Some of these early globetrotters made groundbreaking discoveries. Many survived treacherous conditions. But every one of them defied expectations.
The history of exploration (much like the history of, well, anything) has centered the accomplishments of adventurers of the male persuasion. And while a number of factors contributed to keeping women from venturing forth and exploring the globe, that doesn’t mean ladies weren’t there. Over the centuries, women have embarked on scientific expeditions, rescue missions, or journeys made purely out of curiosity, but their stories and accomplishments have been unfairly shoved to the margins. Here are 10 ahead-of-their-time women who traveled and explored the world.
Maria Sibylla Merian
In an age when many scientifically-minded individuals still believed in the idea of “spontaneous generation” (that is, the idea that organic life could be generated without an immediate ancestor), Maria Sibylla Merian was making observations of the life cycles of insects that would contribute to dispelling such ideas as maggots springing to life out of dead flesh or that you could make mice by covering wheat-filled jar with an old shirt.
Merian started making decorative paintings of flora when she was 13 years old, but she quickly graduated to documenting the life cycles insects (primarily caterpillars and butterflies) with her illustrations, going so far as to breed her own specimens. Her work was unique in not only the close study she made of the insects’ life cycles, but she also depicted them interacting with their environment, something that was not widely done at the time.
But her most impressive work was done on a trip to Dutch Surinam (present-day Suriname). In 1699, Merian, at age 52, set out for South America, where she would spend the next two years documenting and studying the local insects. The circumstances of her journey were as unique as her work. Not only was it was unusual for a woman to set out on such an expedition, she was the first naturalist (man or woman) from Europe to travel to the Americas without financing from a government or a patron—she sold almost 300 pieces of her own art to help pay for her venture. The goal was to spend five years in Surinam, but Merian was forced to return to Amsterdam due to malaria. Even so, her work resulted in Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, an extraordinary collection of beautifully detailed depictions of the endemic insects.
Ida Laura Pfeiffer
Like a lot of empty nesters, Ida Laura Pfeiffer decided to spend her newly child-free days traveling the way she’d always dreamed. But in 1842, being a solo lady traveler on a shoestring budget was a difficult and even dangerous prospect. Those challenges did little to deter Pfeiffer, who on her first trip visited Istanbul, Palestine, and Egypt—a journey that she chronicled in her travel diary entitled Voyage of a Viennese Woman to the Holy Land. With the money she earned from publishing her travelogues, she was able to finance her subsequent globetrotting.
Though she received help from Europeans and local guides, Pfeiffer’s travels weren’t exactly easy. Having been something of a tomboy in her early age, she took to dressing as a man for safety. In Russia, she was snatched off the road by Cossacks, who had mistaken her for a spy, and spent a night detained until they retrieved her passport. While traveling in Sumatra, she and her party were surrounded by Batak spear bearers gesturing that they would cut her throat and chew her arms. She diffused the tense situation by quipping that her flesh was too old and dry to be worth eating.
Despite these brushes with danger, she managed to travel around the world twice. But in Madagascar, she ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Pfeiffer made the unfortunate misstep of associating with a group of Europeans who had been conspiring to overthrow the Queen Ranavalona I. When the coup was uncovered, the Europeans were expelled from Madagascar via a dangerous, circuitous route. As a result, Pfeiffer contracted malaria and likely died from complications a year later.
Tookoolito was an Inuk woman who, along with her husband Ebierbing, was hired by Charles Francis Hall to act as translators and guides for three Arctic expeditions between 1857 and 1873.
The purpose of the first two expeditions was to discover what had happened to the Franklin voyage, an arctic expedition that went missing in 1845. The primary method for finding out what happened to the mysteriously missing men was interviewing the Inuit population of Beffin and King William Island. It would have been impossible for any of the interviews to be conducted in the first place if not for Tookoolito, who was fluent in English and so could easily translate between Hall and the locals.
Tookoolito and Ebierbing were also part of a third Hall-led expedition meant to reach the North Pole. However, this voyage went horribly awry. From the start, tensions among the party were high. Then Hall fell ill (read: was probably poisoned) and died (read: was probably murdered). Then the ship got trapped in the ice and was in danger of being destroyed by an encroaching iceberg. But then it turned out they weren’t as trapped as they thought. The ship suddenly broke free and left a 19-person party, which included Tookoolito and Ebierbing, abandoned on the ice. The group survived adrift on an ice floe for six months before being rescued by a whaling vessel.
