Vilhjalmur Stefansson was born on November 3, 1879, in Arnes, Manitoba, Canada. His family moved to a farm near Mountain, North Dakota, when Stefansson was 18 months old. He attended the University of North Dakota from 1897-1902. He was voted the best orator at the university in 1900 and also worked for the school newspaper. He was "suspended" from UND in 1902 for failure "to attend his duties." He applied for reinstatement, but this request was turned down. Well known on campus as a prankster, his dismissal caused such uproar that he was escorted to the train depot by well-wishers. All was forgiven by 1930, as he was reinstated and awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree, only the third such degree awarded by UND at the time.
After leaving UND, he transferred to the University of Iowa and graduated in June 1903 with a degree from the School of Liberal Arts. He next enrolled at Harvard, graduating with a Master of Arts degree in 1906. Stefansson lived among the Eskimos from 1906-1907, in the process becoming familiar with their language and culture. Along with Canadian zoologist Rudolph Anderson, Stefansson launched a major research expedition to the Canadian Northwest from 1908 to 1912. The team carried out ethnological and zoological studies among the Mackenzie and Copper Eskimo of the Coronation Gulf.
He continued his research from 1913 through 1918. His research party was divided into two groups; the first, commanded by Anderson, was responsible for survey and scientific work on the north mainland coast. The second group continued to explore the Canadian Northwest, in the process discovering four unknown islands. He retired from active exploration in 1919, and focused on studying, writing and lecturing about the Arctic. He wrote more than 20 books and over 400 articles during his life. He also began assembling the Stefansson Collection, a collection of printed materials, manuscripts and photographs related to both the Arctic and Antarctic regions.
During World War II, Stefansson acted as a military advisor to the United States government, studied the defense of Alaska, and wrote reports and manuals for the armed forces. In 1947, he began a position as Arctic consultant at Dartmouth College, in Hanover, New Hampshire. In 1951, the Stefansson Collection was transferred to Dartmouth, in order to support the Northern Studies Program at the College. The collection was purchased by Dartmouth in 1952 and is currently housed at the Rauner Special Collections Library.
Vilhjalmur Stefansson died from complications of a stroke on August 26, 1962, in Hanover.
The collection has been added to several times by different donors:
Vilhjalmur Josephson, Victoria, British Columbia, in October 1980; Acc.#80-669
Robert Nuessle, Bismarck, North Dakota, on January 15, 1981; Acc.#81-1725
Reese and Margaret Hawkins, Greer, South Carolina, on June 8, 1992; Acc.#92-1837
Donation; the acquisition records are unavailable