Charting Crocker Land (Base Camp)

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“North stretched the well-known ragged surface of the polar pack, and northwest it was with a thrill that my glasses revealed the faint white summits of a distant land which my Eskimos claimed to have seen as we came along from the last camp.”

“The clear day greatly favoured my work in taking a round of angles, and with the glasses I could make out apparently a little more distinctly, the snow-clad summits of the distant land in the northwest, above the ice horizon.”

R.E. Peary, Nearest the Pole, pp. 202, 207

These two passages come from Robert Peary’s book Nearest the Pole, a 1907 chronicle of an Arctic expedition he had conducted the previous two years. On one leg of his journey, Peary says he was traversing the northwestern coasts of Ellesmere and Axel Heiberg Islands on snowshoe and dogsled. This is an area about as far north as Canada reaches. Peary’s first glimpse of the “distant land” was from Cape Colgate, the second from Cape Thomas Hubbard. Though Peary doesn’t name the landmass he spotted in the body of his book, there are maps included at the end. It’s here that we see it designated Crocker Land. It’s the smile-shaped object in the upper left.

1907 map

But Was Crocker Land Real?

On the heels of the release of Nearest the Pole, doubt was cast on Crocker Land. A reviewer for The Athenæum says: “From the high cliffs of the north-western part of Grant Land [in upper Ellesmere Island, Peary] saw the distant summits of new land, which he has named Crocker Land. As the party had previously seen this land from sea-level, one can hardly believe that it was 120 miles away, as the author has marked it in his map. Subsequent exploration has often proved such guesses to be erroneous….” Well, subsequent exploration revealed something much more erroneous than Crocker Land’s distance from the coast: Crocker Land was proven to not really be there at all.

Robert Peary
Commander Robert Edwin Peary Sr. (1856-1920)

The saga of Crocker Land fascinates me, and I devoted several months to researching and writing about it. While I’ve mostly finished the project now, it might grow and improve a bit as I find more relevant material.

Regarding the Language

It was common in the early 1900s to use the racially insensitive term “Eskimo,” and I retain that word when quoting. Otherwise, I use “Inuit” or “indigenous.” It was also typical to refer to, say, Peary or Scott as striving to “discover” the North Pole or other features of the Arctic. I assume “discover” was used in the nineteenth-century sense of “uncover” or “reveal to sight.” One can argue that “reveal to a white man’s sight” was implied, too. Again, I retain this phrasing in quotations while opting for “reach the Pole” elsewhere. Thomas F. Hall comments on this latter bit of odd language in the Preface of his 1917 book titled Has the North Pole Been Discovered? He writes: “The title of the book is a concession to popular expression, for the North Pole is in reality an imaginary pivot undiscoverable as the Equator….The query herein discussed then is, accurately stated, — “Has anyone VISITED the point that is ninety degrees north of the Equator?”

Recommended Online Readings

Arctic Obsession Drove Explorers to Seek the North Pole, by Javier Cacho, on the National Geographic website. Cacho provides a broad history of Arctic exploration and especially the quest for the North Pole.

Fate of the Crocker Land Expedition, by Stanley A. Freed, on the Natural History website. Freed gives an excellent overview of MacMillan’s expedition of 1913-1917, including discussion of Fitzhugh Green’s killing of an Inuit guide named Piugaattoq.

The Crocker Land Expedition, hosted by the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. Along with digital copies of artifacts from MacMillan’s expedition, the About the Expedition section provides a good summary. The same project produced this fascinating video on the topic:

Northern People, Northern Knowledge: The Story of the Canadian Arctic Expedition 1913-1918 provides an excellent overview of the project that, while correcting maps and discovering new land, sought Crocker Land from the west after MacMillan had done so from the east. The site includes great photographs and video.

Go to the For Fun and Edification page.

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