Though Ebierbing would return to the Arctic as a guide Tookoolito, understandably, opted out of any further expeditions.
Emily Caroline Creaghe
When Emily Caroline Creaghe and her husband signed on for an 1883 exploratory expedition of Australia’s Northern Territory, they would’ve known they were signing up for a challenge. But it was being led by Ernest Favenc who had experience exploring the more remote parts of the country. What’s the worst that could happen?
Thanks to Creaghe’s diary, which documented every step of the journey, we know that very little ended up going right. The expedition had to be delayed by two months when Bessie Favenc had to return to Sydney at the last minute. So while they waited for Ernest to return from escorting his wife, they pressed on … only for a member of the party to die after suffering an epileptic seizure on the 220 miles journey to the starting point.
Things didn’t exactly improve from there. Their provisions dwindled until all they were left with were honey and bread. Once they found themselves in territory that had never been explored by Europeans, the party became uncertain of when or where they’d find water again. This is, of course, in addition to all the other challenges of navigating remote Australia. They eventually ended their journey in Palmerston having concluded that … Actually, it’s not entirely clear what the purpose of the expedition was. Favenc may have been scouting the commercial viability of the land or exploring for the South Australian government. Either way, Creaghe’s presence as the only woman on the expedition makes her a unique figure in Australia’s history.
There’s a certain trope of women accompanying their husbands on their expeditions when it comes to the genre of historical lady explorers. But while Octavie Coudreau may fit this archetype at first blush, a closer look reveals she wasn’t exactly limited to the supporting role of Wife Along for the Ride. Her husband Henri had been exploring and mapping the Amazon for years, but exposure to “tropical fevers” had been ruinous to his health (a dependence on alcohol didn’t help matters) – leaving Octavie the de facto leader.
During an 1899 expedition exploring the Trombetas tributary, Henri died of a malarial fever. Octavie not only completed the book he had started writing, but she continued to explore the Amazon for seven more years. Over the course of her five “solo” expeditions, she officially assumed the role of leader, in addition to work surveying, mapping, and photographing the sprawling expanse of the Amazon.
Mina Hubbard’s story of embarking on a groundbreaking expedition into the Canadian wild is inspiring on its own. But what makes her a true icon in the annals of passive aggression is that the impetus for those accomplishments was pure spite.
After her husband, Leonidas Hubbard, died of exhaustion and starvation while exploring the remote Labrador region of Canada, Mina asked one of the surviving members of the expedition, Dillon Wallace, to write an account of what happened as a memorial to her husband. But when the book came out, Mina found that it not only did it not memorialize him, it blamed Leonidas for the expedition’s failure.
Mina decided to take it upon herself to clear her late husband’s reputation by organizing her own expedition into Labrador, which would set out at the same time as Wallace’s return to the remote region. The race was on.
After traveling for 43 days Mina’s party arrived in Ungava Bay, beating Dillon and his party by a full six weeks. And not only did she handily win the race to Ungava Bay, she came back with the first maps of the Naskapi and George River valleys.
Ada Blackjack didn’t sign up to be the sole survivor of a misguided expedition to the desolate Wrangel Island. What she signed up for was to be the cook and seamstress for a misguided expedition to the desolate Wrangel Island.
The goal of the 1921 expedition was to establish enough of a presence on Wrangel Island, located in the Arctic Ocean, that an argument could be made that it belonged to Canada or Britain. But by the time the five-person team set out it had been resolutely decided that the island was part of Russia. Which really compounds the absurd futility of what was to come.
When the expedition’s rations ran out and their supply ship couldn’t breach the icy waters, things got dire very quickly. Three of the five-person party took a gamble and tried to cross the frozen Chukchi Sea to look for help. (They were never seen again.) Blackjack was left behind on the island to take care of Lorne Knight, who was sick with scurvy. But once Knight died it was just Blackjack, a cat, and the polar bears.
