Fate of the Crocker Land Expedition

One hundred years ago, the search began for a mysterious Arctic territory.

The expedition leader, Donald B. MacMillan, wrote that his dogsled team “covered 180 miles in five days, worked hard every day and did not receive one ounce of food.”

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In June 1906, Commander Robert Peary, a veteran polar explorer, reported sighting land across the Arctic Ocean about 130 miles northwest of Cape Thomas Hubbard in the high Arctic. Although he had no time to try to reach it, Peary named the new territory Crocker Land in honor of George Crocker, one of his financial backers. Peary’s prestige was such that his observation had to be taken seriously, and while Peary himself set out again to reach the north pole (which he did—or did not—in 1909), plans were made for an independent expedition to confirm the existence of Crocker Land, map its position, and study its features. Having a longtime connection with Peary’s Arctic explorations, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City considered the new project one of its responsibilities. Moreover, the Museum expected to benefit from zoological and ethnographic collections and from scientific observations, such as meteorological measurements.

When I joined the Museum as a young anthropologist in 1960, the older departmental staff members were still talking about the Crocker Land Expedition. Archaeologists Junius B.Bird and James A. Ford both had had Arctic experience, which perhaps is why they seemed to take a particular interest in it. After a half century, my memory of casual conversations is hazy, but my impression is that both Bird and Ford, especially Bird, regarded the expedition as a naive, if not a foolish, enterprise. That opinion was, however, a judgment after the fact; both were mere youngsters at the time of the expedition,let alone members of the Museum staff. The effort made sense at the time, and was no madcap scheme. A sea of troubles dogged it like an evil spell, however: not only brushes with frostbite and starvation, but also a murder.

The sponsors—the American Museum of Natural History, the American Geographical Society, and the University of Illinois—had impeccable scientific credentials. The eventual team of American explorers and their Eskimo companions comprised young, energetic, and skillful men (I am aware that “Inuit” is now the preferred term in some regions, but here I will use “Eskimo,” reflecting the common usage at the time). They included W. Elmer Ekblaw, with a master’s degree from the University of Illinois, as the expedition’s geologist and botanist; Maurice Cole Tanquary, PhD, also from the university, as the zoologist; and Harrison J. Hunt, M.D., the doctor.

Henry Fairfield Osborn, President of the American Museum of Natural History (far right), sees off members of the expedition about to depart from the Brooklyn Navy Yard on the S.S. Diana, July 2, 1913. They are (from left) W. Elmer Ekblaw, Maurice Cole Tanquary, Harrison J. Hunt, Donald B. MacMillan, and Fitzhugh Green.

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Ensign Fitzhugh Green, U.S.N., geophysicist, had an M.S. from George Washington University. Jerome Lee Allen, seconded to the expedition by the United States Government, was the electrician and wireless operator. And Jonathan Cook Small served as mechanic and cook. Minik Wallace, an Eskimo boy Peary had brought to New York from Greenland in 1897, now a young man, joined the expedition as interpreter.

Bad luck followed the venture from the start. The original plan was to travel north by ship in the summer of 1912, set up a base camp for the winter, and make a foray to and from Crocker Land by dogsled over the Arctic ice in early 1913. The party would then overwinter again and explore Greenland in 1914 before sailing for home [see map below].

The Museum named George Borup, Assistant Curator of Geology, as expedition leader. Borup had accompanied Peary on his 1909 expedition, his dash for the North Pole. But Borup drowned on April 28, 1912, near Crescent Beach, Connecticut, when his canoe capsized. That tragic accident delayed the expedition for a year. The Museum then chose as director Donald B. MacMillan, also a member of Peary’s 1909 expedition, who regarded Crocker Land as“the last great geographical problem of the North.”

MacMillan reorganized the enterprise, bringing the team to full strength. With Borup gone, none of the expedition participants was personally affiliated with the Museum. The institution’s role was chiefly organizational and financial. Finances turned out to be a heavy burden, with the Museum shouldering most of the cost. Initially, the budget was estimated at $52,000, but the final figure is said to have come to nearly $100,000. Contributing to the expenses, two ships had to be chartered for the journey north, and it took another three to rescue the men who became stranded there. Documentation of the adventure includes MacMillan’s Four Years in the White North (1918); contemporary dispatches; and manuscript journals, notably those of MacMillan and Green. An excellent short account I have relied on is John Franch’s “Grand Illusion: The Search for Crocker Land” (Illinois Alumni, January/February, 2008), which emphasizes the role of the two “Illini,” Ekblaw and Tanquary.

The expedition’s ship, the steamer Diana, set sail on July 2, 1913, under favorable conditions. Yet two weeks later, on July 16 around midnight, the Diana, in trying to avoid a large iceberg, crashed on rocks along the Labrador coast. MacMillan blamed the disaster on the ship’s captain, who was drunk. The expedition’s members transferred to the Erik, and finally reached Etah in northwest Greenland in mid-August.

