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Baron Eduard Vasilievich von Toll: Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies
Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, 1879-1962

Baron Eduard Vasilievich von Toll

(Felizia Seyd)


Baron Eduard Vasilievich von Toll (1858-1902), Russian polar explorer,
was born in Reval, Esthonia, on March 24, 1858, and educated at the University
of Dorpat, where he studied mineralogy, zoology, and medicine. He was grad–
uated early in 1882, and later that year left on a scientific expedition to
Algeria and the Balearic Isles where he carried out geological and biological
research. On his return, he accepted a post in the Mineralogical Department
of the Academy of Sciences, St. Petersburg, which he retained until the end of
1884. The Academy then placed him in charge of the geological research of an
expedition to the New Siberian Islands and adjacent regions on the arctic coast.
The expedition was under the leadership of the Russian naturalist Dr. Alexander
Bunge, who had previously worked in the Lena Delta and was then wintering at
Irkutsk, preparatory to additional survey work in the Yana valley in 1885.
Toll joined Bunge in January 1885, and during the summer assisted in a
geological survey of the Yana River and several of its tributaries. While in
the Yana Delta, Toll discovered the remains of a huge mammoth on the Bor-Iuriakh,
about 80 miles east-southeast of the delta. In May 1886, after a winter spent
at Kazache on the lower Yana, Dunge and Toll left for Bolshoi Liakhovski, the
southernmost of the New Siberian Islands, where Bunge remained for the summer,
while Toll moved northward to Kotalnyi, Faddeevski, and Novaya Sibir islands.
Toll's main work was on Kotelnyi, which he circled in forty days. He found that
the larger northern end of the island consisted of Devonian deposits, while in

EA-Biography. Seyd: Eduard, Vasilievich von Toll

the south triassic formations were developed. Studies were made of fossil ice
and fossil animal and plant remains, as well as of the island's living flora
and fauna. Some thirty species of flowering plants were collected.
Toll's stay on Kotelnyi eventually gave rise to a renewed interest in
the legendary Sannikov Land, as Toll reported land off Kotelnyi about 100 miles
north of its northernmost point. He says: "On August 13th, 1886, I saw during
quite clear weather from the mouth of the Mogur River [Sannikov River on Anjou's
map] under 76° N. Lat. and in about 139° E. Long. the sharp outlines of four
truncated cones like table mountains, east of which extended a low foreland.
The mountains vividly recall the truncated basalt cones of Sviatoi Nos when
viewed from the southern shore of the Great Liakhovski Island." Because of
ice conditions, Toll was unable to reach the land, but he believed it to be
real and identical with the land Yakov Sannikov had sighted in 1811.
Toward the end of October, Toll rejoined Bunge on Bolshoi Liakhovski,
whence the expedition crossed back to the mainland, reaching Kazache on Nov–
ember 5th. The reports of the expedition subsequently appeared in the Bulletins
of the Imperial Academy of Sciences, St. Petersburg, and in the Bulletins of
the Imperial Russian Geographic Society, including Toll's valuable reports on
the fossil ice-layers of the New Siberian Islands and on the Palaeozoic petri–
factions of Kotelnyi Island. (See below under Publications .)
After his return to the capital, Toll was appointed curator of the Minera–
logical Department of the Academy of Sciences, and in 1889-90, he carried out
a geologival survey in the Baltic territories on behalf of the Ministry of Agri–
culture and State Properties. In 1892, the Imperial Academy selected Toll to
investigate the reported discovery of mammoth remains on the Sanga-Iuriakh,
about 150 miles northeast of the Yana Delta, and to explore parts of the lower
Khatanga and Anabar rivers.

