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Crocker Land Expedition (1913-1917)



  • Existence: 1913 - 1917



The Crocker Land Expedition (June 1913-August 1917) was an AMNH sponsored trip to the Arctic Circle to find the fabled Crocker Land Island. Additional sponsors included University of Illinois and the American Geographical Society. This island would be the northernmost landmass ever discovered and was supposedly first seen by AMNH explorer Robert Peary in 1906 (1, p. i-iv). The trip faced a variety of issues, from a delayed departure due to the death of one of the expedition’s leaders, George Borup, to multiple ship delays, crashes and disappearances, to the murder of an Inuit assistant after discovering that Crocker Land did not exist (2, p. 1-8). The trip was initially planned to last two years but became a four-year journey for most of the expedition team. Expedition members included Harrison Hunt, Maurice Tanquary, W. Elmer Ekblaw, Fitzhugh Green, Jerome Allen, Jonathan Small, and expedition leader, Donald Baxter MacMillan (3, p. 379-381).

Commander Robert E. Peary U.S.N. sets off on his second expedition to find the North Pole. On this trip, standing on Cape Thomas Hubbard (the northernmost point of Axel Heiberg Island), Peary believes he spotted “in the northwest above the ice horizon the snow-clad summits of a distant land.” Placing it at about 100 degrees W. Long. and 83 degrees N. Lat. or about 130 miles from where he was standing, Peary named it Crocker Land, in honor of his friend George Crocker, a California banker and supporter of his Arctic expeditions.
Borup and MacMillan begin planning an expedition to search for Crocker Land.
Borup and MacMillan secure the support of the American Museum of Natural History and the American Geographical Society. Smaller contributions from Yale University, Bowdoin College, and Theodore Roosevelt are also secured.
Plans for the expedition are well underway. MacMillan hires Jonathan Small to join as mechanic, cook and general handyman. Supplies are shipped directly to Sydney, Nova Scotia, to save the expense of chartering a boat from New York.
George Borup drowns in a canoe accident.
Executive Committee of the American Museum of Natural History resolution proposes that the expedition be “constituted a memorial of the young explorer” George Borup.
The Committee announces the men to staff the expedition. Macmillan, Expedition Leader; Lincoln Ellsworth, cartographer; Ensign Fitzhugh Green U.S.N. navigator and engineer; W. Elmer Ekblaw, geologist and zoologist; and Jonathan Small.
Edmund Otis Hovey, curator of Geology at the American Museum of Natural History and Chairman of the Committee in Charge of the expedition, is named MacMillan’s supervisor. Ellsworth drops out and is replaced by Maurice Tanquary, a zoologist and biologist. Jerome Lee Allen is signed on as chief electrician.
Hovey receives a letter from Edward J. James, president of the University of Illinois, saying the university was prepared to subscribe $10,000 to the Crocker Land expedition, spread out over three years. (It was later disclosed that Ekblaw was the instrument of this donation; he and Tanquary were Illinois graduates).
Harrison Hunt, M.D. joins the expedition as surgeon. The staff is now fully assembled.
The expedition leaves the Brooklyn Navy Yard aboard the 400-ton Diana, a sealing vessel out of Saint John's Newfoundland.
Trying to avoid a large iceberg at midnight, the Diana crashes on the rocks along the Labrador coast. Expedition members place full blame on the ship's captain. MacMillan wires the museum about the need for another ship. By the time the men reach Saint John's, Nova Scotia, Hovey has a second vessel, the Erik, waiting for them.
All cargo has been successfully transferred to the Erik and the expedition is able to once again continue northward. Due to their late start, they are unable to reach their goal of Ellesmere Island, and instead make their way to the Eskimo settlement at Etah, Greenland. They arrive a week to ten days later.
The crew set up their headquarters at an Eskimo settlement in northern Greenland as the Polar Sea ice is fully melted--too late to reach Ellesmere Island.
The expedition team sets up several supply caches at Cairn Point, Cape Rutherford and Ellesmere Land in preparation for their travels north.
The set departure date for the Polar Sea. MacMillan and team use about 20 sledges and some 200 dogs, making five divisions of four men each, to be under the command of Ekblaw, Green, Tanquary, Hunt and MacMillan. The first division, led by Green, leaves Etah on February 7, the other divisions follow on successive days, with MacMillan leaving last on February 13th.
The expedition team travels north through Kah-mow-witz, Cape Sabine, Smith Sound, Cape Rutherford, Alexandra Fiord and Hayes Sound before returning to Etah because of ailing men and dogs.
