Crocker Land: An Expedition To a Non-Existent Island

Jun 1, 2023 0 comments

In 1906, Robert Peary had just returned from an unsuccessful trip to the Arctic. The veteran explorer had hoped to reach the North Pole, but bad weather and dwindling supplies forced him to turn back when he was within 175 miles of his target.

Back home, Peary immediately began planning for his next expedition. But before he could do that, he had to find benefactors who would support his expedition financially. Peary’s 1906 expedition was partially funded by American businessman George Crocker who gifted $50,000 for the trip. Hoping to extract another healthy contribution from Crocker, Peary decided to name a previously undiscovered island after him. The alleged island was spotted by Peary about 130 miles northwest of Cape Thomas Hubbard, one of the most northerly parts of Canada. Peary mentioned the island briefly in his 1907 book Nearest the Pole, where he claimed to have seen “the faint white summits of a distant land” from the summit of Cape Colgate, about 2,000 feet above sea level.

Map showing the approximate location of Crocker Land. Credit: Brom Bones Books

If anyone had cared to inspect Peary’s journals then, Peary’s claims could have been challenged. On the same date Peary claimed to have made the discovery, the conning explorer had jotted down in his diary “No land visible.” Decades later, people continue to argue whether Peary's “Crocker Land” was an innocent mistake caused by a mirage or a deliberate ploy to swindle money out of the businessman. According to some, from the vast distance that Peary reported to have seen the land, it would have been impossible to tell whether the supposed land was a large peninsula, or an island — unless the sightings were extremely definite, which only made the lie starker because of the precision with which Peary made the statement.

In any case, the efforts went in vain because after the San Francisco’s earthquake in 1906, Crocker’s finances were in shreds and he was unable to spare any amount for any exploration. However, Peary was able to secure funding from the National Geographic Society enabling him to make another attempt to the North Pole. This time, by his own account, he succeeded and on April 6, 1909, he stood on the top of the planet.

Robert Peary

When Peary returned home, he discovered that Frederick Cook, a surgeon who served Peary on his 1891 North Greenland expedition, was claiming that he had been the first to reach the pole a full year earlier. Peary, who craved for fame at any cost, was distraught. His supporters attacked Cook and sought to discredit the doctor. As debate over the two men's claims raged, Crocker Land became part of the dispute. Cook claimed that on his way to the North Pole, he had traversed the region where Crocker Island was supposed to be but found no such land.

One of Peary’s backers, Donald Baxter MacMillan, proposed that they go looking for Crocker Land. If the island could be proved to exist, it would vindicate Peary and destroy Cook’s reputation for ever.

After receiving backing from the American Museum of Natural History, the American Geographical Society and the University of Illinois' Museum of Natural History, the Crocker Land Expedition left Brooklyn Navy Yard in July 1913. The expedition consisted of, apart from MacMillan himself, five other members carefully selected for their expertise in various fields of science. Minik Wallace, the Inuk famously brought to the United States as a child by Robert Peary in 1897, acted as the guide and translator for the expedition.

Members of the Crocker Land Expedition. Credit: Wikimedia

Hardly two weeks had passed when the ship, the Diana, crashed on the rocks along the Labrador coast by her drunken captain. So the expedition transferred to another ship, the Erik, and continued north, finally reaching northwest Greenland in mid-August. There, the men set up their headquarters with the aid of the local Eskimos, erecting a 35 foot by 35 foot building with eight rooms, an attic for storage, and electricity. After making a number of preliminary trips to place supply caches along the route, MacMillan, Walter Elmer Ekblaw, Fitzhugh Green and seven Inuit set off on the 1,200-mile journey in search of Crocker Land by sled across the frozen land.

Ekblaw was the first to turn back. After climbing the Beitstadt Glacier, which took them three days, temperature dropped dramatically and Ekblaw suffered severe frostbite. He returned to the headquarters. One by one, the rest of the party members also turned back. By the time the expedition reached the edge of the Arctic Ocean only MacMillan, Green and two Inuit, Piugaattoq and Ittukusuk, remained. The team sledged across the treacherous sea ice for ten days, until, on a clear morning, Green and MacMillan spotted an immense land on the northwestern horizon. “Great heavens! what a land! Hills, valleys, snow-capped peaks extending through at least one hundred and twenty degrees of the horizon,” wrote MacMillan in his 1918 book, Four Years in the White North.

Route of the Crocker Land Expedition. Credit: Brom Bones Books

Excitedly, MacMillan called Piugaattoq, an Inuit hunter with 20 years of experience of the area, and pointed the land to him. Piugaattoq studied the landmass for a few moments and replied, to the stunned MacMillan, that the land was a mirage, a “pook-jok”.

Regardless, the small party pressed onward for five more days, until it became clear that the Inuit was right, and what they saw was an illusion called Fata Morgana that makes ships appear floating in the air and non-existent land appear suddenly before one’s eyes. “My dreams of the last four years were merely dreams; my hopes had ended in bitter disappointment,” MacMillan later wrote.

With Crocker Land proved to be a myth, the four explorers began their return journey to the headquarters at Etah. After crossing the sea ice—which they did just in time for the ice began to break as soon as they had stepped on solid land—MacMillan sent Piugaattoq and Green to explore a route to the west. The two ran into a storm during which one of the dog teams perished. Green and Piugaattoq began to squabble over which direction to take. When Piugaattoq tried to sneak away with the remaining dogs, Green shot and killed Piugaattoq. Ekblaw would later remark that the murder of Piugaattoq was “one of the darkest and most deplorable tragedies in the annals of Arctic exploration.”

Expedition member Hendrik Olsen with a loaded sledge on the ice of Foiilke Fjord in front of the headquarters. Credit: Wikimedia

The remaining members attempted to head home, but the Arctic weather was treacherous and it took them three years and three rescue attempts before all of them could return home. Trapped in ice, the expedition made good use of their time by documenting the culture of the indigenous peoples and studying the natural habitat of the region. The expedition returned with thousands of photographs and hundreds of artifacts, some of which are now displayed in University of Illinois' Spurlock Museum, and at the Peary–MacMillan Arctic Museum on the grounds of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.

Ironically, back in 1818, exactly one century before, John Ross, a Scottish rear admiral and Arctic explorer, was in search of the elusive Northwest Passage, situated approximately 350 miles south of Etah. However, he decided to turn back upon catching sight of an enormous mountain in the distance. He gave it the name Croker’s Mountains, to honor the First Secretary to the Admiralty at the time, John Wilson Croker. As it happened, Croker’s Mountains too was a mirage.

# Fate of the Crocker Land Expedition, Natural History Mag
# Crocker Land: The Legendary Arctic Island That Didn't Actually Exist, Mental Floss
# Dennis Rawlins: Contributions,


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