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The Cook-Peary files: November 25, 1909: An expedition is born.

Written on April 12, 2016

Mac letter Nov 25 1909

This is the second in a series examining significant unpublished documents associated with the Polar Controversy.

We are now about halfway through the centennial of the Crocker Land Expedition, 1913-17. This expedition left Brooklyn in July 1913 with the intention of exploring “Crocker Land,” which Peary claimed to have seen in 1906 from the heights of Cape Thomas Hubbard on Axel Heiberg island after his failed attempt to reach the North Pole that year. It was originally organized by Donald MacMillan and George Borup, two of Peary’s assistants on his last attempt to reach the Pole in the spring of 1909. However, Borup died in a boating accident on Long Island Sound in 1912 and the expedition was delayed a year. Few realize, however, that the idea for this expedition goes back to shortly after Peary’s last expedition’s returned in September of 1909.

Here’s the letter that MacMillan wrote to Herbert L. Bridgman, Secretary of the Peary Arctic Club, on November 25, proposing it and stating its aims:

Freeport, Maine, Nov.25, 1909.

My dear Mr. Bridgman:

When I mentioned Crocker Land to you a few days ago I hardly
expected you to show any interest. I speak of you in my lectures as a
friend of all Arctic explorers; you even go further than that in catching
up the casual remark of an amateur.

When I think of Crocker Land and that unexplored section
of the Polar Sea, and realize that in all probability here will be the
last great land discovery of the world I can hardly sit still. I thought
seriously of requesting Commander Peary for permission to remain at Etah
last August, and wish now that I had in spite of the fact that I had three
bullet holes through me.* There were plenty of dogs and plenty of food
and believe that I might have done the work.

The primary object of the expedition would be the confirmation
of the discovery and exploration of Crocker Land. Other objectives: line of
soundings from Cape Thomas Hubbard to Crocker Land. The possible discovery
of new lands to the west. An examination of the ice due north of Cape
Thomas Hubbard. A disproof of the existence of Bradley Land.** An examination
of Commanders cairn at Thomas Hubbard and Dr. Cook’s cache at the same to
disprove statements of Cr. Cook. An examination of box at Etah, if still
there.*** The bringing back of the sledge of Dr. Cook and the two boys if

I believe this important work could be done at a very reasonable
cost; you and Commander Peary would know to the cent. There is so much
interest manifested in the north now that I think a ship could be easily
filled with scientists and wealthy men for a summer trip. A large number
have already spoken to me about it; many of the University Club of New
York have shown a great interest in such a plan. U.S. Fish Commissioner
Kendall***** has seen me and written me a number of times. He knows of others
who would like to go. Ask Commander what he thinks of such a trip.

(Sd) Sincerely yours,

Peary, it turned out, didn’t think much of the idea. Although he didn’t object outright, he reneged on the contribution of $500 he pledged towards the expedition and discouraged its sponsor, the American Museum of Natural History, from going forward with it at all after Borup’s death. Perhaps this was because Peary knew “Crocker Land” didn’t exist. All evidence indicates Peary invented Crocker Land solely to coax more money from the rich banker he named it for.

*The result of a gun accident aboard the Roosevelt in the spring of 1909.
**Like Crocker Land, a mythical land Dr. Cook claimed to have seen on his journey toward the Pole in 1908.
***This is the box of Cook’s effects given to Harry Whitney by Cook and ordered off the Roosevelt by Peary when Whitney attempted to bring it aboard. It was buried on the shore under rocks by Captain Robert Bartlett.
**** “The boys,” meaning Etukishuk and Ahwelah, the two Inuit who accompanied Cook on his attempt to reach the North Pole in 1908.
*****William Converse Kendall (1861-1939)

A typed copy of this letter is in the Peary Family Collection at National Archives II in College Park, Md.

Filed in: Uncategorized.