Was It All an Arctic Apparition — or a Cold Calculation?

From Mirage to Hoax

For decades following Donald MacMillan’s 1914 report that no land existed where Robert Peary had observed it in 1906, Crocker Land was deemed a mirage. In 1916, Edwin Swift Balch turned from supporting Crocker Land to echoing the mirage theory in a letter to the editor the Scientific American, and according to a 1939 newspaper article, expedition leader Clifford MacGregor also agreed with that explanation. As late as 1950, in The White Continent: The Story of Antarctica, Thomas R. Henry addressed how polar atmospheric conditions can produce optical illusions, and Peary’s sighting illustrates this point: “It was not until nearly twenty-five years later that ‘Crocker Land’ north of Ellesmere Island — reported in 1906 and thought by some to be a land mass of continental proportions — was proved a myth. But nobody ever questioned that Peary was an honest and accurate reporter” (pg. 43).

Henry was overgeneralizing about Peary’s public persona. Way back in 1915, the papers were reporting that, for some, his trustworthiness was deeply in doubt. When Congress conferred the rank of rear admirable upon Peary for having reached North Pole, Representative Henry T. Helgesen launched a challenge. The evidence of Peary’s accomplishment was little more than his own word, Helgesen argued, and several other claims by the explorer had been proven false. Crocker Land is among those claims. Helegesen’s argument was reprinted in a 1916 newspaper article, and there he says this history of making false claims destroys Peary’s “reputation for veracity” and leaves no reason to trust “at any time he has been anywhere near the Pole.” Helgesen also uses many of these points in a speech to have Crocker Land removed from government maps.

A century later, it’s become fairly commonplace to portray Peary as having intentionally fabricated Crocker Land. Probably the most prominent raised eyebrow belongs to historian David Welky, whose book A Wretched and Precarious Situation: In Search of the Last Arctic Frontier narrates and analyzes MacMillan’s expedition. In an interview with Simon Worrell for the National Geographic, Welky sets forth his reasons for following Helgesen’s lead in thinking Crocker Land was all a ruse:

  1. Peary was too experienced in Arctic exploration to have mistaken an ice island or a mirage for solid land;
  2. there’s no mention of spotting land in the detailed notes Peary wrote during the expedition, nothing in the diaries kept by those who had accompanied him, and nothing in his correspondence for months afterward;
  3. there’s likewise no mention of his astounding discovery in the early drafts of Nearest the Pole or a magazine article, both of which recount the trip on which he supposedly spotted the landmass. “In other words,” says Welky, “sometime between the final manuscript and when the book comes out the paragraphs about Crocker Land mysteriously appear.”

This is compelling stuff that makes counterargument tough. I have no new direct evidence that sheds any light on whether or not Peary was lying. To be sure — if a winter in the Arctic Circle were held to my head — I’d say, heckyeah, Crocker Land was a fabricaion! Well, probably. You see, I remain troubled by a few things. The best I can do is add some historical context and track Peary’s response to MacMillan’s report in the hope of showing the debate isn’t (or shouldn’t be) settled yet. My goal, then, is to deflate, if only slightly, the confidence with which Peary is sometimes portrayed as a brazen liar.

Naming Land After an Expedition Financier

At first glance, Peary’s decision to name the land as he did seems designed to appease George Crocker, the millionaire who had contributed bags and bags of money to the very expedition during which the famous explorer says he spotted uncharted land. Was Peary cajoling Crocker to donate more bags of money for his next attempt to reach the North Pole? It feels likely.

However, when Peary allegedly first spotted that land to the north-northwest, he was standing on Cape Colgate, which sits close to the shore of Ellesmere Island. Once upon a time, this island was divided into Grant Land to the north, Ellesmere Land to the south, and Grinnell Land in the middle. The latter was named by Edward De Haven for Henry Grinnell, the shipping magnate who had financed the 1850 expedition that had come upon it. When Peary then crossed Nansen Sound, climbed Cape Thomas Hubbard, and again allegedly spotted land in the same direction as before, he was on what is now called Axel Heiberg Island. This was named by Otto Sverupt for a brewer of that name who had sponsered his 1900-01 expedition. Of course, these landmasses were real. But when Frederick Scott also believed he saw land when trekking toward the North Pole in 1907 — land subsequently proven to not existent — he named it for financial backer John R. Bradley.

To be sure, there are various ways that Arctic lands were named (or renamed if any indigenous names were being ignored). The “phantom” Plover Land was named for a ship, for instance, and the very real Victoria Island was named for the Queen of England. My point, though, is that naming Arctic land for one’s financial supporter isn’t automatically a suspicious act. In fact, it’s something of a tradition.

