©Luke J Spencer, taken at the American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.

In the archives of the American Geographical Society is a map of the Arctic Ocean dating from over a century ago that has a peculiar secret. For just north of Greenland, at roughly 100’ longitude west of Greenwich, it shows an island called Crocker Land, annotated ‘Seen By Peary, 1906’. The Peary in question was Robert Peary, one of the most famous Polar explorers of his day, and the man who claimed to have been the first to step foot on the North Pole.

Robert Peary, self portrait at Cape Sheridan, 1909; “I must have fame”, he told his mother.

But what makes this map remarkable is that Crocker Land, despite being supposedly discovered by one of the most experienced and respected veterans from the golden age of Edwardian Polar exploration, didn’t exist. The phantom island was not so much ‘seen by Peary’ as ‘invented out of  the thin Arctic air’ by Peary. It tells an incredible story of a doomed expedition frozen for years in the Arctic Ice, of fraud and deception, the race to the Pole and at the centre of it, a mysterious island that never existed. 

©Luke J Spencer, taken at the American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.

By 1906, Robert Peary was the hardened veteran of five expeditions to the Arctic Circle. Desperate to be the first to the North Pole, Peary left New York in the summer of 1906 in what was thought to be the most state-of-the-art ice breaking vessels ever built, the Roosevelt. Named in honour of one of the principal backers and seasoned adventurer himself, Theodore Roosevelt, the mission to set foot on the top of the world ended in failure; Peary sledged to with 175 miles of the elusive Pole, but was forced to turn back. 

Peary, the Polar Explorer, aboard the Roosevelt.

Peary immediately began planning another attempt, but found himself short of cash. Peary tried to coax extra much needed funds from one of his backers, the wealthy New York financier George Crocker, by announcing that on his 1906 attempt, he’d spotted a hitherto undiscovered land 130 miles northwest of Cape Thomas Hubbard. Completely un-chartered, Peary would name this new found island Crocker Land in his honour, if the banker would release more money. Perhaps Crocker Land would prove to be a vast unexplored continent, a lost Atlantis of the Arctic. Financial backing was duly secured and Peary would set out again in the Roosevelt in 1909 in an expedition which, he claimed, would take him to the North Pole.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, polar exploration captured the public imagination in much the same way as the space race did half a century later. The race to the ends of the earth made heroes of men like Ernest Shackleton and Roald Amundsen, and legendary martyrs of men like Robert Falcon Scott. To conquer the Pole was as much a romantic and heroic quest as a scientific one. As Susan Solomon wrote for the Scientific American, “who could not be moved to admire the men who set out to explore these desolate, frigid and forbidding lands?”

Amundsen, Shackleton & Peary, 1913

But Peary returned from his conquest of the North Pole to find that a former expedition member, Frederick Cook had claimed to have reached the Pole a full year earlier. The dispute over the ‘first to the Pole’ would become embroiled in heated debates within the hallowed halls of the American Geographical Society, was investigated by the National Geographic, and eventually in hearings in the Senate. Cook’s claim was discredited, and with the loss of gentlemanly honour, he  would eventually end up in prison. Analysis of Peary’s findings in the 1980s suggested he may well have been several miles off the Pole, but the honour was given to the explorer from Pennsylvania. 

The Peary Expedition at the North Pole, April 6th, 1909; sceptics claimed this was several miles short.

Whilst the debate over the Pole raged, Cook tried to discredit his rival Peary, by stating that Crocker Land didn’t exist and Peary had made it up entirely. Cook claimed he’d traveled on his way to the North Pole to the area where it was supposed to be but there was nothing there. Peary’s supporters began to counter attack; one of his assistants on the 1909 trip to the Pole, Donald MacMillan announced that he would lead an expedition to prove the existence of Crocker Land, vindicating Peary and forever ruining the reputation of Cook. There was also the glory of being the first to set foot on the island. In his book ‘A Wretched and Precarious Situation – In Search of the Last Arctic Frontier’, David Welky explains how with both Poles conquered, Crocker Land was left as, “the last great unknown place in the world.”

Donald MacMillan; his expedition to vindicate Peary would end in disaster.

The MacMillan expedition received heavyweight backing from the American Museum of Natural History, the University of Illinois and the American Geographical Society, and set out for the unknown in 1913. MacMillan and his team took provisions, dogs, “a power boat, a moving picture machine, instruments for all kinds of records, a physician, a cook and cameras for use whenever a moving picture machine would not be available.” Wireless equipment was also taken with the grand plan of making a radio broadcast live to the United States from a newly discovered continent.

©Luke J Spencer, taken at the American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.
©Luke J Spencer, taken at the American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.

But immediately the expedition was met with misfortune; one of MacMillan’s two ships was shipwrecked on the voyage to Greenland, by an allegedly drunken captain. By the winter of 1913-14, with the seas frozen, MacMillan set out to attempt a 1,200 mile long sled journey from Etah, Greenland, through one of the most inhospitable and harshest winters on earth, in search of Peary’s phantom island.

©Spurlock Museum, Crockerland Collection

To endure and persevere a Polar Expedition tests the limits of human endurance, even with today’s equipment. Over a century ago, the stamina required must have been unfathomable. One of the few ‘gentleman explorers’ to survive Scott’s doomed mission to the South Pole in 1912 was Apsley Cherry-Garrard; in his account suitably named,  ‘The Worst Journey in the World’, he writes, “I, for one, had come to that point of suffering at which I did not really care if only I could die without much pain. They talk of the heroism of dying – the little they know – it would be easy to die, a dose of morphia, a friendly crevasse, and blissful sleep. The trouble is to go on…”

©Spurlock Museum, Crockerland Collection

Presumably a large portion of will power was drawn from the purpose of the mission itself. But as MacMillan and his team sledged through the Arctic landscape, any signs of Crocker Land failed to materialize. “You can imagine how earnestly we scanned every foot of that horizon – not a thing in sight,” he wrote. “We were convinced that we were in the pursuit of a will-o’-the-wisp, ever receding.” One wonders what private thoughts MacMillan entertained in his tent at nigh. Surrounded by the peculiar half light world of the Arctic, at what point did he begin to think that perhaps his friend Peary had made a mistake? Or even worse, made the island up entirely.