The expedition team again leaves Etah with the hopes of crossing the Polar Sea before it breaks up in the early summer. MacMillan first sends an advance party of four men, then follows the next day with ten men, ten sledges and 100 dogs. The group's first stop would be Payer Harbor near Cape Sabine.
The team travels further North crossing through Ellesmere Land through Beitstadt Fiord. After several days of hard vertical travel, two Eskimo members of the team return to Etah, leaving the remaining men and dogs with dangerously low rations and little time to reach the next supply cache near Ellesmere Land.
After crossing Ellesmere Land, the team sleds over Eureka Sound, heading closer to Bay Fiord and the Polar Sea.
Ekblaw, because of serious concerns over potential frostbite of his feet, begins a return trip south with several other expedition members, while MacMillan, and eventually Green, continue north toward Cape Thomas Hubbard.
MacMillan's group leaves from the Fosheim Peninsula for Skraelingodden, ending up at Schei's Island. MacMillan and his team spend several days resting and hunting. After leaving instructions for Green (whose group was following behind MacMillan's), the team heads to Hvitberg (White Mountain).
Green's group catches up to MacMillan's and the combined team continues north, passing Hvitberg in the hopes of crossing the remaining 120 miles across the Polar Sea to where Peary first saw Crocker Land.
MacMillan decides a small group of four (he, Green and two Eskimo guides, Pee-ah-wah-to and Ee-took-ah-shoo) would continue to the supposed site of Crocker Land. Finding Peary's old cairn, the group continues out onto the Polar Sea. As the team moves out over the frozen water, more and more of the sea ice is beginning to crack and separate with lanes of flowing water lining the landscape.
After traveling 78 miles over the polar sea Green and MacMillan think they see Crocker Land in the distance, but they are quickly told by one of the guides that they are only seeing a mirage. The team continues, ending up 150 miles northwest of Cape Thomas Hubbard, almost 30 miles further north than Peary's estimation of Crocker Land. After several more days of searching, the team decides to head back towards Etah in order to return before the Polar Sea begins to melt completely.
1914-04 to 1914-05
The group begins the return trip, following their previous trail, eventually stumbling along more of Peary's encampments and cairns, and finding new lookout points on Axel Heiberg Land they continually search unsuccessfully for northern land, further confirming that Crocker Land was nothing more than a mirage.
After being sent out to find food, Green returns after missing for 4 days having lost Pee-ah-wah-to, an Eskimo guide, and an entire group of sled dogs to a harsh storm. Apparently both the Eskimo and the dogs had succumbed to inclement weather, and MacMillan and the remaining two members of the northern team continue moving south. Later, it is revealed that Green had murdered Pee-ah-wah-to, but no legal action is ever taken.
The men return to Etah.
The New York Tribune runs on its front-page the headline “Crocker Land Eludes Explorers”. The article also reports that the night before, when Peary, now a Rear Admiral, was told the news, he said “I believe I sighted Crocker Land in 1906,” but he said he'd await the full report before further comment.
To that end the expedition Committee at AMNH charters a three-masted schooner from the Grenfell Society, the George B. Cluett, with orders for it to set sail for Etah from North Sydney, Nova Scotia on July 7, pick up men, supplies and collections, and return to New York in September. Loath to risk another Diana, the Committee hires Captain George Comer, a veteran of the Arctic, to go with the Cluett as ice pilot. Also on board is Edmund Hovey, whom Osborn sends to Nova Scotia to sail with the ship, join the expedition in Etah and bring the men home.
Rescue ship Cluett's docks to deal with motor damage.
Three men, Tanquary, Green and Allen leave for home, travelling on sledges. They make it to Southern Greenland, then board ships back to New York.
The Committee sends a third relief ship, the Danmark, property of the Greenland Mining Company. It reaches 300 miles south of Etah, then disappears for several months.
Hovey writes to F.A. Lucas at the Museum, “A second unexpected and unprepared-for year in the Arctic is quite lacking in charm and attractiveness, but Captain Comer and I are much more comfortable and better off that [sic] we were last year...”
MacMillan pleads with Osborn to send the very best boat and captain available for the fourth relief expedition. The vessel obtained is the steam sealer Neptune, described as being of extraordinarily strong build, able to furnish unusual resistance should she be caught in the ice.
The Neptune, under the command of Captain Robert A. Bartlett, leaves Etah with all remaining members on board.
The Neptune arrives in Sydney Harbour, Nova Scotia. From here the members of the expedition split up, heading for home their separate ways.

