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by Bamber Gascoigne

Peter Freuchen (1886-1957)


Danish journalist, writer, and explorer, who established with Knud Rasmussen (1879-1933) the exploring station in Thule (1910). In addition to Arctic journeys, Freuchen also visited South Africa in 1935. Freuchen has confessed in his book of memoirs, Min grønlandske ungdom (1936), that he never planned to become an Arctic explorer, although he had from childhood wanted to go to sea. As a writer-adventurer he belonged to the company of such great names as Henry Morton Stanley, T.E. Lawrence, and Thor Heyerdahl.

"Nomads are always on the move not because restlessness is their nature, but because living conditions drive them from place to place. The Arctic Eskimo must catch seals for meat and kamik skins and other things he needs. He must get walrus tusks in order to have flensing knives and harpoon points. He finds foxes at the mountains where the birds are too numerous to count. He goes north and he goes south. Thus it has been for so long that he no longer knows why he is moving." (in Vagrant Viking: My Life and Adventures by Peter Freuchen, translated by Johan Hambro, 1953)

Peter Freuchen was born in Nykøbing, on the island of Falster, the son of  Lorentz Benzon Freuchen, a Danish Jew businessman, and Anne Petrine Frederikke Rasmussen. Already at the age of eight Freuchen had his own small rowboat, which his parents had bought for him. Most his free time Freuchen spent on the open water - the somber Cathedral School and classical education in Latin did not much interest him, but he felt more comfortable in the company of sailors at the local harbor, listening to their stories from distant countries. Among his childhood friends was Niels Bohr (1885-1962), who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1922.

For a time, Freuchen studied medicine at the University of Copenhagen, without regarding the medical profession as his his true calling – it was not exiting enough. While still a student, he joined Ludwig Mylius-Erichsen, who had led an Arctic expedition, to map the coast of northeastern  Greenland. His mother Frerikke said that he "was doing the right thing." After having an examination in chemistry he said good-bye to university life. In 1906, Freuchen  took a job as a stoker on a steamer and ended up in Greenland. The winter of 1907-1908 he spent alone in Iceland's innerland making meteorological observations at a tiny weather station and collecting specimens. From 1910 to 1924 he took part in several expeditions, often traveling with the famous Polar explorer Knut Rasmussen, a  living legend of the era when polar exploration made international headlines. Freuchen learned to relish blue green seagull eggs and year old whale blubber. On a journey accross the inland ice in 1912 he was almost killed. These experiences Freuchen recorded in Vagrant Viking (1953) and I Sailed with Rasmussen (1958).

Upon returning to Denmark from the first journey, on which he served as  Rasmussen's navigator and cartographer, Freuchen wrote articles for the newspaper Kristeligt Dagblad, published serial stories in the magazine Familie-Journalen, and eventually received his M.A. from the university. With Knut Rasmussen he did lecture tours and worked as a reporter for the liberal newspaper Politiken. While in Greenland he collected items for Danish museums. The Danish Government appointed him in 1913 Resident Governor of the colony at Thule, a post he held for seven years. A gifted linguist, he spoke several languages, and had no difficulties learning the Eskimo dialect. During this period he lived with the Inuits (or Eskimos as he writes), and shared their way of life. Freuchen's opinion of Christian missionaries was negative - he saw them trampling on the traditions of the Inuit people, without understanding them.

In 1911 Freuchen married Mekupaluk, an Inuit woman, who started to use the name Navarana. They had a son, Mequsaq, and a daughter, Pipaluk. She followed him on some of his later explorations. With Navarana he visited Copenhagen, too; she was eager to see Freuchen's home land, but she found it difficult to understand why any woman would live in Denmark - there are no seals or walruses and everybody must buy their food from a shop. However, she was especially enthusiastic about ballet. Navarana died in 1921 during an influenza epidemic and was  buried in Upernavik's old churchyard. Because Navarana was not baptized – she wore both a crucifix and an old amulet, a ball of a piece of drift timber – the local church refused to participate in the burial and Freuchen himself undertook it.

Eventually Freuchen settled down in Denmark, and bought himself a little island, Enchøje. In 1924 he married his old friend Magdalene Vang-Lauridsen, a margarine heiress; the marriage dissolved in 1944. Recruited by Rasmussen, he joined the Fifth Thule Expedition (1921-1924) which explored and mapped the Canadian Arctic. Grønland, land og folk, his first book, appeared in 1927. Storfanger, Freuchen's first novel, came out in the same year.