©Spurlock Museum, Crockerland Collection

The harsh condition began to take their toll on the expedition; one member Tanquary removed his boots to find pieces of raw, bleeding skin and flesh fall of his rotting toes. Enduring the unending agony of frostbite, he managed to drive his dog team 400 miles back to Etah, only to have his toes amputated.

MacMillan and his team pressed on until one day in April, Fitzhugh Green, a twenty five year old Ensign in the US Navy, “no sooner out of the igloo than he came running back, calling in through the door, “We have it!”. Following Green, we ran to the top of the highest mound. There could be no doubt about it. Great heavens! What a land! Hills, valleys, snow-capped peaks extending through at least 120’ of the horizon.”

But visions of the fame brought by being the first to step foot on Crocker Land quickly evaporated. “I turned to Peea-wah-to”, wrote MacMillan of his Inuit guide. “After critically examining the supposed landfall for a few minutes, he astounded me by replying that he thought it was a ‘poo-jok’, or mist. 

Heartbreakingly, MacMillan recorded that, “the landscape gradually changed its appearance and varied in extent with the swinging around of the Sun; finally at night it disappeared altogether.” For five more days, the explorers pressed on, until by the reading supposedly taken by Peary in 1906, Crocker Land would have to have been some 30,000 feet high. What Green had seen was a mirage, a Polar ‘fata morgana’. Named for the sorceress Morgana le Fay in the legends of King Arthur, these powerful mirages are the inverse image of a oasis mirages in the desert. Light reflects off the freezing surface of the ice to produce mysterious images of apparent mountains, islands and in the legend of the Flying Dutchman, floating ships.

Mysterious ‘Flying Dutchmen’ ships, one of nature’s more peculiar optical illusions.

Fata Morgana’s are a common occurrence in Polar regions, but could Peary, with all his experience have been simply mistaken? “As we drank our hot tea and gnawed the pemmican, we did a good deal of thinking, “ wrote MacMillan. “Could Peary with all his experience have been mistaken? Was this mirage which had deceived us the very thing which had deceived him eight years before? If he did see Crocker Land, then it was considerably more than 120 miles away, for we were now at least 100 miles from shore, with nothing in sight.”

MacMillan’s doomed mission was forced to accept the unthinkable, and turn back. “My dreams of the last four years were merely dreams; my hopes had ended in bitter disappointment.” But the despair at realizing that Crocker Land didn’t exist, was merely the beginning of the ordeal.

©Luke J Spencer, taken at the American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.

MacMillan sent Green and Inuit guide Piugaattog west to explore a possible route back to their base camp in Etah. The two became trapped in the ice, and one of their dog teams died. Fighting over the remaining dog team, Green with alarming lack of remorse explained what happened next; “I shot once in the air…..I then killed him with a shot through the shoulder and another through the head.” Returning to the main party, the murder of the Inuit guide was swiftly hushed by MacMillan, telling the other members of the mission that Piugaattog had perished in the blizzard. 

The Arctic weather transpired against the MacMillan mission, and the ill fated expedition would remain trapped in the ice for another astonishing three years. Two attempts by  the American Museum of Natural History to rescue the doomed explorers met with failure, and it wasn’t until 1917 that MacMillan and his party were finally rescued. 

©Luke J Spencer, taken at the American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.

Crocker Land may well have proven to be a figment of Peary’s imagination, but the mission to it made use of their time stranded in the ice to good use; they studied glaciers, astronomy, the tides, Inuit culture and anything else that attracted their curiosity. The eventually returned with over 5,000 photographs, thousands of specimens and some of the earliest film taken of the Arctic, many of which can be seen at the archives of the American Geographical Society, housed on the campus of the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, the University of Illinois and Bowdoin College.

©Luke J Spencer, taken at the American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.

It isn’t known whether MacMillan ever confronted Peary over just what he had seen, and what his motives were. When the Crocker Land expedition set out, Peary was the ultimate authority on  the North Pole, an ‘unimpeachable source’. If Peary had claimed to see a vast undiscovered island, then it was virtually gospel. But his unparalleled Arctic experience would suggest that Peary was not taken in by a mirage. With a Fata-Morgana’s constantly shifting nature, it seems hard to believe that Crocker Land was a trick of the eye. 

©Luke J Spencer, taken at the American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.

In all his Polar research, Peary didn’t mention Crocker Land at all, even in letters to his financial backer George Crocker himself. For such an ambitious, ego driven explorer it seems suspicious not to ever mention a completely unknown possible new continent, until one day in 1907, when he first mentioned Crocker Land in a new book, written to drum up support for his 1909 bid for the Pole.

©Luke J Spencer, taken at the American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.

An alarming indictment of the treatment of Inuits at the time, Fitzhugh Green was never charged with murder. In 1947 he was arrested for possession of opiates and died shortly after in Danvers Hospital, Connecticut.

Any remnants of the legend of Crocker Land were put to bed in 1938, when Isaac Scholssbach flew over where the mysterious island was supposed to be, looked down from his cockpit and saw nothing. 

Editor’s Note: Originally written for the always fascinating Mental Floss, a perfect site for the curious minded!