Crocker Land and Other Mapped Mirages of the Arctic TARDIS*

*Trusted Archival Research Documents in Sequence

1849

According to Berthold Seeman’s Narrative of the Voyage of the H.M.S. Herald, Captain Henry Kellett spotted, landed on, and raised the Union Jack on Herald Island, named for the ship. This discovery was subsequently confirmed. To the north, the crew spotted more “high peaks,” which they named Plover Island for the ship that had been accompanying them (p. 116). Its existence was not so certain.

1855

According to “Report of the Secretary of the Navy,” published in the May 23 issue of the Daily National Era, Commander Rogers of the ship Vincennes attempted to verify land “placed upon Admiralty charts by her Britannic Majesty’s frigate Herald, Capt. Kellett, to examine, if possible, Plover island, reported to have been seen by the same officer.” Rogers was unable to find any such land, despite clear visibility. Even atop the summit of Herald Island, “no land could be seen in any direction, although the horizon was good….Commander Rogers is of the opinion that the island does not exist, and the Captain Kellett was misled by appearances.”

1880

According to the Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences, Charles Woolcott Brooks read a paper before that society on the topic of Arctic exploration. He mentioned that new land had been discovered north of Point Barrow, Alaska. It was called “Keenan Land” in honor of Captain Keenan, who had spotted it from a distance while on the whaling ship James Allen. Keenan’s observation, Brooks says, is “annually confirmed by the flight of large numbers of aquatic birds,” which migrate north in the spring and return in the late summer. A later report on Keenan’s sighting, published in an 1893 issue of the National Geographic, names the ship the Stamboul.

This is a detail of a map prepared by Gilbert H. Grosvener and published in the July 1907 issue of the National Geographic. In the top half, Keenan Land appears in the west and Crocker Land in the east.

1904

Rollin A. Harris proposed a significant Arctic landmass in “Some Indications of Land in the Vicinity of the North Pole,published in the June issue of the National Geographic Magazine. (The article began as a paper read before the Philosophical Society of Washington two months earlier, and later was incorporated into Harris’s book Manual of Tides.) Having collated reports of currents, old ice, and tidal patterns, Harris offers this illustration, marking with horizontal stripes where he thinks land exists:

Harris 1904 Hypothesized Land

I’m no chartographer, but the map provided by Peary in 1907 — which is below — seems to place Crocker Land in between the southeast coast of the “Indicated Polar Land” and the northwest coast of Ellesmere Island (noted on Harris’s map as Grant Land/Garfield’s Coast).

1907

Robert Peary’s Nearest the Pole was published. In it, he twice claims to have spotted land to the northwest of Ellesmere Island (a.k.a. Grant Land). On a map included at the end of the book, this spot is designated as Crocker Land.

1907 map

Aimed at general readers, Peary’s book presumably was available fairly early in the year because reviews appeared in the March 14 issue of Life, the May 16 issue of Independent, and the June issue of Bookman.

Ejnar Mikkelsen’s “Report of the Mikkelsen-Leffingwell Expedition” was published in the October issue of the Bulletin of the American Geographical Society. There, he states:

The Eskimo reports concerning land to the north of Pt. Barrow and the reports about the island which Captain Keenan and several Eskimos thought they saw somewhere to the north and west of Harrison Bay, related probably to the heavy [ice] floe, which, seen in a certain light, conveys the idea of distant land. The fact that the Eskimo reports tell about ’rounded-off hills’ on the land they claim to have seen or visited strengthens this idea, for the old floe has many of these rounded elevations.

In other words, months after Crocker Land had been brought to public attention, Keenan Land was being publicized as — if not a mirage — then at least a misperception.

Fridtjof Nansen’s “On North Polar Problems” was published in the November issue of the Geographical Journal. It is noted as being a paper read at the Royal Geographical Society on April 29th of the same year, and it seems reasonable to assume that Nansen makes no mention of Crocker Land simply because he hadn’t heard of it yet. Instead, after listing discoveries made by several explorers, Nansen states: “There is, in fact, no known land in the north whose northern coasts are not now explored” (p. 470).