Supplies are unloaded from the S.S. Erik at the expedition base camp at Etah, northwestern Greenland. The personnel and supplies were transferred to the Erik after the Diana ran into rocks off Labrador.

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The men set up their headquarters with the aid of local Eskimos, erecting a thirty-five by thirty-five-foot building with eight rooms, an attic for storage, and electricity. Jerome Allen, the electrician, tried unsuccessfully to establish radio contact with operators in the United States. Thus expedition members were largely cut off from the world except for infrequent deliveries of mail, which in winter arrived by dogsled.

During the winter of 1913-1914, the explorers prepared for the trek by dogsled to Crocker Land, placing caches of supplies and building igloos along part of the route. An ambitious attempt was made to set out in February, but before long, mumps, flu, and concerns about the strength of the dogs took their toll, and MacMillan decided to turn back and regroup. Finally, on March 10 and 11, MacMillan, Green, Ekblaw, and seven Eskimos, carrying 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of supplies, set out by dogsled on the long-anticipated 1,200-mile journey. The group had to scale Beitstad Glacier, on Ellesmere Island, with their supplies and sleds, which took several days. At the summit, they recorded a temperature of -50 degrees Fahrenheit. Ekblaw suffered frostbite, and Minik Wallace left Mac- Millan’s team, saying that the hard work did not agree with him and he just wanted to go home. In fact, he had eyes for the beautiful wife of another Eskimo, also a member of MacMillan’s crew. The husband learned of Minik’s scheme, and to prevent the affair, he too hurried off.

To economize provisions, MacMillan began further paring down the party. Ekblaw and one of the five remaining Eskimos turned back, and after the smaller party reached the Arctic Ocean, on April 11, MacMillan sent two more Eskimos back to Etah. On the morning of the 14th, only MacMillan, Green, and the last two Eskimos, Pee-a-wahto and E-took-a-shoo, with their four sleds and dog teams, set out across the treacherous sea ice.

Crossing sea ice in the Arctic Ocean was hard going, but necessary: ships could not penetrate along the route northwest—to the presumed location of Crocker Land.

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Finally, on April 21, a crystal-clear day, Green and MacMillan spotted an immense land on the northwestern horizon:

Green was no sooner out of the igloo than he came running back, calling in through the door, “We have it!” Following Green, we ran to the top of the highest mound. There could be no doubt about it. Great heavens! what a land! Hills, valleys, snow-capped peaks extending through at least one hundred and twenty degrees of the horizon. I turned to Peea-wah-to anxiously and asked him toward which point we had better lay our course. After critically examining the supposed landfall for a few minutes, he astounded me by replying that he thought it was poo-jok (mist). E-took-a-shoo offered no encouragement, saying “Perhaps it is.” [Donald B. MacMillan, Four Years in the White North, 1918]

Nonetheless, the small party pressed onward for five more days. They reached a point where, for Peary to have seen land there from Cape Thomas Hubbard, it would have had to be 30,000 feet high! Such an elevation at that location was impossible. Finally, MacMillan concluded, “We were convinced that we were in pursuit of a will-o’-the-wisp, ever receding, ever changing, ever beckoning. . . . My dreams of the last four years were merely dreams; my hopes had ended in bitter disappointment.”

The four explorers headed back toward Etah, just in time, for thirty-six hours later the polar sea ice began to crack, becoming a deadly chaos of huge, grinding blocks of ice. The small group separated into two parts: Peea-wah-to and Green went one way, MacMillan and E-tooka-shoo took another. When Green later rejoined MacMillan he was alone. MacMillan casually described what had happened: “Green, inexperienced in the handling of Eskimos, and failing to understand their motives and temperament, had felt it necessary to shoot his companion.”

John Franch’s essay adds crucial details to the story. MacMillan had sent Green and Pee-a-wah-to—Piugaattoq as spelled by Franch—on an exploring expedition. They ran into a blizzard with gale-force winds.

Piugaattoq constructed an igloo, but the snow fell so quickly that the pair found it difficult to keep the igloo’s air hole clear. During a lull in the fierce storm, Green ventured outside and was horrified to discover that his dog team had perished, buried beneath 15 feet of snow. Forced to walk beside Piugaattoq’s sled on the journey back, the Navy ensign found it hard to keep pace. Eventually snapping, he snatched a .22 caliber, high-powered rifle from the sled and, waving it at Piugaattoq, ordered the Inuit to stay behind him. A few minutes later, Green looked back and saw Piugaattoq trying to escape him, desperately whipping his dogs in another direction. In his diary, Green laconically described what happened next: “I shot once in the air. He did not stop. I then killed him with a shot through the shoulder and another through the head. . . .”

Trying to keep the matter quiet, the expedition leader told the Inuit that Piugaattoq had perished in the blizzard.

Ekblaw and Tanquary, however, learned the truth, and MacMillan “enjoined” the former from discussing the incident. Ekblaw would later call the killing of Piugaattoq “one of the darkest and most deplorable tragedies in the
annals of Arctic exploration.”