In 1926 Freuchen got frostbite in his leg. He first amputated his own gangrenous toes with shears and a hammer. The leg was operated by a doctor in Hudson Bay. Though Freuchen could not continue his full-time career as an explorer, he still continued journeying and pursued a succcesful  career as a lecturer and writer. Providing his stories with fascinating details, Freuchen claimed to have witnessed polar bears' covering their black noses with their paws while hunting their prey. On a lecture tour to the Balkans he was temporarily arrested in Germany, and his manuscripts and papers confiscated. "Thank God I have found some people who care that I am a Jew!" he said in a telegram to a friend. ('Peter Freuchen, a Resurrected Viking, is a Danish Jew by Birth.' JTA Jewish Telegraphic Agency, December 20, 1934)

Freuchen was again in Greenland in 1932 - this time he was hired by American Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios at $300 a week to assist in the semi-documentary Eskimo, based on his books Der Eskimo and Die Flucht ins Weisse Land. Freuchen also acted in the film, which depicted the life of an Inuit hunter and his family. He was cast, uncredited, in the role of Ship Captain, who rapes the hero's wife. Six feet seven inches tall, with a bushy beard, and a peg leg, he was an imposing figure. MGM kept the film in circulation for years but it did not make enough money to recoup its huge negative costs ‒ shot on location in Alaska, the crew had included 42 cameramen and technicians. Ultimately, Eskimo suffered $236,000 loss at the box office. In Hollywood, Freuchen became friends with Jean Harlow and Mae West. At the Berlin premier of the film, he lifted Hitler's favorite cinematographer Leni Riefenstahl playfully over his head.

Many of Freuchen's stories portayed the conflict between different cultures but with understanding and flashes of humour. Ivalu (1930, Ivalu, the Eskimo Wife) was a tribute to Navarana. Ivalu is an Inuit girl, who hears stories of white men, and knows that they have a great lust for women. She meets Karl Boesen, called Bosi. After the death of Ivalu's husband, Mitserk, her new man Minik treats her badly. Eventually Bosi takes her as his wife. Nordkaper (1929) tells a story of a polar whaling voyage and Hvid mand (1943) is a historical novel based on life in the Danish colony in Greenland in the early 1700s.

After settling in Denmark in the 1920s, Freuchen joined the Social democrats and contributed to the newspaper Politiken. He also headed a film company, bought an island farm near Copenhagen, which he later turned into a refugee station, and served as president of boxer's union in Denmark. Upon the invitation of Russians, Freuchen went to Siberia, and wrote about his experiences in Sibiriske eventy (1939). On the way home his train rammed head into another in collision that demolished the locomotion and the four cars ahead of his.

An outspoken anti-Nazi, Freuchen proposed a ban against Danish athletes taking part in the Olympic Games in Berlin. His speech about German concentration camps was noted by a cultural propagandist, who declared that there was not a single concentration camp in the country. As a result of Freuchen's stand, his books were banned and he was declared a "Jiidisher  Schweinehund." 

During World War II, Freuchen worked for the Danish underground, sheltering refugees on his island farm. At Hitler's insistence, a warrant for his arrest was issued. Though he was captured by the Germans occupying his country and sentenced to death, Freuchen  managed to flee, by climbing over a barbed-wire fence. With the help of his friends, he was smuggled to Sweden in a fishing boat. After moving to the United States, Freuchen lived mostly in New York City, maintaining also a country home in Connecticut. His third wife, Dagmar Cohn, was a fashion illustrator. Freuchen was a member of the council of the Royal Danish Geographical Society and a fellow of the American Geographical Society.

Among Freuchen's later, highly popular works was Book of the Seven Seas (1957). In Fangsmænd i Melville-bugten (1956) Freuchen described his family life, his hunting on whaling ships on the sea or hunting seals and polar bears on the coast. Freuchen also recorded stories which his Inuit friends told about their own adventures. White fishermen, explorers and trappers, who learned the hard way how to survive in the arctic surroundings, were a constant source of anecdotes for the natives.

In 1955, Freuchen returned for the last time to Thule, where at that time houses and paved streets had replaced the igloos and snow paths. Freuchen's son, who could not endure European life, went back to Greenland; Pipaluk  was educated in Denmark. Freuchen died suddenly of a heart attack in Alaska, at Elmendorf Air Force Base, on September 2, 1957, while carrying a heavy baggage up a loading ramp. His ashes were scattered from a plane over North Star Bay.