Edwin Swift Balch’s “Crocker Land” was published in the December issue of the Bulletin of the American Geographic Society. In this short article, Balch says that Peary’s discovery of Crocker Land disproves Nansen’s statement about no unexplored land left (see immediately above). He praises Peary as being “the greatest of Arctic explorers and the greatest of sledgers” and affirms Harris’s theory of a significant landmass yet to be confirmed (see 1904). Nansen and Harris are often mentioned as representing opposite sides of the debate on Crocker Land’s existence.

1909

Frederick Cook’s series of articles about his 1907-08 journey to the North Pole was published in the New York Herald and reprinted in other papers. In the ninth installment, as published in a Washington, D.C., newspaper, the Evening Star, Cook claims to have spotted land: “The fog, which had persistently screened the west, had vanished, and land was discovered at some distance west, extending parallel to the line of march.” He adds, “The land as we saw it gave the impression of being two islands, but our observations were insufficient to warrant such an assertion. They may be islands, they may be part of a larger land extending far to the west…. The lower shore line was at no time visible. This land is probably a part of Crocker Land.” Shortly after, he says, “We were eager to set foot on the newly discovered coast, for we believed then, as proved by later experience, that these were earth’s northernmost rocks, but the pressing need for rapid advance in the aim of our main mission did not permit detours.” In the tenth installment, the headline reads: NAME OF BRADLEY LAND GIVEN TO ELUSIVE SIGNS OF NEW-FOUND REALMS.” Cook’s naming of the landmass was to honor John R. Bradley, one of his expedition’s financial backers. He also narrates the alleged discovery in his book My Attainment of the Pole (see 1911), but he no longer names Crocker Land.

Map of Crocker and Bradley Lands
This map shows both Crocker and Bradley Land along with Scott’s and Peary’s respective routes to the North Pole. It was drawn by Edwin Swift Balch and included in his book The North Pole and Bradley Land (1913).

An article titled “NEW COOK SKEPTIC – NEW LAND MYTH – ‘Open to Scientific Improbability’” was published in the New-York Tribune. The skeptical scientist featured there is J.W. Spencer, member of the Geological Survey and specialist in continental shelves and submarine canyons. Spencer explains that the point where Cook claimed to have seen Bradley Land is very likely too far off the continental shelf to be actual land. In addition, based on an analysis of one of Cook’s photographs, “the Canadian scientist concludes that Bradley Land is ‘a myth.'” Cook’s curious parallel to Peary’s claim about Crocker Land was met with swift denial.

1911

Rollin A. Harris’s Arctic Tides was published. Seven years earlier, Harris had proposed a significant tract of Arctic land (see 1904). Maintaining that view, Harris now reiterates his hypothesis that there is a body of Arctic land, one “trapizodial in form” and covering “nearly half a million square statute miles.” Crocker Land, he says, sits at one of its corners (pp. 90-92). His new map now accommodates this:

Harris 1911 Hypothesized Land

To show Crocker Land, I’ve zoomed in on a section of the map and added a red star.

Frederick Cook’s My Attainment of the Pole was published. In it, he recounts successfully reaching the North Pole and, on the way there, discovering a new land. Calling it Bradley Land, he claims to have seen it in March of 1908. Cook says:

As well as I could see, the land seemed an uninterrupted coast extending parallel to the line of march for about fifty miles, far to the west. It was snow covered, ice-sheeted and desolate. But it was real land with all the sense of security solid earth can offer….Now came, of course, the immediate compelling desire to set foot on it, but to do so I knew would have side-tracked us from our direct journey to the Polar goal. (p. 244)

Cook also qualifies the sighting by adding on the next page: “This new land was never clearly seen.” After that, he explains that he told his crew that they might be able to explore it on the way back from the pole, but he regrets, “We never saw it again.”

1913

On June 8, Vilhjalmur Stefansson departed from Victoria, Bristish Columbia, on the Karluk. Funded by the Canadian government, Stefansson’s plans included seeking Crocker Land from the west. An article in the July 1 issue of the Evening Times-Republic, a newspaper in Marshalltown, Iowa, reports that Stefansson was hoping to return in October of 1916.

