As long as humans have realized that there are worlds out there beyond the confines of what we know, there have been those willing to go out and explore them. Our never-ending push past the boundaries of our own reality have brought back stories from intrepid adventurers of elusive unknown places beyond our wildest imaginings. History is populated by tales of mysterious lost lands and hidden places removed from civilization, with some of the greatest travelers tales revolving around enigmatic realms that have managed to evade understanding to lie out on the periphery of the known universe. One such tale concerns an alleged lost, ghostly continent found in the inhospitable frozen wastes of the far north, which captured the imagination of the era and spurred a doomed expedition to try and find it.
The strange story begins in 1906, when the American explorer Robert Peary attempted to become the first person to reach the North Pole. He was unable to do so, defeated by storms and dwindling supplies, but despite not achieving his intended goal, he would later claim to have made a groundbreaking discovery during the return voyage. Upon returning, he would make the incredible claim that while sailing west of Ellesmere Island and about 130 miles northwest of Cape Thomas Hubbard, he had looked out across the grey expanse of storm-lashed sea to observer a previously unknown, massive landmass complete with soaring mountains and deep valleys, which he christened a new island or perhaps even a continent, a place he called Crocker Land, naming it after a banker who had helped fund his expedition. At the time of his alleged sighting, he was not equipped to approach or explore further, and in the meantime, the idea of a lost land lying out in the polar sea was generating a lot of discussion and excitement, and it even appeared on some maps at the time.
There was some skepticism to Peary’s claims in 1909, when Frederick Cook and Peary went on a race to be the first to the North Pole, both of them claiming to have reached it. The thing was, Cook insisted that he had been all through the area where Crocker Land was supposed to be, but had seen nothing. Peary was adamant that it was real, and he had accrued plenty of those who believed him. One of these was the famed American Arctic explorer, sailor, researcher and lecturer Donald Baxter MacMillan, who began putting together an expedition of his own to prove it, managing to gain sponsorship by such venerable institutions as the American Museum of Natural History, the American Geographical Society and the University of Illinois’ Museum of Natural History. The expedition meant to confirm the existence of Crocker Land and map its exact position, with MacMillan calling the mysterious realm “the world’s last geographical problem.”
When the expedition left aboard the steamer Diana from the Brooklyn Navy Yard on July 2, 1913, they did so with the backing of some of the most respected organizations in the world, well-supplied, the best equipment money could buy, and a crack team of seasoned professionals and experts. If anyone was going to find Crocker Land again, it was this team, and they left to much fanfare, but things would start to go sour almost from the beginning. Just two weeks after departing, the Diana crashed into some rocks along the Labrador coast while trying to dodge an iceberg, due to a Captain who was drunk behind the wheel and forcing them to change ships. They managed to reach Etah, Greenland, where they built a makeshift shed to use as a base of operations, complete with a radio system that sadly wouldn’t work. At this time the seas had frozen solid, forcing them to head out overland on dog sleds in March of 1914, where their woes only continued.
The weather conditions were horrific at the time, making the forbidding no man’s land even worse than usual. Many of the team got frostbite, others dropped from exhaustion, and a good number of the expedition quit and headed back. When they finally reached the Arctic Ocean, there were only four of them left, two of the original team members and two Inuit guides named Piugaattoq and Ittukusuk. They nevertheless set out across the grey expanse of frozen sea upon their dog sleds, braving the unknown and refusing to give up their mission. It was as they penetrated out into the cold domain, dodging thin ice patches, stretches of open water, and uneven terrain while hauling the sleds over steep hills and dropping caches of supplies and building igloos along part of the route, that an exciting sighting was made of what they believed to perhaps be the elusive Crocker’s Land. One day, an expedition member by the name of Fitzhugh Green claimed to have sighted a mysterious landmass in the distance, although it would turn out to be rather tenuous, and MacMillan would write of this:
April 21st  was a beautiful day; all mist was gone and the clear blue of the sky extended down to the very horizon. Green was 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 one hundred and twenty degrees of the horizon. I turned to Pee-a-wah-to anxiously and asked him toward which point we had better lay our course. After critically examining the supposed landfall for a few minutes, he astounded me by replying that he thought it was poo-jok (mist) [a fata morgana illusion]. E-took-a-shoo offered no encouragement, saying, ‘Perhaps it is.’ Green was still convinced that it must be land. At any rate, it was worth watching. The day was exceptionally clear, not a cloud or trace of mist; if land could be seen, now was our time. Yes, there it was! It could even be seen without a glass, extending from southwest true to north-northeast. Our powerful glasses, however, brought out more clearly the dark background in contrast with the white, the whole resembling hills, valleys and snow-capped peaks to such a degree that, had we not been out on the frozen sea for 150 miles, we would have staked our lives upon its reality. As we proceeded, the landscape gradually changed its appearance and varied in extent with the swinging around of the Sun; finally, at night it disappeared altogether.