EA-Biography. Seyd: Eduard Vasilievich von Toll

Toll, accompanied by Lieutenant Shileiko of the Russian Navy, reached
Yakutsk on the Lena in February 1893, the party driving their reindeer sledge
thence northeastward across the Verkhoiansk Mountains to Verkhoiansk and
farther into the Yana Delta. In mid-April, Toll reached the spot on the Sanga–
Iuriakh (73° N.) where the mammoth had been reported, but judged the finds too
insignificant for extensive excavations. In a quick revision of his plans, he
moved northward to the New Siberian Islands to establish food caches for the
Nansen expedition which was shortly expected in the area. Toll stored food at
the island's northern and southern ends, while Shilciko renewed and completed
the astronomical determinations and magnetic observations carried out on Kotel–
nyi by Lieutenant Anjou in 1823. While revisiting Kotelnyi's north point, Toll
again sighted what he believed to be Sannikov Land, but judged it now to lie
nearer to 78° N. than 76° N. He suggested that, since Anjou in 1823 had failed
to reach the land with sledges, boats be provided for the journey and that the
prospect of wintering there be kept in mind. Crossing back to Bolshoi Liakhovski,
Toll found embedded in what he calls rock-ice the remains of various fossil
mammals and those of fossil insects, leaves of the willow and the birch, and
entire trees of alder with their leaves, concluding that "the mammoth and its
congeners were native to the region and also, that the forest-limit formerly
extended to 74° N. Latitude, at least three degree further north than its pres–
ent line." (See Bulletin of the American Geographical Society, Dec. 31, 1894.)
The return to the mainland was begun on May 7th, but was somewhat retarded
by the swift advance of the summer. The party, nevertheless, reached the main–
land (Cape Sviatoi Nos) in good health, thence traveling westward past the Yana
and Lena deltas to the mouth of the Olenek River, where Toll set up camp, enabling
Shileiko to carry out topographical surveys. Toll made excursions into the neigh–
borhood, and during one of these found the graves of Pronchischev and his wife

EA-Biography. Seyd: Eduard Vasilievich von Toll

who had died near the mouth of the Olenek in 1737. During September and
early October, Toll and Shileiko worked on the lower Anabar and surveyed
parts of the peninsula that projects northward between the Anabar and Khat–
anga gulfs. The two explorers then separated for a few weeks, Toll returning
to the Lena to fetch his New Siberia collections while Shileiko continued
work on the Anabar. On November 4th, they met at Khatanga Village, thence
traveling to Yeniseisk and ultimately to St. Petersburg, where they arrived
on December 27, 1893.
In 1895, Toll became a member of the Geological Committee of the Depart–
ment of Mines in the Ministry of State Properties, without, however, abandon–
ing plans for further and more extensive exploration of the New Siberian Islands,
more particularly of Sannikov Land, which he believed to form part of an un–
known archipelago in the Polar Sea. The original plan for this third New Siber–
ian expedition was conceived in 1898 and called for a year's wintering on San–
nikov Land which Toll hoped to approach from the east (Bennett Island) rather
than from the south (Kotelnyi Island). In 1899, the plan was revised to in–
clude two years' wintering, all in all. It was planned to spend the first
winter on the east coast of Taimyr Peninsula, a region which was as yet little
explored, and the second on Sannikov Land, whence Toll was to proceed eastward
to Vladivostok, thus completing the navigation of the Northeast Passage. The
expedition was sponsored by the Academy of Sciences and was generously financed
by the President of the Academy, the Grand Duke Constantine. Their vessel was
the Zarya , a Norwegian schooner with a displacement of 1,085 tons, which had
been reinforced and adapted for sojourn in the Arctic by Colin Archer, builder
of Nansen's Fram . Equipment and provisions were ample, and the staff was com–
petent, including Lieutenant N. N. Kolomeitsov, hydrographer and master of the
Zarya , Lieutenant A. Kolchak, oceanographer, Lieutenant F. A. Mattiessen, meteor-

EA-Biography. Seyd: Eduard Vasilievich von Toll

ologist and geodesist, a Birulya, zoologist, F. Seeberg, astronomer, K. A.
Vollossovich, geologist, and Dr. H. Walter, bacteriologist and assistant
zoologist. In addition, there was a crew of thirteen, including N. Begichev,
who later made a name for himself as the discoverer of Begichev Island. Every–
thing augured well for a successful completion of Toll's mission, Tsar Nicholas II
personally expressing interest in the expedition by inspecting the Zarya before
her departure for the north.
With expectations high, Toll left Kronstadt for Tromsö, Norway, in June
1900, thence proceeding to Port Dickson in the Yenisei Gulf by way of North
Cape, Murmansk, and Yugor Shar. The ship reached Dickson Island in mid-August
and four days later was en route for Cape Chelyuskin. However, ice conditions
in the Kara Sea proved more difficult than Toll had foreseen. The Zarya was
caught in the ice in the Nordenskiöld Archipelago, and after weeks of hopeless
maneuvering was forced into shelter in Colin Archer Bay, at the western entrance
of Taimyr Sound, south of Taimyr Island. The vessel was frozen in here around
October 1st and remained beset until the following August. Exploration of East
Taimyr had to be abandoned, Toll deciding to survey part of Taimyr's northwest
coast instead. A meteorological station was established on the ice close to
the ship, and at some later date a magnetological observatory was built in Haf–
fner Fjord. Geological and biological observations were carried out and surveys
were made of the shores of Taimyr Gulf, of Prince Oscar Peninsula, and of several
of the larger islands lying north of Taimyr Sound.
The Zarya finally got free of the ice on August 25, 1901, and on September
1st touched at Cape Chelyuskin, where the expedition erected a cairn and took
time out for geological and oceanographic research. The ship then followed the
coast to about 74° N., off Pronchishchev coast, whence Toll, on September 4th,

