The Early Response: Crocker Land Defended and Disputed

Those Who Defended Peary’s Claim

Peary had noteworthy defenders of his claim that Crocker Land existed. One of the earliest was Edwin Swift Balch, who had authored such works as Glacières; or, Freezing Caverns (1900) and Antarctica (1902). In a brief article titled simply “Crocker Land,” published in a 1907 issue of the Bulletin for the American Geographical Society, Balch confidently asserts that “there is land in the region west of Axel Heiberg and Grant Land; namely, Crocker Land, discovered by the greatest of Arctic Explorers and greatest of sledgers, Robert E. Peary.” This statement was made the same year Nearest the Pole publicized Peary’s claim about Crocker Land.

Several years after that annoucement, Rollin Harris incorporated Crocker Land into his 1911 book Arctic Tides, thereby adding credence to its existence. He mentions Crocker Land as being in one of the corners of a “trapizoidal” tract of polar land, including it on a map of this land. Since Harris had been putting forth this hypothesis since 1904, in a way, Peary was defending Harris as much as the other way around. (There’s more about Harris’s theory on the Reasons Why Crocker Land Was Plausible page.)

Matthew Henson, Peary’s right-hand man on many of his voyages, defended Crocker Land in a very subtle way. After saying nothing at all about it, Henson ends his 1912 memoir, The Negro Explorer at the North Pole, by writing: “I want to be with the party when they reach the untrod shores of Crocker Land; I yearn to be with those who reach the South Pole, the lure of the Arctic is tugging at my heart, to me the trail is calling!” Here, he is at least hopeful that Crocker Land is as real as the South Pole.

Matthew Henson
Matthew Alexander Henson (1866-1955)

Peary’s rival in terms of being the first to reach the North Pole was Frederick Cook. In 1909, Cook suggested Crocker Land might be real. In a newspaper series, he documented his latest polar adventure, saying this in one installment:

Satisfactory observations at noon on March 24 gave our position as latitude 83 deg. 31 min., longitude 96 deg. 27 min. The land clouds of Grant Land were still visible and a low bank of mist in the west occasionally brightened, offering an outline suggestive of land. This we believed to be Crocker Land, but mist persistently screened the horizon and did not offer an opportunity to study the contour.

In a 1911 newspaper interview, Cook says he maintains faith in Peary’s claims — but only after he points out that those closest to Peary on his expeditions discounted those claims. For instance, Cook mentions that Matthew Henson refuted Peary’s announcement that the latter had reached the North Pole, but then adds, “I still prefer to believe Peary rather than Henson.” Similarly, he says, “Peary’s Eskimo companions … positively deny Peary’s claimed discovery of Crocker Land. I still prefer to believe that Crocker Land does deserve a place on the map.” The interviewer concludes: “While he presents counter charges, Dr. Cook still preserves a gracious attitude toward Mr. Peary.” Gracious, yes, but also rhetorically shrewd. Cook is poking holes in Peary’s reliability.

Those Who Disputed Peary’s Claim

Not too surprisingly, Cook went on to outright deny the existence of Crocker Land. In 1914, Donald McMillian returned from an expedition to find Crocker Land, but he returned empty handed. Almost certainly, the landmass did not exist, and this pretty well marked the end of the debate. Cook then found the confidence to make a more blatant denial of Peary’s claim. “I have claimed for five years that there is no such place as Crocker Land,” he says in a newspaper interview. Of course, the 1911 interview cited above shows this isn’t exactly true. Cook goes on to contradict his earlier statement about glimpsing “an outline suggestive of land” where Crocker Land was purported to be. While headed to and from the pole, he searched. “But nowhere was it in sight,” he now says, adding, “I passed within 40 miles of the alleged spot, and I looked very, very carefully, but no land could I see.”

Frederick Cook
Dr. Fredrick Albert Cook (1865-1940)

Of course, all of these men were positioning themselves on a spectrum between Harris’s 1904 hypothesis that there was uncharted land near the North Pole and the disheartening claim that there really wasn’t. A name often associated with the latter is Fridtjof Nansen, who had been on several Arctic expeditions in the late 1800s. Interestingly, the very year that Peary published his story about spotting Crocker Land and a map of its location, Nansen said all major Arctic lands had been fully explored. The brave — and ultimately correct — statement is made in what had started as a paper delivered to the Royal Geographical Society and was then published with the title “On North Polar Problems.” Given the timing, it’s quite likely Nansen hadn’t learned of Peary’s Crocker Land claim when he stated: “There is, in fact, no known land in the north whose northern coasts are not now explored” (p. 470. He counters Harris’s claims on p. 481.) Nonetheless, there were still plenty of problems for explorers to solve. Nansen recommends studying volcanic features; structures below the sea and, especially, the continental shelf; water currents and ice drift; and even the characteristics of the polar ice itself. Finding significant new land, though, is not among such challenges.

Fridtjof Nansen
Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930)

This brings us to possibly the greatest obstacle facing those supporting Crocker Land: accepting that there was little else to explore on the surface our globe. One 1913 headline refers to Crocker Land as “EARTH’S FINAL PUZZLE.” Of course, that’s exaggerated for the sake of sensationalism. As Nansen makes clear, there was still plenty to discover. However, explorers would have to look down, look up, look under, or look closer instead of looking at the horizon. The long legacy of setting out on ship, on packhorse (or perhaps packcamel or packelephant), or even on foot to reach undiscovered country must have seemed to be ending. That’s a tradition that’s tough to let vanish, and in the early 1900s, the space program was still far in the future.

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