Somewhat disheartened by the fact that they had likely seen nothing more than a mirage, the team nevertheless soldiered on. MacMillan thought the land they had seen looked so clear and real, which is what had driven their mad dash towards it, but ultimately after five more days of failing to find it again he decided that it must have been a mirage, after which they were forced to give up the chase due to encroaching warmer weather and the increasing breaking up of the ice. The dejected MacMillan would write in his journal:
As we drank our hot tea and gnawed the pemmican, we did a good deal of thinking. 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. 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.
Unfortunately, this crushing realization that Crocker’s Land likely did not exist was not the end of their harrowing ordeal. When they finally got to solid land, Green and the Inuit Piugaattoq were tasked with scouting out a route west, but would face a disastrous sequence of events. As the two men ventured out to the west, they were hit with fierce weather, one of their sled dogs died, and they were forced to take shelter in a freezing ice cave. At some point the two got into an argument that turned ugly, ending when Green shot his companion dead with his rifle. When he got back to base camp, Green admitted to his American teammates about killing Piugaattoq, yet suggested they all keep it secret, telling the other Inuit that he had died in a blizzard. It was all swept under the carpet, Green never brought to justice for his crime. The ordeal continued when several attempts to rescue the expedition were defeated by poor weather, frozen seas, and harsh Arctic conditions, eventually causing some of them to head all the way back to America 1,000 miles overland down the western coast of Greenland by dog sled, while the others were finally rescued by a ship called Neptune after being stranded there for 3 full years.
Although they had not managed to find the fabled Crocker Land, the ill-fated expedition was not a complete wash. They did manage to collect photographs, data, geological samples, and artifacts from the region and its people, including 5000 photographs, thousands of specimens, and some of the earliest film taken of the Arctic, but MacMillan could never quite get over the fact that he had failed and been possibly misled by one of his idols. The whole thing had left a bitter taste in his mouth, but Peary continued to insist that it did indeed exist, yet by this time these claims by one of the most respected Arctic explorers were falling on deaf ears.
It was probably for the best, because in more recent years it is believed that Peary had made the whole thing up in order to drum up publicity and gain funding for further expeditions to the North Pole. Recent research carried out by historian David Welky, who wrote a whole book on it called A Wretched and Precarious Situation: In Search of the Last Arctic Frontier, found that not only did Peary’s diary contain no mention anywhere of Crocker Land, but he had not mentioned it at all until months after the expedition during which he had supposedly sighted it. There aren’t even any mentions of it in the earlier drafts of Peary’s book that first brought it up, Nearest the Pole. This suggests that he likely came up with the whole thing later on, spinning a yarn that managed to gain a foothold among other explorers and Arctic experts simply because Peary was well-respected and considered to be at the top of his field, one of the best Arctic explorers there was. Welky has said of it:
When Robert Peary comes back to the U.S., he says nothing about Crocker Land. I’ve been through his correspondence, including letters to George Crocker, and he says nothing about it for months after he returns. Then, in 1907, he releases his book, and suddenly here are these paragraphs about this amazing new land. It’s not for many months after his return that he finally says something. Crocker Land is a fabrication by Peary from the start. You can look at this in any number of ways, starting with circumstantial evidence. Obviously, Crocker Land isn’t there. So, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. What might he have seen and mistaken for land? It could have been an ice island, but ice islands don’t have peaks and valleys, they’re flat on top. Do we really think that the most experienced Western Arctic explorer mistook an ice island for a continent? It could have been a mirage. A fata morgana, as this particular kind of mirage is called. Subsequent explorers have seen fata morganas from that same spot. If you watch one, you will see it wobble and flicker and waver, and it’s obvious it’s not solid land. Nothing Peary might have mistaken for Crocker Land makes sense. That’s strike one.
We can also look at his care notes, the notes he leaves behind to prove he was there. They’re quite detailed notes. He talks about a hunting trip that day, climbing the hills to get this view, but says absolutely nothing about seeing Crocker Land. Several crewmembers also kept diaries, and according to those he never mentioned anything about seeing a new continent. We also have the typed drafts for his book, Nearest the Pole, and for an article he excerpted in Harper’s Magazine. But again there is no mention of this new land mass. In other words, sometime between the final manuscript and when the book comes out the paragraphs about Crocker Land mysteriously appear. It’s all pretty damning. They fell for it because they learned about it from the most authoritative source that Americans had on the Arctic. Robert Peary knew more about the Arctic than any other American or Westerner alive. In that sense, it was an unimpeachable source.
Was Crocker Land ever real? Probably not. It seems as if it was the invention of a man desperate for attention and funds, but it all played into the hunger for new places to discover and explore at the time, driven by his sheer standing as an intrepid explorer and expert. It is a desire we as a species still have deeply ingrained within us, so it is not all that surprising that it should catch on and inspire others to investigate for themselves. We now know that there is nothing there, and whether it was just a fabrication, a mirage, or what, it is nevertheless a peek into a great era of exploration, when there were still ill-defined areas on our maps and the horizon still held potential amazing surprises beyond it.