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Du Chaillu, Paul Belloni (31 July 1835?–30 April 1903), explorer and author, was the son of Charles Alexis Du Chaillu, a Frenchman representing a Parisian firm trading in Gabon, on the west coast of central Africa. His mother, not identifiable by name, may have been an Italian, a Creole, or a mulatto. The possibility that Du Chaillu was illegitimate or that his mother was of mixed parentage could account for his never mentioning her in his writings. His date of birth is not known for certain; although 31 July 1835 is commonly accepted, it has also been published that he was born in 1831 and in 1838. His place of birth is also uncertain; various authorities say New Orleans, Paris, and the Indian Ocean island of Réunion (called Bourbon before the revolution of 1848). Du Chaillu’s father was in France in the 1830s, during which time Du Chaillu was very likely with him and began his schooling there. His father returned to Gabon in the 1840s, and Du Chaillu was there with him again around 1848, attending Protestant and Catholic mission schools there. By the age of fifteen, he was clerking for the local colonial administration. During his early years in Gabon, he hunted, roamed the interior, traded with natives, and picked up the rudiments of several local languages....

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Harriot, Thomas (1560–02 July 1621), scientist, linguist, and author of the first English book on North America, was born in Oxford (city or county), England; his parentage is unknown. As an undergraduate he entered St. Mary’s Hall (attached to Oriel College, Oxford) in 1576, matriculated in the University of Oxford in 1557, and graduated B.A. in 1580. He never married....

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Reynolds, Jeremiah N. (1799?–25 August 1858), explorer and writer, was born in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania. His parents’ names are unknown. He, his mother, and his stepfather, Job Jefferis, moved to Clinton County, Ohio, in 1808. Here Reynolds spent time in the forests, dressing as a woodsman and learning the value of self-reliance. Reynolds attended subscription schools and eventually became a teacher. In 1819 he enrolled at Ohio University, left to pursue a teaching position, returned, and left again. He then made arrangements to continue his uncompleted studies with his mentor, Francis Glass....

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Stefansson, Vilhjalmur (03 November 1879–26 August 1962), Arctic explorer, writer, and lecturer, was born in Arnes, Manitoba, Canada, the son of Johann Stefansson and Ingibjorg Johannesdottir, Icelanders who had arrived in Canada in 1877. In 1881 the family moved to North Dakota, where Vilhjalmur attended school and eventually the University of North Dakota, the University of Iowa (B.A. 1903), and Harvard, where he entered the divinity school before transferring to anthropology. In 1906 he left school without graduating to join the Anglo-American Polar Expedition as ethnologist. After failing to rendezvous with other expedition members, who had been shipwrecked, Stefansson wintered among the Eskimos of Tuktoyyaktut, adapting to the Eskimo way of life and learning their language....

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Vilhjalmur Stefansson, c. 1939–1941. Photograph by Louis Fabian Bachrach. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-116932).