For further reading: Bogen om Peter Freuchen, ed. by Pipaluk Freuchen, Ib Freuchen and Helge Larsen (1958); 'A Man Who Became an Eskimo' by Jay Scriba, in The Milwaukee Journal, Aug. 9 (1961); Peter Freuchens romaner by Jette Horn Hansen (1978); 'Freuchen, Peter,' in World Authors 1900-1950, Vol. 2, ed. by Martin Seymor-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens (1996); Dansk forfatterleksikon: Biografier, ed. by John Chr. Jørgensen (2001); 'Freuchen, Peter,' in Encyclopedia of the Arctic, Volumes 1, 2 and 3: A-Z, edited by Mark Nuttall (2005); Altid frimodig, biografi om polarforskeren, forfatteren og eventyreren Peter Freuchen by Janni Andreassen, Jakub Christensen Medonos (2013); Peter Freuchen, en biografi by Asger Uhd Jepsen (2014); 'Peter Freuchen,' in Beyond the Edge by Gerald W. Johnson (2016); Polarhippie, eventyreren Peter Freuchen - de unge år by Nils Hartmann & Rasmus Jensen (2017); Wanderlust: An Eccentric Explorer, an Epic Journey, a Lost Age by Reid Mitenbuler (2023). FilmsEskimo (1933), directed by W.S. Van Dyke, starring Ray Mala, Lulu Wong Wing, and Lotus Long, was the first full-length major studio picture ever shot in Alaska. The movie's editor, Conrad Nervig, won Oscar for Best Film Editing. Basically Eskimo was a northern version of the successful White Shadows in the South Seas (1928), directed by W.S. Van Dyke and Robert Flaherty. This film depicted Tahiti, where an alcoholic doctor finds happiness before he is killed by white colonials.

Selected works:

  • Report of the First Thule Expedition, Scientific Work, 1915
  • General Observations as to Natural Conditions in the Country Traversed by the Expedtion, 1915 (The first Thule Expedition 1912)
  • Lidt om Polarulven, 1919
  • Grønland, land og folk, 1927
  • Storfanger: en roman om Hudson-bugtens eskimoer, 1927
  • Rømningsmand: en roman om eskimoer, 1928
  • Nordkaper, 1929
    - The Sea Tyrant (translated by Edwin Bjorkman, 1932)
  • Ivalu: en roman fra polareskimoernes land, 1930
    - Ivalu, the Eskimo Wife (translated by Janos Jusztis and Edward Price Ehrich, 1935)
    - Ivalu: romaani eskimojen maasta (suom. Elias Saarinen, 1947)
  • Eskimo, 1931(translated by A. Paul Maerker-Branden and Elsa Branden)
  • Knud Rasmussen som jeg husker ham: Fortalt for ungdommen, 1934
    - I Sailed with Rasmussen (translated by Arnold Andersem, 1958)
  • Flugten til Sydamerika, 1935
  • Mammals, 1935 (with by Magnus Degerbøl)
  • Min grønlandske ungdom, 1936
    - Arctic Adventure: My Life in the Frozen North (tr. 1935)
    - Nuoruuteni Grönlannissa (suom. Elias Saarinen, 1945)
  • Min anden ungdom, 1937
  • It's All Adventure..., 1938
  • Sibiriske eventy, 1939
  • Diamantdronningen. roman fra Canadas Nordvest Territorium, 1941
  • Hvid mand, 1943
    - White Man (1st ed. 1946)
    - Valkoinen mies eskimojen parissa (suom. Elias Saarinen, 1946)
  • Eskimo-Fortællinger og andre Noveller, 1944
  • Solfjeld: roman fra Grønland, 1944
  • Larions lov, 1948
    - The Law of Larion (translated by Evelyn Ramsden, 1952)
  • Eskimodrengen Ivik, 1949
    - Eskimopoika Ivik (suom. 1949)
  • Nigger-Dan, 1951
  • I al frimodighed, 1953
  • Ice Floes and Flaming Water: A True Adventure in Melville Bay, 1954 (translated by Johan Hambro)
  • Vagrant Viking: My Life and Adventures, 1953 (translated by Johan Hambro)
    - Vaeltava viikinki: elämäni ja seikkailuni (suom. Anja Samooja, 1954)
  • Fremdeles frimodig, 1955
  • Fangsmænd i Melville-bugten, 1956
    - Pyyntimiehiä Melvillen lahdella (suom. Urho Kivimäki, 1958)
  • The Legend of David Williams, 1956 (with F. Salomonsen)
  • Fra Thule til Rio, 1957
  • Peter Freuchens bog om de syv have, 1959 (with David Loth)
    - Peter Freuchen's Book of The Seven Seas (1st ed. 1957)
    - Peter Freuchenin seitsemän meren kirja (suom. Kari Lampén, 1958)
  • Peter Freuchen's Story about Life in the Seven Seas, 1959 (with David Loth)
  • Peter Freuchen's Story about Treasures of the Seven Seas, 1959 (with D. Loth)
  • Hvalfangerne, 1959
  • Adventures in the Arctic, 1960 (edited by Dagmar Freuchen)
  • Det arktiske år, 1961 (with Finn Salomonsen)
    - The Arctic Year (tr. 1958)
  • Peter Freuchens bog om eskimoerne, 1962 (edited by Dagmar Freuchen)
    - Freuchen's Book of the Eskimos (tr. 1961)
  • Book of Arctic Exploration, 1962
  • Men of Frozen North, 1962 (edited by Dagmar Freuchen)
  • Erindringer, 1963 (edited by Dagmar Freuchen)
  • The Peter Freuchen Reader, 1965 (edited by Dagmar Freuchen)

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