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In 1906, Robert Peary set out to reach the North Pole. He failed to achieve his goal but came back with an extraordinary story; there was a previously undiscovered continent in the Arctic Ocean. He named it Crocker Land after George Crocker, a banker and major sponsor of his expedition.
On September 7, 1909, The New York Times ran this headline on its front page “Peary Discovers the North Pole after Eight Trials in 23 Years.”
A week later, The New York Herald had a different headline “The North Pole Is Discovered by Dr. Frederick A. Cook.” The Smithsonian Magazine notes that “Cook, an American explorer who had seemingly returned from the dead after more than a year in the Arctic, claimed to have reached the pole in April 1908—a full year before Peary.”
Set aside the Eurocentric arrogance suggesting the North Pole did not exist until a white man found it. For 80 years, Peary was anointed as the first person to reach the pole. Then, in 1988, the National Geographic Society, which had sponsored some of Peary’s expeditions, went over his records closely. It emerged that Peary did not reach the North Pole and that he knew it. Cook had the more legitimate claim although doubts exist about whether or not he reached the spot.
The two men had been friends, but their duelling claims turned the relationship into a feud.
Peary “Discovers” Crocker Land
In 1906, Peary returned from one of his futile northern expeditions and began writing a book entitled Nearest the Pole. And there, in its pages, was the astonishing news of his discovery of a new land mass. Had the great American explorer found the “Lost Atlantis of the North?”
He placed what he called Crocker Land north of Ellesmere Island and west of Greenland. He described seeing valleys and mountains covering almost the entire horizon. Scientists studied tides and other evidence and concluded that Peary was right; a hitherto unknown land mass had been discovered.
Peary had whispered nothing about Crocker Land to anybody until his book was published. Was the revelation a cynical ploy to boost sales? Later, historians think it might have been just that.
Robert Peary was a very ambitious man who craved being the centre of attention. In 1886, he revealed something of his character in a letter to his mother: “I will next winter be one of the foremost in the highest circles in the capital, and make powerful friends with whom I can shape my future instead of letting it come as it will . . . remember, mother, I must have fame . . .”
It seems entirely possible for such a vainglorious man to invent a continent in order to bask in the glory that would follow. Who was going to contradict him? Nobody else had ever been to the barren wasteland.
It turns out someone did gainsay his claim―rather disastrously.
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Where is Crocker Land?
The competing camps of Cook and Peary supporters and their joint claims to being the first to reach the North Pole decided to put the issue to the test. Cook said he never saw Crocker Land. If it was where Peary said it was, then Cook could not have reached the pole.
In 1913, an expedition under geologist Donald Baxter MacMillan was assembled. It was dogged by ill luck.
Two weeks after leaving New York aboard the steamer Diana, the ship smacked into some rocks while attempting to dodge an iceberg. Apparently, the captain had been imbibing freely from the rum ration. The team transferred to another vessel, the Erik.
They set up a base camp at Etah in north-west Greenland and unsuccessfully tried to make radio contact with the outside world. They hunkered down for the winter.
On March 10, 1914, a team began the 1,200-mile journey by dog-sled to the supposed location of Crocker Land. The extremely harsh conditions caused a couple of Inuit guides to quit, and then, MacMillan decided to reduce the size of his team to just four, himself, geophysicist Fitzhugh Green, and two Inuit.
But, their quest was in vain. When they reached the point from which Peary said he had seen the mighty Crocker Land, they saw only sea ice. MacMillan wrote that “We were convinced that we were in pursuit of a will-o’-the-wisp, ever receding, ever changing, ever beckoning . . . My dreams of the last four years were merely dreams; my hopes had ended in bitter disappointment.”
On the trek back to base camp the four men split into two teams. MacMillan stayed with Ittukusuk while he sent Green and Piugaattoq to explore a route. When Green returned he was alone.
Green acknowledged that he and Piugaattoq got into a dispute and that “I then killed him with a shot through the shoulder and another through the head . . .” When the three men returned to Etah, MacMillan told his team what had happened but advised it was best to keep quiet about it. The Inuit were told that Piugaattoq had died in an avalanche.
It was time to head home, but that was fraught with mishaps. The first two rescue ships became stuck in ice while the expedition suffered awful privation through the bitter cold of two winters. The team did not return to the United States until 1917. Fitzhugh Green was never charged with murder.
What Did Peary See?
The most charitable explanation for Peary’s claim to have discovered Crocker Land was that he saw a mirage.
The technical name for this apparition is a Fata Morgana and it only occurs in certain atmospheric conditions, most often at sea. When a cold air mass is close to the surface and a warm layer is above it a mirage might appear.
The condition takes its name from the sorceress Morgan le Fay of Arthurian legend. She was said to have created mirages that drew sailors to their doom.
David Welky says “Crocker Land is a fabrication by Peary from the start.” In his 2016 book, A Wretched and Precarious Situation: In Search of the Last Arctic Frontier, he demolishes the notion of a mirage. He puts the case that Peary was despondent over his failure to reach the North Pole and conjured up Crocker Land so he could return with a glorious achievement and the accolades he believed he so richly deserved.
- The First Secretary of the British Admiralty from 1809 to 1827 was a man called John Wilson Croker. During his tenure in that office, in 1818, an expedition under Rear Admiral John Ross was dispatched to find a route through the Northwest Passage. Off the coast of north-western Greenland, Ross and his crew spotted a massive mountain range. Convinced it blocked further progress, he turned back after naming the mysterious land Croker’s Mountains.
- Frederick Cook, who claimed to be the first to the pole, revealed that he too had discovered a previously unknown land mass. As was the habit, he named it Bradley Land, after his sponsor John R. Bradley. But no, Bradley Land was either a misidentified chunk of sea ice or a flat out falsehood.
- Arctic exploration was a gruelling business. After an exhausting trek during his 1898-1902 expedition, Robert Peary suffered frostbite. When he took off his socks eight toes came away with them. Peary is reported to have said “a few toes aren’t much to give to achieve the Pole.”
- “Who Discovered the North Pole?” Bruce Henderson, Smithsonian Magazine, April 2009.
- “The Mysterious Discovery of a Continent That Wasn’t There.” Simon Worrall, National Geographic, December 18, 2016.
- “Fate of the Crocker Land Expedition.” Stanley A. Freed, Natural History Magazine, June 2012.
- “Fata Morgana.” Skybrary, January 6, 2020.
- “How a Fake Mountain Range Slowed Down Arctic Exploration.” Cara Giaimo, Atlas Obscura, March 9, 2018.
- “A Wretched and Precarious Situation: In Search of the Last Arctic Frontier.” David Welky, W.W. Norton, 2016.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on September 29, 2020:
Thanks John for getting your comment in before they boost this to a niche site! Like you, I knew about Peary but not Cook. That's why I love doing this; during research I learn things.
John Hansen from Gondwana Land on September 28, 2020:
This was a very interesting read, Rupert. I knew of Peary’s claims to have reached the North Pole but can’t recall having heard of Frederick Cook or Crocker Land. Thank you for the research and history lesson.