The members of the Crocker Land party, other than those who made the final futile dash for Crocker Land, split up for various scientific studies or to reach a settlement from which they could inform the outside world that Crocker Land did not exist. Their experiences were as difficult and painful as those endured by MacMillan and his men. Tanquary and Ekblaw pursued their scientific studies at a Danish trading post 120 miles south of Etah. Franch describes their situation:

Based upon a letter Ekblaw wrote to UI President James in early June 1914, one would have guessed that the two Illini were leading an idyllic existence. . . . “Altogether, this season in the Snowland is exhilarating and delightful, like the first balmy days of spring in the Sunland.”

In reality, though, Ekblaw and Tanquary were wallowing in abject misery, their supply of canned food running dangerously low and starvation looming as a very real possibility. Ekblaw had also recently been struck with snow-blindness. “Never have I suffered such keen or intense agony,” he would recall. . . . They were finally rescued on Aug. 11 by MacMillan and returned via motorboat to Etah.

Tanquary and MacMillan faced more hardships in the winter of 1914-15. They set out in December on a trip by dogsled to deliver mail to southern Greenland, MacMillan wanting to alert the world that Crocker Land did not exist and that the expedition would need a relief ship in the summer of 1915. They got lost and wandered aimlessly for ten days in temperatures as low as -50. Quickly running out of provisions, they had to eat several of their dogs. Finally they reached an Eskimo settlement. The exhausted MacMillan decided to return to Etah, leaving Tanquary to complete the journey to southern Greenland with a Danish trader and an Eskimo guide. On the return trip, Tanquary removed his boots and pieces of raw, bleeding skin and flesh fell off his rotting toes. Enduring the exquisite agony of frostbite, Tanquary managed to drive his dog team 400 miles to Etah, where his big toes were amputated. Ekblaw described Tanquary’s dash back to Etah as “the grittiest exploit of the expedition.”

Tanquary’s message was received in the States, and the Museum sent a relief ship to Greenland during the summer of 1915. The planned rescue failed. Franch lays the blame on the “miserly” Edmund Otis Hovey, a curator of geology at the Museum, who selected a three-masted schooner, the George H. Cluett, instead of a steamer for the rescue. According to Franch, Hovey was to receive a just comeuppance for his “penny-pinching ways.” He was on board the schooner when it ran into trouble and was trapped in the Arctic ice until the following summer, when the ice melted. “As for Hovey, who had planned on being away from the United States for two months, he ended up being gone for two years.” A second relief ship also was trapped in the Arctic ice.

By this time, three members of the expedition, Tanquary, Green, and Allen, had returned to the States, after traveling by dogsled 1,000 miles down the western coast of Greenland. Meanwhile, MacMillan and Ekblaw continued to explore unknown parts of the Arctic. In 1917, the Museum made a third attempt to rescue MacMillan and his remaining men. This time sparing no expense, the Museum chartered the steamer Neptune and hired the redoubtable Arctic sailor Robert Bartlett as its captain. The ship reached Nova Scotia on August 24, 1917, with MacMillan’s men on board. By then, World War I was raging.

In addition to amassing important collections, a major scientific expedition usually results in a series of scientific publications that form the basis of impressive reputations. But Crocker Land was stillborn. Nothing much of anthropological value came from it, and no impressive anthropological reputations were made. It is remembered today as a grand adventure story, highlighting the almost incredible strength, courage, and endurance of men battling the unforgiving environment
of possibly the harshest inhabited region on Earth.

Were it not for the murder, their story would deserve almost unstinted admiration. But not surprisingly, given the conditions in the high Arctic, one man cracked, either from ignorance or fear or their combination. I am tempted to speculate just a bit about the circumstances that led to the killing. Fitzhugh Green had become an angry man, and Eskimos consider any expression of anger to be dangerous and intolerable. Pee-a-wah-to was trying to escape a man who was showing his anger.

Of course, one accomplishment cannot be denied, though it was not the hoped-for result. Crocker Land, it was learned, did not exist. Both Peary initially, and later
MacMillan and Green, had been taken in by a mirage known as a Fata Morgana, in which atmospheric conditions stretch, invert, and otherwise distort distant objects, making them appear taller. This distortion can affect landforms, buildings, or ships at sea. In this case, pack ice near the horizon seemed to loom as a mountainous coastline.

Ironically, in 1818, a hundred years earlier, a Scottish rear admiral and Arctic explorer named John Ross had been seeking the elusive Northwest Passage at a point about 350 miles south of Etah. He turned back after sighting mountainous land in the distance, or so he believed. He gave it the name Croker’s Mountains, to honor the First Secretary to the Admiralty at the time, John Wilson Croker. It, too, was a mirage.

In a Fata Morgana, a type of mirage, atmospheric conditions can cause a reflection from distant pack ice to loom like land above the horizon.

Tim Melling

Adapted with permission from Anthropology Unmasked: Museums, Science, and Politics in New York City, by Stanley A. Freed (Orange Frazer Press, 2012), www.orangefrazer.com. Copyright © 2012 Stanley A. Freed.

 

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