When a rescue ship finally reached the island in August of 1923, her story became an international sensation and she was quickly dubbed the “female Robinson Crusoe” (although it should be more like Robinson Crusoe is the male Ada Blackjack). In spite of the furor, she never actually benefitted from her celebrity. In fact, Vilhjalmur Steffenson, the organizer of the expedition and the very architect of all this misery and woe, cashed in and wrote a book using Blackjack’s journals.
Since a woman can’t even accomplish the incredible feat of surviving alone in the harshest conditions imaginable without being unfairly criticized about how she could’ve done it better (one of her rescuers tore pages from Knight’s journal and fabricated a story about how she could’ve done more to care for him), Blackjack simply resolved not to speak about her time on Wrangel Island.
Louise Arner Boyd
When Louise Arner Boyd inherited her parents’ fortune in 1920, she did what anyone might do and used the money to travel the way she’d always wanted. She went to Norway and chartered a ship to hunt and film in the Arctic. But her already adventurous excursions kicked it up a notch when she decided that instead of visiting the Arctic for the heck of it, she’d charter the same ship in order to search for a famous Norwegian explorer who had disappeared while searching for another lost, famous explorer. Boyd never did find them but she earned a Chevalier Cross of the Order of Saint Olav from the Norwegian government for her efforts.
From there Boyd would continue to use her fortune to traverse with purpose. She led five scientific expeditions to Greenland, the results of which she had compiled into a book. Only now it was the late 1930s and with World War II looming, the U.S. government asked that she didn’t publish it, as the information she’d put together regarding Greenland and the Arctic was now considered sensitive. (She later published the book after the war.) Working with the U.S. government, she led another expedition to Greenland to study polar magnetism and its effects on radio waves.
She’s famous for being the first woman to fly over the North Pole, but it’s her lifetime of dedication to making firsthand discoveries that made her emblematic of Arctic exploration.
For anyone in their 20s, 30s, or even 40s lamenting that they haven’t yet seemed to find their calling, Ynés Mexia is proof that you don’t have to be a wunderkind to find your passion and create a legacy. Mexia had been working in San Francisco as a social worker when she started attending classes at Berkeley and getting involved in the Sierra Club, which piqued her interest in botany. At age 55, in 1925, she embarked on her first trip to Mexico to collect specimens. From there, she spent the next dozen years traveling all over the Americas, braving all manner of difficult conditions to reach the obscure corners of the wilderness. She fell off a cliff and fractured her rib and the expedition still went on to yield 500 specimens and discover 50 new species. She paddled a canoe 3,000 miles up the Amazon River. There wasn’t an uncomfortable condition out there that could dampen her adventurous spirit. Over the course of her travels, Mexia collected 150,000 specimens, discovered a genus (named Mexianthus mexicanus in her honor), and found 500 plant species (many of which were also named after her).
Jackie Ronne & Jennie Darlington
Jackie Ronne and Jennie Darlington accomplished the same thing (first women to overwinter in Antarctica) at the same time (1947-1948) but came away with very different conclusions.
When Jackie Ronne agreed to accompany her husband, Finn, on a 15-month expedition to Antarctica, she hadn’t prepared for a mission in the frozen tundra so much as a brief trip to Beaumont, Texas. Her original plan was simply to travel to the Texan port long enough to see her husband off on his journey. But Finn insisted that she go as far as Panama –then as far as Chile–then he asked that she come along for the whole expedition.
Similarly, Jennie Darlington’s original intention was to go to Valparaiso to bid farewell to her own husband, who was a member of the same expedition. But once in Chile, the Ronne’s requested that Jennie join them.
This was not, however, the start of an inspiring friendship. Because the thing about 21 people hunkering down in a small station for 15 months on what is the most remote, isolated part of the world is that tensions tend to crop up. Jackie spent her time chronicling the mission, logging the expedition’s accomplishments and writing press releases for the North American Newspaper Alliance.
Jennie didn’t look back fondly on those 15 months. Indeed, in her book My Antarctic Honeymoon, she wrote that “women don’t belong in Antarctica.”
Jackie’s takeaway from the expedition was more positive. She returned to Antarctica several times, including a visit in 1995 during which she returned to the expedition’s abandoned camp. “I wouldn’t have given up that experience for a million dollars,” said Ronne in an interview with The Washington Post. “Nor would I ever have done it again.” Fair.