A Sea Change in the Wake of MacMillan’s Report

November 23, 1914, is a pivotal date in the history of Crocker Land. That’s when a letter arrived at the American Museum of Natural History, one written by Walter Elmer Ekblaw. He was a member of MacMillan’s expedition to determine if Crocker Land were real (along with various other goals), an undertaking largely financed by the Museum. As paraphrased in its annual report, Ekblaw says MacMillan and Fitzhugh Green “journeyed 125 miles northwest from Cape Thomas Hubbard across the ice of the Polar Sea in a search for Crocker Land. For two days Messrs. MacMillan and Green thought that they saw land, but this proved to be a mirage, and they finally concluded that Crocker Land does not exist, at least within the range originally ascribed to it. It didn’t take long for the news to hit the papers, from New York to Iowa to Arizona.

1914 Crocker reported as a mirage
From the November 25, 1914, issue of The Sun, a newspaper published in New York. As discussed below, saying that Peary had reported a “continent” is very misleading.

The announcement published in Arizona, which is marked as a reprint from the Philadelphia Press, ends by saying:

Scientists will probably agree that the discovery that there is no Crocker Land is in itself important enough to have justified the MacMillan expedition and to compensate it for the difficulties of its journey. If a mirage has actually been mapped in the Polar sea, it is to the interests of mankind that the error be rectified. Nor should there be any question of the good faith of Rear Admiral Peary. His reputation as an explorer and scientist places him above suspicion.

As we’ve seen, Representative Henry T. Helgesen was among the first to chip away at Peary’s good reputation in the wake of MacMillan’s report. He wasn’t alone, though. Peary’s fellow — and rival — explorer was Frederick Cook. The news from MacMillan apparently soured his view of Crocker Land, too. (Cook’s view of Peary’s character had already soured after announcing that he had beaten Peary to the North Pole. Cook found himself bombarded with accusations of fraudulence, most them traceable to Peary. That’s an immense, complicated topic that would quickly snowball beyond my focus here.)

Here’s a chart of Cook’s gradual shift from at least tentatively accepting Peary’s claim about Crocker Land to strongly refuting it.

September – October, 1909 – Cook’s narrative of his journey to the North Pole was being published in newspapers across the U.S. In the seventh installment, he recounts looking west and seeing “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 the eighth installment, Cook claims to have seen a surprisingly long coastline to his west. “The land as we saw it,” he explains, “gave the impression of being two islands, but our observations were insufficient to warrant such an assertion.” He describes the land as made up of ragged mountains “perhaps eighteen hundred feet high….The lower shore line was at no time visible. This land is probably a part of Crocker Land.” (In the ninth installment, readers learn that Cook named this Bradley Land. By December, this landmass was already being deemed a myth.)

September 30, 1911 (as Cook battled Peary for “First to the Pole”)A newspaper article quotes Cook as saying: “Peary’s Eskimo companions…positively deny Peary’s claimed discovery of Crocker Land. I still prefer to prefer to believe that Crocker Land does deserve a place on the map.”

December 3, 1914 (about a week after MacMillan’s report had hit the papers)A newspaper article quotes Cook as saying, “I have claimed for five years that there is no such place as Crocker Land.”

Thanks to digital newspaper archives, we see that Cook had 1) claimed that he believed he might’ve seen Crocker Land, 2) connected it to his own Bradley Land, and 3) defended its place on the map — all within the five years that he then claimed to have been denying its existence. He saw the MacMillan report as an opportunity to discredit Peary while bolstering his own credibility.

Contrary to some reports, Peary’s reputation was becoming tarnished, if not corroded, first by his thinly supported claim to have reached the Pole and now by the discovery that Crocker Land was not there.

Peary’s Reaction to MacMillan’s Early Report

Welky did another interview with Tom Porter for Bowdoin College’s website. Here, the historian points out that, if Peary were hoping to bamboozle Crocker, it didn’t work: “Any hopes he may have had of George Crocker funding a further trip were effectively destroyed in the rubble of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, after which Crocker plowed all his money into rebuilding the city.”

This means that Peary would have known his ruse had failed years before MacMillan’s expedition to verify Crocker Land departed in 1913. When MacMillan’s early report arrived toward the end of the following year, Peary was given the perfect opportunity to shrug off the whole thing and to simply agree that he had seen a mirage. It even mentions that, while seeking the landmass, MacMillan and Fitzhugh Green had themselves experienced a mirage! What a gift! Indeed, Peary came close to accepting this explanation of what he saw.

Peary Says That Perhaps He Didn't Find Crocker Land
From the November 2, 1914 issue of the Star Tribune, a newspaper published in Minneapolis. The phrase “physical conditions and theory” almost certainly nods to Rollin Harris’s influential theory — based on currents, old ice, and tides — that a significant landmass exists in the Arctic. Harris introduced his theory in 1904 and elaborated upon it (with references to Crocker Land) in 1911.

Clearly, by late 1914, Peary was willing to concede that he had experienced a mirage. He readily admits that he’d be in good company if that were the case. Here was a handy escape route from his failed ploy to secure funding, if that’s all Crocker Land was.

