in New York.


Fridtjof Nansen: Paa ski over Grønland. Aschehoug, Kristiania, 1890

Roland Huntford: Nansen – The Explorer as Hero. Duckworth & Co, London, 1997 (May 2011)