On July 3, Donald MacMillan departed from New York on the Diana. Funded by the American Museum of Natural History and the American Geographical Society, MacMillan’s chief plan was to seek Crocker Land from the east. An article in the July 3 issue of the Cairo Bulletin, a newspaper in Illinois, reports that the explorers were scheduled to return in “the fall of 1915.”

Titled “New Search for a Polar Continent,” an article in the July 27 issue of the San Francisco Call discusses the Stefansson and MacMillan expeditions (see immediately above). The piece includes this imaginative depiction of Crocker Land.

Crocker Land Depicted
Crocker Land as depicted in The San Francisco Call, July 27, 1913, p 12.

1914

On November 23, a letter arrived at the American Museum of Natural History. In it, expedition member Walter Ekblaw says MacMillan and Fitzhugh Green travelled in the direction of Crocker Land and — after experiencing what they later deemed to be a mirage of distant land — “they finally concluded that Crocker Land does not exist, at least not within the range originally ascribed to it.” The front page of the November 25 issue of the New-York Tribune reads: “CROCKER LAND ELUDES EXPLORERS.” The MacMillan expedition, the article says, found that “Crocker Land has either melted or moved from the position it was supposed to hold.” The next day, the front page of the Evening Times-Republican, a newspaper in Marshalltown, Iowa, proclaimed: “CROCKER LAND A MYTH. Polar Expedition Fails to Find Land Peary Said He Sighted.” This certainly marks a significant first step in disproving the existence of Crocker Land.

1915

Donald MacMillan’s two-part article “In Search of a New Land” was published in the October and November issues of Harper’s Monthly. It includes this map:

Map of the Crocker Land Expedition

In this firsthand narrative, MacMillan publicly recounts how, on April 21 of the previous year, he and Fitzhugh Green thought they could see land. Their Inuit companion dismissed it as mist, though. MacMillan continues:

As we proceeded it gradually changed its appearance and varied in extent with the swinging around of the sun, finally at night disappearing altogether….Could Peary with all his experience have been mistaken? Was this mirage which had deceived us the very thing which deceived him eight years ago? If he did see Crocker Land, then it was considerably more than one hundred and twenty miles away, for we were now at least one hundred miles from shore, and nothing in sight.

Days later, upon returning to the same spot where Peary claims to have seen Crocker Land, MacMillan looked out — and again saw land!

Yes, there it was! It could even be seen without a glass extending from southwest true to north-northeast. Our powerful glasses, however, brought out more clearly the dark background in contrast with the white, the whole resembling hills, valleys, and snow-capped peaks to such a degree that, had we not been out there for one hundred and fifty miles, we would have staked our lives upon it. Our judgment then as now is that this was a mirage or loom of the sea ice.

The implication here — and it’s a strong one — is that Peary likewise was the victim of a visual deception.

1916

Henry T. Helgesen, Representative from North Dakota, spoke before the House to argue that government-issued maps of the Arctic be corrected. Among the changes, he argues for the removal of Crocker Land, saying that the MacMillan expedition “now proves it to have been only an imaginary dream” (p. 11).

Edwin Swift Balch’s letter to the editor titled “The Present Status of the North Pole Question” was published in the March 18 issue of Scientific American. Reversing his earlier support of Crocker Land (see 1907), Blach says that “the fact that Peary was deceived by a mirage into believing that there was a land which he called Crocker Land shows that there is a possibility that Cook was also deceived by a mirage into believing there is a land which he called Bradley Land.”

The August 26 issue of Washington D.C.’s Evening Star (along with other papers across the nation) reported that Peary was still confident that Crocker Land would be proven to exist. Fitzhugh Green — who had accompanied MacMillan when deciding Crocker Land was not where Peary had said — finally returned from the expedition. He had no news about Crocker Land’s discovery. This merely reinforces what already had been reported (see 1914). Nonetheless, Peary is quoted as saying, “It will be well to await the completion of Stephansson’s discoveries before dismissing Crocker Land.” Even five years later, Stephansson himself — who also had found no evidence of it — still wouldn’t be ready to dismiss Crocker Land, either (see 1921).

