Polar labour: Jack Bursey

“I first fell under the spell of Antarctica when I was a boy of ten in the north of Newfoundland where I was born and where I read by candlelight all I could lay my hands on about the mysterious southern continent.” 

Commander Jack Bursey 

Jack Bursey, 1903-1980

A generation younger than Bob Bartlett, Jack Bursey was born in 1903 in St. Lunaire on Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula. By 1957, Bursey had spent no less than three long dark winters in the Antarctic. He was one of only two people to have done so at that time.

Bursey made the second longest Antarctic journey by dogsled; the longest was Roald Amundsen’s trip to the South Pole in 1911. (It was Amundsen, a Norwegian, who had beaten Robert Falcon Scott in the race to the pole.)

Bursey was one of 50,000 men who applied to be part of the First Byrd Antarctic Expedition of 1928, a journey that involved two ships and three airplanes.  Although his initial application was rejected, Bursey applied again and got the nod to go south. Later he would become a commander in the U.S. navy.

As reported by Bursey himself, his job interview with expedition leader Admiral Richard Byrd went as follows:

Byrd: “So you come from Newfoundland.”

Bursey: “Yes sir.”

Byrd: “And you are a dog driver?”

Bursey: “Yes sir.”

Byrd: “Have you got adventure in you?”

Bursey: “Yes sir. I’m full of it.”

Byrd: “I suppose you can skin a seal.”

Bursey: “Yes, I can do that, too.”

Admiral Byrd knew Bob Bartlett well and was familiar with the seafaring and northern survival skills of young men like Jack Bursey. In fact, with the particular skill set cultivated by island life, Newfoundland regularly supplied the labour for Arctic as well as Antarctic expeditions. Through fishing and sealing, Newfoundland men were well used to the kind of hyper-masculine work required at sea and the poles. Having spent half their lives shipboard, they were also accustomed to the strict hierarchy inherent in expedition life. On the Great Northern Peninsula, where Bursey grew up, travel by dogsled was common, having been adopted from the Inuit as the best travel mode in Newfoundland winters. 

“CDR Bursey’s Trail Party Preparation”; Drawing, Pencil on Paper; by Robert Charles Haun; 1956; Naval History and Heritage Command

Bursey did well and thoroughly enjoyed himself during that 1928 foray down south and returned to the Antarctic twice.

And he wrote about his adventures. Antarctic Night was published in 1957 by Longmans, Green and Co., the world’s oldest commercial publisher, founded in London in 1724. (By the time Bursey was one of their authors, the publishing house was international with offices in New York, London and Toronto.) His book was well-received. Some 17 years later Bursey wrote another book, St. Lunaire, Antarctic Lead Dog about his beloved husky, Luny, who was his lead dog in the Antarctic in 1929.

I’ll write more about Bursey in future blogs. It’s interesting that, despite his long-time presence on the United States lecture circuit, almost paralleling Bartlett’s, he is not nearly as famous as Bartlett. In fact, it’s only recently that I’ve learned of him.

Subscribe to the blog All Things Arctic. It’s written by Maura Hanrahan, the author of the new biography of Bob Bartlett: Unchained Man: The Arctic Life and Times of Captain Robert Abram Bartlett. The book has been endorsed by New York Times best-selling author Jennifer Niven who writes: “A riveting comprehensive portrait of one of the most dynamic and enigmatic sea captains the Arctic has ever seen. Robert Abram Bartlett was larger than life, his adventures the stuff of legends. Maura Hanrahan expertly recounts the long overdue, very true story of this understated polar hero in engaging, dramatic prose.”

11 thoughts on “Polar labour: Jack Bursey

    • This is a good question. I wasn’t sure that he did change his name but I’ll carry on doing research on him. The name Bussey is definitely associated with St. Lunaire-Griquet but there were Burseys there as well– e.g. Ananias Stanley Bursey was born there in 1880 according to genealogical records. The two variations of the name could have come about as a result of a clerical error, which frequently happened in 18th and 19th century Newfoundland. So if you trace back my own family, the Hanrahans, there is a branch called Handrigan. Thanks for reading the block and commenting. Let me know if you find out anything further.


  1. Very interesting read. I too have never heard of Jack Bursey. I am fascinated by the skill set and the yearning for the sea and exploration that these men had. I will now have to find his books which sound llke they would prove to be very enlightening on the spirit and tenacity that is the very soul of Newfoundlander Seaman. Thank you for a great share as always!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. We have often wondered why there is no information for visitors to the area. I tried to interest the local town councils and tourism association several years ago, and never so much as the courtesy of a reply to my letters. I’m sure it would be of great interest to our American tourists who visit each year. After all, there are not many Nflders awarded a US congressional Medal of Honor, which required a special act of US Congress in order to award it to Jack, who was not an American citizen.


    • Thanks for your interest in this post, Overton. It’s funny that so much is known about some historic figures while so little is known about others. I will continue to do research on Jack Bursey.


  3. In the Downhomer Magazine January 2018, there is an article ” A Misnamed Mountain in Antarctica ” By Ron Young about Jacob “jack” (Bussey) Bursey. . You will find a good deal of information on this Newfoundland Labrador Hero.
    eg. He received from The Congress of the USA a gold Medal Of Honor for his Antarctic Expeditions. also how his named was changed. Plus he wrote a book “Antarctic Night”..


  4. When I was a girl I met Jack Bursey when on a vacation in Michigan. Did he have a small store? I remember him telling stories about Antarctica, and I purchased his book, Antarctic Night, which he autographed, and I am still the proud owner of the book.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Yes, Commander Jack Bursey had a general store in Montague, Michigan, across from his home on White Lake. The log cabin style store was called “Acres of Diamonds” in honor of his South Pole trips and what he saw. For many years, we locals were able to purchase produce, milk, staples, treats, fishing bait, the newspaper and other supplies from Jack and Ada’s little store. In the several decades we knew Jack, he never mentioned a change in his family surname.
    When the store was sold, the name was changed to The Trading Post.
    I was his next door neighbor.
    Jack was a fascinating man, with so many adventure stories. He would occasionally give a local lecture, including his own movies, about his South Pole expeditions. He had many items and artifacts from his travels on display in his store and home: scrimshaw carvings, taxidermied penguins, boat models. He and his wife, Ada, were very active in the community. Jack wore his spotless white uniform, including white hat and shoes and marched in the local holiday parades.
    Just this past weekend (Oct 12, 2019), his home and his studio where he worked were both bulldozed. I heard the equipment through the woods, then saw nothing but broken lumber and logs left.
    I hope the local weekly paper will write an article about him. Incredible history.


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