Murder, Lust, and The Land That Never Was…

It’s 1914 and US Navy Ensign Fitzhugh Green is freezing, exhausted, and on foot in the frigid, icy wilderness of the Arctic, watching in frantic despair as his only companion, an Inuit hunter called Piugaattoq, climbs astride a dog sleigh and heads off into the distance.

Green calls after him to come back, then fires a warning shot from his rifle, but he’s ignored. He takes a bead on the retreating figure and fires again. The shot hits Piugaattoq in the shoulder, knocking him from the sleigh. Green hobbles forward on aching feet and then finishes off the Inuit with a bullet to the head.

The blood from Piugaattoq’s wounds must have been a microscopic blemish on the pristine white vastness around them. Soon even that would be lost to the relentless, driving snow.

Was Piugaattoq in the process of abandoning his companion in temperatures that had already fallen to minus 50C, as Green later claimed, or did the young naval officer misinterpret what was occurring.

Whatever the reason – and more on that later – it was the murderous culmination to an expedition that had been beset by problems from the outset and one which had been launched on a misguided premise.

The dark deed in the white vastness had its roots eight years’ earlier, back in 1906 when Robert Peary led an expedition to reach the North Pole.

Alleged location of Bradley Land, sighted by Frederick Cook, and Cocker Land, sighted by Robert Peary

Peary was at Cape Thomas Hubbard on northern Axel Heiberg Island, when he thought he spotted mountains on the horizon to the northwest. Convinced that he had discovered new land, he named it Crocker Land, in honour of one of the expedition’s benefactors, George Crocker.

The problem was, a rival expedition led by Frederick Cook, which, like Peary’s, claimed to have reached the pole, said they had passed through the very area where Crocker Land was purported to be and that they had seen no land there.

Supporters of Peary’s North Pole claim knew that if they could show that Crocker Land existed, then this could undermine Cook’s own claim to have reached the pole.

But Peary wasn’t the only one ‘discovering’ somewhat suspect bits of ‘land’, Cook himself was also at it. He described two masses of land with a break, a strait, or an indentation between, and named it Bradley Land after the sponsor of his own expedition.

It is now known that there is no land at either explorer’s locations and that both claims were either errors or downright lies, designed to curry favour with their wealthy backers.

In any case, an expedition was organised to find the non-existent Crocker Land. Led by Donald MacMillan, it was sponsored by such prestigious institutions as the American Museum of Natural History, the American Geographical Society and the University of Illinois‘ Museum of Natural History.

Expedition members. From left to right: Harrison J. Hunt, Maurice C. Tanquary, W. Elmer Ekblaw, Donald B. MacMillan, Fitzhugh Green,

MacMillan, acting as geologist and ornithologist, was accompanied by the aforementioned Fitzhugh Green, who served as engineer and physicist; Walter Ekblaw (botanist, of the University of Illinois); Maurice Tanquary, (zoologist, of the University of Illinois), and surgeon Harrison J. Hunt.

Things got off to a poor start when their steamer, Diana, struck rocks on July 2, 1913, just two weeks into the voyage, forcing the party to change ships before arriving at Etah, north-west Greenland, in August, where MacMillan established a base, close to where Greenland and Ellesmere Island are closest.

MacMillan and his men spent the next few months exploring the area and the coast of Axel Heiberg Island, as well as setting up caches of supplies along the 1,900km route they planned to take to where they assumed Crocker Land lay.

On March 11, 1914, MacMillan, Green, Ekblaw and seven Inuit set off in search of a place that didn’t exist.

The going was tough. Over three days and in plummeting temperatures, they climbed the 1,400-metre Beitstadt Glacier. Ekblaw suffered severe frostbite and had to be taken back to Etah by some of the Inuit, thus reducing the party’s numbers.

More were to follow, among them Minik Wallace, the Americans’ Inuit guide. He had been brought to the States in 1897 as a child with his father and four others by Peary from one of his previous expeditions in Greenland, so that they could be studied by staff at the American Museum of Natural History.

The world that young Minik and the Inuit party found themselves in couldn’t have been more different. Gone was the vast Arctic expanse, replaced by a room in the museum’s basement, where they lived out their days, shaking the hands of many of the 20,000 visitors who paid the entrance fee to see them.

Unsurprisingly, all contracted tuberculosis and most died, including Minik’s father, Qisuk.

Minik Wallace as a boy in America

Wanting to preserve his body for further study, the museum added insult to injury by staging a fake burial, removing the corpse’s flesh, and then putting the bones on exhibition inside the museum – all without the grieving seven-year-old Minik’s knowledge.

He subsequently found out, years later, but despite his pleading, the museum never returned his father’s body to him. It wasn’t until 1993, following a long-running campaign by author Kenn Harper, that the remains of the Inuit were returned to their homeland and reburied.

Following his father’s death, the boy was adopted by the museum’s curator, William Wallace. He eventually got passage back to Greenland, in 1909, aged about 18.

Before leaving, he told a reporter: “You’re a race of scientific criminals. I know I’ll never get my father’s bones out of the American Museum of Natural History. I am glad enough to get away before they grab my brains and stuff them into a jar!”

Minik’s hard road continued on his return to his homeland. After years in New York, he had forgotten the language and how to hunt, but he quickly relearned them, and a few years later he found himself serving as MacMillan’s guide on the Crocker Land expedition.   

When Minik decided to turn back on that trip, there may have been more than hardship and bitter cold that coloured his decision. Some said his head had been turned by the wife of one of his Inuit travelling companions, and that he wanted to see her.

It’s also suggested that the said travelling companion was only too aware of Minik’s interest and decided also to go home, in a bid to keep an eye on his potential love rival.   