On September 24, an article titled “Has the North Pole Ever Really Been Discovered?” appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. It included this map:

1916 map of Crocker Land

The illustration appears with this caption:

Map of Crocker Land Which Peary Claimed to Have Discovered in 1906. In 1913, an Expedition Sent Out by the American Museum of Natural History to Explore Crocker Land Reported That There Was No Such Place. The Site of the Supposed Crocker Land, They Said, Was a Broad Expanse of Polar Sea! Upon the Strength of This Development, Suspicion Has Been Levelled Against All Peary’s ‘Discoveries’ Including That of the North Pole!”

If Peary was mistaken or misleading in his claim to have seen Crocker Land, then his assertion that he had reached the North Pole might also be unreliable. Public opinion of Peary was turning sour.

1919

According to the August 14 issue of the Omaha Daily Bee, Stork Storkleson had spent six months on an ice floe. He returned with the news that Keenan Land “was found to be non-existent.” The conclusion is repeated a year later in Hudson Stuck’s book A Winter Circuit of Our Arctic Coast, and in an article for Sunset magazine. In the latter, Storkleson is quoted as saying, “There was no sign of [Keenan Land]…. Our drift took us through the territory where it was supposed to be located, but we got soundings of 2970 meters and no bottom.” This reinforced Mikkelsen’s conclusion of the previous decade (see 1907).

1921

An article titled “Plover Land and Borden Land” was published in April issue of The Geographical Review. Explorer Vilhamer Stefansson writes about the history of Arctic lands that had been marked on maps, but are later proven to not exist. His examples are Clerk Island, Sannikov Land, and Crocker Land. However, he says, “It seems to me that Crocker Land should still be granted a period of grace.” MacMillan found no land where Peary had reported it, but no soundings were taken, according to Stefansson. He adds that his own soundings taken during 1917 revealed a level shelf extending from land “for 150 miles as we traveled toward Crocker Land.” He recommends that “we let Crocker Land bide till the vicinity is sounded and shown to be deep water, or till the region is explored so thoroughly that we know it is not merely hiding.” The rest of the article explores the strange phenomena of seeing land that isn’t there and not seeing land that is. Stefansson’s main example is Plover Land, which he suggests might be “one and the same” as Borden Land (pg. 291). The latter is a verified island discovered during the Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913–16.

1926

The headline of the May 17, 1926, issue of the Alaska Daily Empire reads: “AMUNDSEN DISCOVERS NO LAND ON FLIGHT OVER ARCTIC.” Roald Amunsen and others had crossed the Arctic on the dirigible Norge. Though a later source suggests “they were perhaps too far west” to have seen Crocker Land unless it were part of a very large landmass, this shift to the skies marks a significant change from seeking unverified Arctic lands at sea- and land-levels.

This photograph of the Norge, the dirigible used to traverse the Arctic, appears in the May 3, 1926, issue of the Alaska Daily Empire. It accompanies an article about the aircraft’s arrival in England.

1928

George H. Wilkins flew across the Arctic by plane, a trip he had hoped to make two years earlier. According to the January 10, 1926, issue of the Evening Star, his original plan was to prove or disprove the existence of Crocker Land, Keenan Land, and Bradley Land. That article says Wilkins “may put Keenans Land [sic] and Crocker Land back on the maps again. He may put them off the maps permanently.” Keenan Land probably wasn’t much of a concern, since it had been confirmed as non-existent in 1920 (see above). However, Wilkins did help settle two other important issues. According to the September 16, 1928, issue of the Evening Star, Wilkins’ flight “has changed the map of the world by eliminating Crocker Land and Bradley Land.”

1938

Isaac Schlossbach returned from the MacGregor Arctic Expedition. He was reported to say that, despite twenty flights over where Peary had placed it, “There simply isn’t any Crocker Land.”


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