EA-Biography. Seyd: Eduard Vasilievich von Toll

shaped his course for the New Siberian Islands. Toll hoped to sight Sannikov
Land while passing north of Kotelnyi Island, but the Zarya was forced off her
course by ice and fog and, to Toll's disappointment, passed north of the land's
estimated position. Bennett Island was sighted on September 11th, but could
not be approached because of a wide encircling belt of ice. Toll therefore
doubled back to Kotelnyi Island and on September 17th entered Nerpichia Bay
where the expedition was welcomed by Vollossovich and a relief party of ten,
who had spent the summer establishing food depots in various parts of the New
Siberian Islands. A week later the Zarya was frozen in, and preparations were
begun to settle down for the winter. Shelters and meterological and astronom–
ical huts were built on land, and hunting teams were despatched to various parts
of the island to secure game. Mail was sent to the mainland, including Toll's
extensive report to the Grand Duke Constantine, summarizing the scientific re–
sults of the expedition to that date.
The winter passed quickly, without apparent hardship. All were in good
health except Dr. Walter who suffered from a heart ailment and, to Toll's great
personal grief, succumbed shortly after Christmas. The party did not suffer
from scurvy; meat was supplied by reindeer. Driftwood, too, was abundant and
furnished fuel and building material. Natives, crossing the sea with reindeer
sledges, brought mail from the mainland.
In February 1902, Toll made a crossing to Aidshergaidach, a point on the
mainland where Bunge had built a shelter in 1885, returning to Kotelnyi early
in April. Shortly afterward he announced his intention of spending the summer
on Bennett Island, which De Long had discovered in 1881, and which had never been
surveyed. Plans for wintering on Sannikov Land seem by then to have been aban–
doned. Toll's diaries are curiously silent on the point except for a short state–
ment dated November 8, 1902, the day he left Bennett to retreat southward across

EA-Biography. Seyd: Eduard Vasilievich von Toll

the ice. After commenting on the north-south flight of birds, observed from
the northern end of Bennett Island, Toll adds" "As was the case with Sannikov
Land last year, poor visibility prevented us from seeing the land where these
birds came from."
Toll, accompanied by Seeberg and two Tungus hunters, started for Bennett
Island early in June, leaving orders that the Zarya , with Mattiessen in command,
join him there with supplies at the end of the summer. The Zarya got free of
the ice in July, but was beset off Belkovski Island and forced to return to
Nerpichia Bay. An attempt to reach Bennett Island at the end of August was
equally unsuccessful, ice blocking her advance through Blagoveshchenski Strait.
Mattiessen finally took the vessel to Tiksi Bay in the Lena Delta, where lack
of fuel forced him to abandon ship. The crew then returned to St. Petersburg
Toll's ultimate fate was never ascertained. It is known that he continued
to work on Bennett until early in November and then started south across the ice.
His last message is dated November 8, 1902, and reads as follows: "Today we start
for the south. We have provisions for 14 to 20 days. All are in good health."
A rescue party under Lieutenant Kolchak, which reached Bennett Island in
1903, found only Toll's abandoned camp and the notes, sketches, and collections
he had left behind. The collections, consisting of four wooden cases and a large
basket of bark filled with rock specimens, were rescued in 1913 by the Taimyr
expedition under Lieutenant Boris Vilkitski, which made a short landing here in
mid-August. The crew built a memorial to Toll on the northeastern shore of Ben–
nett Island - a monumental cross bearing an inscription on a copper plate.
Toll's personal account of the Zarya expedition is contained in his diaries:
Die Russische Polarfahrt der 'Sarja' 1900-02 , published in 1909 by Emmy von Toll,

