To Crocker Land
by David Welky
Arctic Mirage: The 1913-1920 Expedition in Search of Crocker Land
Winton U. Solberg,
Jefferson: McFarland, 2019. 263 pp
In 1913, a group of seven Americans headed north from New York City. Their mission was to find and explore Crocker Land, an unexplored island or perhaps small continent that Arctic explorer Robert Peary claimed to have seen seven years earlier. What was supposed to be a two-year expedition stretched over four years as a series of questionable decisions and naval mishaps—rescue ships kept getting locked in the Arctic ice—trapped the adventurers in northwest Greenland, among the world’s most inhospitable places.
Despite its inherent suspense and gripping stories of survival, the Crocker Land Expedition soon slipped from public awareness. Leader Donald MacMillan lacked the media-friendly panache of better-known explorers, such as Peary and Richard Byrd. More damaging, the expedition’s greatest discovery was in fact a non-discovery. Rather than a new continent, the Americans found only jumbled sea ice where Peary had placed Crocker Land.
Arctic Mirage’s author, Winton U. Solberg, provides a sober, straightforward, and measured account of the Crocker Land Expedition and its scientific achievements. Solberg, a longtime historian who passed away in 2019, eschews adventure, character, and drama. His interest is science, not personality.
Solberg recounts the history of Arctic exploration in a few pages and outlines the Crocker Land Expedition in a few concise chapters. On subjects of particular interest, however, Solberg digs in, immersing the reader in copious detail. Blow-by-blow renditions of hunting parties and side trips catalogue such minutiae as how many musk oxen were killed and what species of plants were found. Although the American Museum of Natural History was the expedition’s chief sponsor, Solberg lavishes attention on a secondary sponsor, the University of Illinois (Solberg’s academic home for nearly sixty years), digging deep into its administration’s interminable quarrels with the museum about money and recognition. Of the expedition’s seven members, Elmer Ekblaw, a geology professor at Illinois, receives the most extensive and favorable coverage. Ekblaw, conscientious and hardworking, struggled to adapt to Arctic conditions but ultimately seized opportunities to collect plants and mineral samples during field expeditions that Solberg recounts in exhaustive detail.
Neither Ekblaw nor the other six Americans would have survived without assistance from the natives. The Inughuit tribe of northwest Greenland had worked with Peary and others before him. They developed a complex relationship with Westerners, sharing their survival skills and hunting techniques in exchange for precious goods, such as rifles, metal, and wood. Arctic Mirage’s treatment of the Inughuit is the book’s most problematic element. Rather than present native perspectives on the expedition, the author interprets the Inughuit (rendering them as “Inuit”) through American eyes, taking expedition members’ written memoirs at face value. Relying on this early twentieth-century lens, he portrays the Inughuit as superstitious, panicky, and vaguely incompetent. References to a Westerner traveling with “his two Inuit” (p. 106) feel paternalistic and obscure the fact that those people were not possessions but rather active participants whose skills kept the Americans alive (p. 106). None of the Inughuit emerge as actual individuals. Deeper research into the literature on Inughuit cosmology, social customs, and material culture would be most helpful. So too would a stronger understanding of orthography and Inughuit family networks. More than once, Western explorers’ habit of writing Inughuit names phonetically, thereby leading to inconsistent spellings, tricks Solberg into treating a single Inughuit as if they were multiple people. For example, Ittukusuk, a master hunter and expert dog driver, becomes both “Itukusuk” and “Etookashoo,” with no recognition that they were in fact the same person.
This same reluctance to interrogate sources colors Solberg’s treatment of Crocker Land itself. He never questions Peary’s claims to have seen an island and never explains what kind of mirage Peary might have seen, if in fact he saw a mirage at all. Crocker Land simply disappears from the text as surely as it did from the map.
While shortchanging the Inughuit and the expedition’s central mystery, Arctic Mirage also embarks on some curious diversions, for example, taking a lengthy digression into the months-long negotiations between MacMillan, the American Museum of Natural History, and the American Geographical Society over publication rights for MacMillan’s “Geographical Report of the Crocker Land Expedition.” In another odd twist, the book’s final (and longest) chapter details expedition member Fitzhugh Green’s post-expedition life, presenting a mass of biographical detail with little connection to Arctic Mirage’s ostensible subject. Some much-needed pruning would have produced a tighter and more focused finished product.
Arctic Mirage succeeds as a compendium of the Crocker Land Expedition’s various botanical, geographical, geological, ornithological, and zoological achievements. It unearths new details concerning the University of Illinois’s involvement with the mission. Anyone seeking an adventure story, a deep study of Arctic explorers, or insights into the Inughuit will come away disappointed. As a result, it is well suited for Arctic specialists and for anyone interested in the specifics of surviving Arctic conditions.
Frontpage image: Pan Ice, Etah
Piece originally published at H-Net Reviews under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.