Scroll down the page for Phantom Island at Wikipedia, and you’ll find a very blunt, very incriminating description of Crocker Land: “A hoax invented by Arctic explorer Robert E. Peary to gain more financial aid from George Crocker, one of his financial backers.” A year or two ago, I became intrigued by — not just Crocker Land — but the history of 1) Arctic explorers claiming to have spotted land in the distance, 2) that reported land making its way onto an official map, and 3) that land later being revealed as non-existent. My doing so made me less convinced that Peary had invented a hoax.
One of my reasons is that, even after Peary knew he wasn’t going to get any more funding from George Crocker, he advocated a “wait and see” attitude regarding confirmation of the land he had seen. He maintained that stance even after an expedition found no physical trace of Crocker Land where he had reported it be — only a distinct and persistent mirage of land there. In others words, Peary’s alleged motive for lying had vanished and he had been handed an easy way out of his alleged lie. Why, then, didn’t he shrug his shoulders and admit he — like others before and after him — had been the victim of an optical illusion?
It happens. The Arctic plays visual tricks. What looks like land is really just a mirage. As I say, there’s a history of exactly that. It was reported in 1849 that Captain Henry Kellett spotted what he called Plover Land. About five years later, though, Commander Rogers searched hard for it and concluded: “Kellett was misled by appearances.” In 1880, it was announced that Captain Keenan had spotted a significant land mass, which was named “Keenan Land” in his honor. Over twenty years later, Ejnar Mikkelsen reported on his study of where that land would be. It wasn’t there, and he attributed Keenan’s sighting to floating ice that, “seen in a certain light, conveys the idea of distant land.”
Not long ago, I found yet another example of this, another sighting/mapping/disproving that nudges me toward thinking Peary simply made a mistake. It involves the Polaris expedition of 1871-1873. This journey is better remembered for the tragedy surrounding its captain, Charles Francis Hall, who died during the trip. There’s good reason to suspect he was poisoned by members of his crew! However, that crew also returned with claims about having observed a body of land, which they named President(‘s) Land. Though no one had actually stepped on this perceived chunk of earth, it became mapped.
By 1876, however, the claim was disproved by Captains Nares and Stephenson during an expedition on their respective ships, Alert and Discovery.
That said, there are still very good reasons to be suspicious of Peary’s claim about Crocker Land. But there’s an important difference between suspicion and conviction. I’m hoping my “Charting Crocker Land” articles, which now include President Land, play some small role in making this point of history somewhat less certain.