What with sickness and lovesickness, by the time the expedition reached the edge of the Arctic Ocean on April 11, the group had been reduced to just four – MacMillan, Green and two Inuit, Piugaattoq and Ittukusuk.

Ten days’ later, their dog sleighs having travelled on thin ice, they saw what looked like a huge island. 

Hills, valleys, snow-capped peaks extending through at least one hundred and twenty degrees of the horizon,” as MacMillan would later describe it in his book, Four Years in the White North.

But Piugaattoq, with decades of experience of the area, wasn’t convinced and said that it was just poo-jook, an illusion created by mist.

MacMillan disagreed, insisting that they press on, despite the increasingly thin ice. They went a further 200km, risking instant disaster – for five whole days until, with the sea ice breaking up around them, MacMillan finally accepted that what they were seeing was actually a mirage.

The expedition leader would later write: “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. Our judgment then, as now, is that this was a mirage or loom of the sea ice.”

MacMillan had to concede: “As we watched it more narrowly its appearance slowly changed from time to time so we were forced to the conclusion that it was a mirage of the sea ice.”

As Kenn Harper described it in a 2006 article for the Nunatsiaq News, MacMillan had been deceived by the atmospheric conditions of an Arctic spring and shifting sea ice and snow, reflected and refracted through the lens of an Arctic mist.

When a crestfallen MacMillan reached firm land again, at Axel Heiberg Island, he wanted to retrieve something from their ghost chase, so sent Piugaattoq and Green to explore westward, while he and Ittukusuk went east. The two parties agreed on a rendezvous point where they would meet after a few days of exploration.

Axel Heiberg Island (by Matti Blume – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia)

Green and Piugaattoq hit bad weather, which forced them to shelter in a snow cave. Then things got worse as one of the dog team’s died. Nerves were fraught, and the two men bickered over the best direction to go. It was an argument that led to Piugaattoq’s murder.

Green eventually made it back to the rendezvous point several days late, and told MacMillan what had happened. He in turn shared the grim tidings with the other Americans once they were all reunited. But the honesty only went so far. Rather than fess up and explain what happened, he told the Inuit that Piugaattoq had died in an avalanche.

The killing of Piugaattop was never investigated. Green got away with murder.

Had he really been fearful of abandonment by his companion or was there more to it than that? When the truth eventually did come out later in the journals of both MacMillan and Green, the local Inuit certainly thought so.

Writing in the Nunatsiaq News in 2006, Kenn Harper noted: ‘A quarter century ago, when I asked the elders in Qaanaaq why they thought Fitzhugh Green had killed Piugaattoq, they told me that the reason was simple — Green had wanted Piugaattoq’s wife, Aleqasina. She was a strikingly beautiful woman and had been Peary’s mistress until he abandoned her in 1909. Green, the Inughuit believed, desired her.’

The expedition wasn’t through with its troubles by any stretch of the imagination. The bad weather left them stranded in the region for another four months. MacMillan and Tanquary set off for Etah in December 1914 with the aim of getting a message to the outside world, seeking help.

MacMillan had to turn back, but Tanquary persevered and arrived in Etah in March 1915.

Eventually, a message reached the American Museum of Natural History, which sent a rescue ship that itself got trapped in ice and which didn’t return for two years. A second ship was sent in 1916, but by then MacMillan, Green and Tanquary had got back to the United States by dog sleigh. The rest of the team was rescued in 1917 by the ship Neptune, commanded by renowned Arctic explorer Robert Bartlett.

The scandal of the Crocker Land expedition didn’t seem to harm Fitzhugh Green’s career. In March 1927, he was promoted to naval commander, but scandal of another kind did impinge on his life when in September 1947 he and his wife, Margery, the daughter of an automobile manufacturer, were arrested for drug possession. Green died a few weeks later, on December 2.

Those Arctic exploits clearly touched a chord in him as he wrote a novel, ZR Wins, about an airship’s flight to the North Pole in search of a lost Viking colony.

As for that other possibly lovelorn member of the expedition, Minik Wallace, things fared even worse. Unable to settle in Greenland, he left there in 1916 and returned to New York, and to his quest to get back his father’s remains.

He found work as a lumberjack in New Hampshire before succumbing to the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918. He was just 28 years old when he died, his quest unfinished.

Green’s own quest had been for a phantom land, during which he and his companions risked life and limb following a mirage, a Fata Morgana… or, as poor Piugaattoq described it, a  poo-jook of the mist.

The expedition may not have found the elusive Crocker Land, but it did uncover a black heart amid the Arctic’s blinding white, where not even the numbing cold could cool hot-blooded men battling the wilderness and, maybe, battling their own lustful desires, too.

About historywithatwist

I am a journalist, author and book editor. I have published five novels - four (Tan, The Golden Grave, A Time of Traitors and Patriots' Blood) set during the Irish War of Independence and Civil War, and the fifth (High Crimes), a modern thriller. I'm a history enthusiast who loves a good yarn.
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2 Responses to Murder, Lust, and The Land That Never Was…

  1. carolkean says:

    “The killing of Piugaattop was never investigated. Green got away with murder.”
    How painful to read this–how beautifully written, how compelling–I cannot NOT read it.
    You are The Master at bringing the dry pages of history to life.
    An American ensign shooting a man in cold blood. Perry’s expedition collecting humans as museum specimens to show off to the public – the exploitation, the lack of respect, the indignity, there is just no end. The mirage, the stranded ships, the Spanish flu, the futility and injustice: how are we to believe Julian of Norwich and Buddhist claims of “all is well, and all manner of things shall be well” – sorry. I refused to read this last night, so close to bedtime, but I am no better able to accommodate these people in my mind today. Ensign Green, Admiral Perry, the Inuits.
    Thank you for an enlightening trip to the past, David, however disturbing these excursions can be!


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