EA-Biography. Seyd: Eduard Vasilievich von Toll

and in a number of preliminary reports on the expedition, which appeared in
the Bulletins of the Academy of Sciences between 1900-02. (See under Publica–
.) The full data of the expedition were never published and, so far as
is known, still await classification and analysis.
In general, the geological discoveries of the Zarya expedition brought a
confirmation of Toll's earlier observations that the New Siberian Islands are
structurally related to the adjoining continent land masses, to which they were
formerly attached. Additional data concerning the geological age and the strati–
graphy of the islands were furnished, and new contributions were made to the
knowledge of their Tertiary and post-Tertiary flor and fauna. Toll apparently
considered the New Siberian Islands an authentic museum of the pre-glacial and
glacial aras, affording the widest possible scope for the study of layers of
fossil ice and of fossilized animal and plant remains.
Toll's diaries, more than his scientific reports, also permit an evaluation
of Toll, the man, his plans and ambitions as well as his passing moods of hope
or despair. Conscientious in the execution of his various missions and of un–
bounded enthusiasm where his work was concerned, he nevertheless refused to let
ambition or the need to establish a record take precedence over purely humane
considerations. He was a kindly man who took a personal interest in the fate of
even the humblest member of his crew. And he was generous in the evaluation of
the native Siberian peoples, whom he considered "an honest, simple, kindly race,"
endowed with great qualities and capable of the finest developments.
Toll's literary output was not large but it renders a fair picture of the
scope of his work. His publications include the following:
1. "The Palaeozoic petrifactions of Kotelnyi Island and of the Tertiary deposits
of New Siberia. Bulletins of the Imperial Academy of Sciences, Series VII,
vol. 37, no. 3. St. Petersburg 1889. (In Russian)

EA-Biography. Seyd: Eduard Vasilievich von Toll

2. "Fossil ice of the New Siberian Islands, their relation to the remains of
mammoths and to the glacial period." Journal of the Russian Geographic
Society, Vol. 32, No. 1. St. Petersburg 1897. (In Russian) 3. "The distribution of the Cambrian and Lower Silurian in Siberia." Bulletins
of the Imperial Academy of Sciences, Series VIII, Vol. 8, No. 10. St.
Petersburg, 1899. (In Russian) 4. "Project of an expedition to Sannikov Land." Journal of the Imperial Russian
Geographic Society. Vol. 34. St. Petersburg, 1899. (In Russian) 5. "A sketch of the geology of the New Siberian Islands and the major tasks in
the exploration of the Polar countries." Bulletins of the Imperial Academy
of Sciences, Series VIII, Vol. 9, No. 1. St. Petersburg, 1899. (In Russian) 6. "Reports of the Russian Polar Expedition." Izvestia of the Imperial Academy
of Sciences, St. Petersburg, 1900. Vol. XIV, No. 1; 1901, Vol. XV; 1902,
Vol. XVI, No. 5; 1903, Vol. XVIII, No. 3; 1904, Vol. XX, No. 5. (In Russian) 7. Die Russische Polarfahrt der'Sarja' 1900-02 . Based on the diaries of Baron
Eduard von Toll. Ed. by Baroness Emmy von Toll. Berlin, 1909. (In German) BIBLIOGRAPHY

Hurlbut, C. "Geographic Notes." Bulletin of the American Geographical
Society, Dec. 31, 1894.

Ostrovski, B. G. Those who have passed away before their time . Leningrad,
1934. (In Russian)

Petermann's Mitteilungen . Vol. 33, Gotha 1887. (pp. 254 ffl).
Vol. 34, Gotha 1888. (p. 44 ff.)

Popov-Shtark, V. E. "E. Toll." Sovietskaia Arctica , No. 10. 1940.

Starokadomski, L. M. Expedition of the Northern Arctic Ocean 1910-15 . Glavse–
vmopput, Moscow, 1946. (In Russian)

The New International Encyclopedia . New York, 1924.

The Brokhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary . Vol. 33, St. Petersburg, 1901.

Toll. E. v. Die Russische Polarfahrt der "Sarja ." Berlin, 1909.

Vize, V. Y. "Polar Geophysical Station on Bolshoi Liakhovski." Arctic
Institute. Leningrad, 1932. (In Russian)

EA-Biography. Seyd: Eduard Vasilievich von Toll

Tolmachev, I. P. "A note on the Geography of Northern Siberia." Arktis , Heft 1,
2. Jahrg., Gotha 1929.

The Scottish Geographic Magazine . Vol. III, 1887, p. 481. Edinburgh, Scotland.
Vol. 23, 1907, p. 653, Edinburgh, Scotland.

Felizia Seyd
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