Peary Resumes the More Dangerous Route

Two years later, MacMillan was still up north. So was Vilhjalmur Stefannson, leading a different expedition to map-check and discover new land along the northern Canadian coast. Unconvinced by MacMillan’s findings, Stefansson informed Peary that he would include a search for Crocker Land. (I discuss Stefansson and the Canadian Arctic Expedition with greater depth on the To Plant a Flag on Crocker Land page.) Meanwhile, Green — who had shared MacMillan’s trek to, mirages of, and final decision about Crocker Land — was returning home and had made it as far as Copenhagen. He brought with him no retraction of that earlier report and no subsequent evidence supporting Peary’s sighting.

Peary issued a public response to Green’s returning with the mirage theory still in place. This was not merely some off-the-cuff remark. No, he had telegrammed the statement to the New York Tribune, and it was then picked up by newspapers from Maine to Utah. The telegram said that the renown explorer was holding onto his original belief that Crocker Land would be verified as real! After admitting that the Arctic Sea plays tricks on a man’s eyes and that he might’ve miscalculated the distance to Crocker Land, Peary next adds an important statement:

It will be well to await the completion of Stefansson’s discoveries before dismissing Crocker Land.

It’s just one sentence, but it nags at me. If Peary knew that Crocker Land wasn’t there and that he wouldn’t be getting funding from George Crocker — and that he must eventually be shown to have been wrong — then what was his motive for clinging to the possibility that Stefannson might still find something? Why put off the inevitable? Why issue any statement at all? Instead of asking “Did Peary lie?” the question becomes “Why would Peary stick to his lie when he could have easily covered it up?” Was his ego so great that, to uphold his image as Mighty Discoverer, he stood by as two expeditions risked the multitude of dangers involved in Arctic discovery? It’s not impossible…I guess…but yeesch!

An Alternate History

Unfortunately, it’s probably impossible to determine why Peary went public with his hope that Crocker Land might yet be discovered. I don’t know any reliable psychic who can contact the explorer’s spirit at a séance. Instead, I’ll lean on my skills as a fiction writer. Given those very troubling points raised by Welky — Peary’s expertise in the Arctic along with his failure to mention of Crocker Land prior to the final release of Nearest the Pole — what seems reasonable?

Imagine that, rather than a man’s cold calculation for additional financing, this tale is about a man haunted by an Arctic apparition. Looking at what Peary claims to have seen in Nearest the Pole, we find first “the faint white summits of a distant land” and then “snow-clad summits of the distant land in the northwest” (pp. 202, 207). This is not at all the “great unexplored continent in the polar regions” described in that article from The Sun. Nor is it the vast landmass that Rollin Harris had previously predicted based on currents, ice, and tides — presumably the “physical conditions and theory” Peary alludes to in the Star Tribune article. Just some summits. With this in mind, let’s suppose Peary was smart enough to know that those summits might’ve been a mirage, as he implies in the Star Tribune. Imagine that, as he stood at Cape Colgate, he recalled that the intrepid crew of the H.M.S. Herald had seen Plover Land, which was afterward proven to not exist. Later, as he looked out from Cape Thomas Hubbard, picture him remembering that confirmation had yet to come for Keenon Land, named for the seasoned Arctic whaler who claimed to have seen it. What if self-doubt explains Peary’s long hesitancy in recording or telling anyone what he saw?

Then imagine, at the last minute, Peary had a Huckleberry Finn moment. Huck, you’ll recall, runs away from home and shares a raft with Jim, an escaped slave. The boy has been carefully taught that, according to the moral dictates of his pre-Civil War society, he should turn in Jim — for the sake of his own soul! — and he eventually reaches the raggedy edge of doing exactly that. Huck goes so far as to write a letter to Jim’s legal owner, telling her where to find the slave. Mark Twain has his young hero say that he

laid the paper down and set there thinking—thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind.

Huck thinks about how kind and caring Jim has been to him. And about how grateful Jim is when Huck returns his friendship. After a moment more, Huck makes one of the best decisions in all of American literature: “All right, then, I’ll go to hell,” he says — and then he tears up the letter.

Huck thinks

Now, I’m not comparing Robert Peary to Huckleberry Finn exactly. After all, I like Huck. Peary’s assault on Cook’s claim to be the first to the Pole reveals a prideful and vindictive man (and I understand there are several other reasons to dislike Peary). I’m just wondering if the older adventurer had an epiphany like Twain’s younger one did. Suppose Peary decided that it was for the greater good if he went ahead with his last chance to report what he had seen because he couldn’t stop thinking: what if it hadn’t been a mirage? What if it was something other than a product of cold haze and refracted light? What if it was a permanent place yet to be visited?

Feeble though it may be, this tale provides an explanation of why Peary didn’t mention Crocker Land until the last minute and why he didn’t stick firmly to the escape route offered by MacMillan. I present it as only an alternate history.

I present it as something to keep us thinking.


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