Historical Note

The Crocker Land expedition hoped for geographic discovery and exploration, and had several scientific goals including mapping Crocker Land and the northern most coastline along Cape Thomas Hubbard, as well as studying sea currents, plant and animal life along the Polar Sea. MacMillan stated the goals of the expedition: "To study the geology, geography, meteorology, terrestrial magnetism, electrical phenomena, seismology, zoology (both vertebrate and invertebrate), botany, oceanography, ethnology, and archeology throughout the extensive region, which is to be traversed, all of it lying about the 77th parallel” (1, p. iv). Scientific members of the expedition team included MacMillan, anthropologist; Tanquary, zoologist; Ekblaw, geologist and botanist; and Green, physicist (2, p. 1). The expedition was planned over two years before departure, with supplies purchased in New York and then shipped to Nova Scotia to prepare for long Arctic winters (2, p. 1-2). Leaving New York’s Brooklyn Navy Yard on July 2, 1913, the initial ship, the Diana, ran aground along the Labrador coast, forcing expedition members to move the team and supplies onto land until AMNH contracted a new ship, the Erik, to continue the journey (3, p. 379-380). Due to the sea ice, the Captain of the Erik refused to take the expedition team all the way to Ellesmere Island, leading the team to an Inuit encampment in northern Greenland at Etah, where the ship docked on August 26, 1913 (2, p. 5). Here the expedition team hired several Inuit guides, many of whom had worked with Robert Peary on his previous Arctic explorations (3, p. 379-382, 384). The expedition team built a temporary structure that would serve as the main living quarters and base camp of the expedition for the next four years. The team spent six months in Etah, waiting for early spring to ensure the Polar Sea would be frozen enoughto travel with supplies, dogs and sleds, and that there would be enough light to guide their journey (4, p. 1-2). The team departed on February 12, 1914, but the group swiftly returned after widespread illness and health issues with the men and dogs occurred before they could reach the west side of Ellesmere Land (5, p. 652-654). On March 11, the team again left Etah, but in smaller groups, with fewer supplies and more sled dogs. The team crossed Beistadt Fjord, but had to make a difficult climb up the Beistadt Glacier, slowing down the group, which was quickly falling behind schedule (3, p. 385-386). Once across the glacier, the team continued moving northwest, encountering enough wildlife to sustain both them and the dogs, saving precious food supplies for the return trip (5, p. 655-659). It took the team 37 days to reach the Polar Sea, covered in rough ice. As they began to cross, they encountered wide cracks in the sea ice, forcing the group to stop and wait for the ice to refreeze. They continued moving north, but additional sea lanes caused extensive delays (6, p. 5). On April 21, 1914, Green claimed to see land in the distance, and the group got its first view of Crocker Land (6, p. 7). One of the Inuit guides, Pee-ah-wah-to, said the landmass was most likely a mirage, which proved to be correct when the light changed on the horizon (3, p. 391). Despite this, MacMillan, Green and two Inuit guides continued further north until they reached a point almost 120 miles north of Cape Thomas Hubbard, approximately 30 miles north of the supposed location of Crocker Land. Soon after they reached this point, MacMillan concluded that they had officially disproved the existence of Crocker Land, and the four-man team began their return journey south (7, p. 925-930). On the return trip MacMillan encountered Peary’s old cairn on the tip of Cape Thomas Hubbard, the location from which the explorer had claimed to see Crocker Land (3, p. 396-397). From this viewpoint MacMillan claimed he could see the mirage of Crocker Land: “From the summit of cape we could see what resembled land very strongly from southwest true to NN East…This is undoubtedly the same kind of mirage which deceived Peary” (2, p. 10). During the next several days of travel, the small team encountered a severe blizzard along the coastline of Axel Heiberg Land, and after an extended period of stranded hibernation, Green and Pee-ah-wah-to set out into the blizzard to find possible food and southern trail lines. After six days, Green returned without Pee-ah-wah-to, claiming that the guide was dead and the sled dogs had gotten trapped in the snow, succumbed by the elements (7, p. 929-930). The three remaining travelers returned to Etah in May 2014, where the expedition base would remain until August 1917. During their three years at Etah the expedition conducted much of its scientific scholarship and specimen collection (6, p. 11). Although further Arctic trips lead to more discoveries and specimen collection, the losses were extensive. Several of the Inuit guides died, as did many of the sled dogs, and members of the expedition team lost toes and limbs to frostbite. Several rescue ships got lost or damaged on their attempts to reach the expedition crew, and it would be three more years before Captain Robert A. Bartlett and his ship, the Neptune, would reach Etah. While waiting for ship arrivals, the expedition team returned to many of the previously visited locations on their travels toward the now debunked Crocker Land, creating new temporary encampments surrounding the Polar Sea. Further locations visited include Peabody Bay, Greenland Ice Cap, North Star Bay (Thule Harbor), Lake Hazen, Lady Franklin Bay, Peteravik, Cape Chalon, Bache Peninsula, Eureka Sound, King Christian Island, and Finlay Island (3, p. 406-411). These scientific efforts are documented in papers for AMNH including “Mollusca of the Crocker Land Expedition to northwest Greenland and Grinnell Land” by Frank Collins Baker, “The material response of the polar Eskimo to their far arctic environment” by W. Elmer Ekblaw, “Collembola from the Crocker Land expedition 1913-1917” by Justus Warson Folsom and the “Report on the Bremidae collected by the Crocker Land Expedition 1913-1917” by Theodore Henry Frison, among others. For additional expedition overviews, there are several articles and volumes written by Donald Baxter Macmillan including, “Geographical report of the Crocker Land Expedition, 1913-1917” or his book Four Years in the White North, first published in 1918.

SOURCES (1) MacMillan, Donald B. 1925. Four Years in the White North. Boston and New York, The Medici Society of America.

(2) Off to a Rocky Start: The Crocker Land Expedition, 1913. Peary MacMillan Arctic Museum & Arctic Studies Center. Brunswick, ME: Bowdoin College.

(3) MacMillan, Donald B. "Geographical Report of the Crocker Land Expedition, 1913-1917", American Museum of Natural History Bulletin 56 (1928): 379-435.

(4) Cook, Doug. Arctic Museum: 'A Glimmer on the Polar Sea: The Crocker Land Expedition, 1913-1917. Brunswick, ME: Bowdoin College.

(5) MacMillan, Donald B. 1915. In Search of a New Land. Part I. New York: Harper's Magazine: 651-665.

(6) Northwest of the Known Arctic Lands: MacMillan’s Search for Crocker Land, 1914. Peary MacMillan Arctic Museum & Arctic Studies Center. Brunswick, ME: Bowdoin College.

(7) MacMillan, Donald B. 1915. In Search of a New Land. Part II. New York: Harper's Magazine: 921-930.



Found in 11 Collections and/or Records:

Roy Chapman Andrews papers, 1987 Accession

Identifier: Mss .A54
Scope and Contents The bulk of the collection consists of Andrews' correspondence, manuscripts, and transcripts of Andrews' broadcasts and talks from 1934 to1944. It also contains one folder of family and biographical documents and newspaper clippings received from Charles Gallenkamp, Andrews' biographer, in 1990. The majority of the administrative papers' correspondence concerns requests for speaking engagements about Andrews' explorations, requests for articles, and letters from the public and from companies...
Dates: 1920-1947; Majority of material found within 1934-1944

Crocker Land Expedition collection

Identifier: Archives Orn159
Scope and Contents

Correspondence with Donald B. MacMillan

Dates: 1912-1933

Crocker Land Expedition field photographs

Identifier: PPC .C76
Scope and Content Note This collection is a small subset of copies of prints from the larger Photographic Collection no. 14 – Crocker Land Expedition field photographs. The photographs in this collection are individually sleeved and arranged in four series. Folder 1 consists of 4 photographs that were taken prior to departure for the Arctic and include images of the S.S. “Diana” in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and group portraits of the expedition team.Folder 2 is divided into two sets. The...
Dates: circa 1913-1917

Crocker Land Expedition papers, 1907-1922.

Identifier: Mss .C76
Dates: Majority of material found within 1907 - 1922

Field and Expedition Equipment

Identifier: Mem 305
Scope and Contents Since 1887, the American Museum of Natural History has been conducting field expeditions in every continent. This is one of the main resources for the Museum’s scientific research and collection development activities throughout all its disciplines. This grouping holds the equipment that were used during expeditions from around 1877 to 1996. Most of these expeditions required direct interaction with the natural habitat of the subject of study, which usually involves being out in the...
Dates: Usage: circa 1877-1990s

George B. Cluett Auxiliary Schooner in Greenland photographs

Identifier: PPC .I67
Scope and Contents

An account of the "Cluett's" trip around Greenland. Includes images of the ship, its crew, the surrounding area, indigenous peoples and its winter at Parker Snow Bay, Greenland. Includes a caption list.

Dates: 1915-1916

Edmund Otis Hovey records

Identifier: Mss .H683
Scope and Content Note The Edmund Otis Hovey Records collection consists of approximately 50 field notebooks and journals from his and Mrs. Ettie Hovey’s travels around the Caribbean, North America, Europe and the Arctic; as well as, manuscripts of his papers and lectures notes. The collection also includes photographs, postcards, ephemera and newspaper clippings regarding the Crocker Land Expedition that took place from 1913-1917. The collection spans a period of approximately 20 years, beginning in 1890 and...
Dates: 1890-1919