Crocker Land: The Legendary Arctic Island That Didn't Actually Exist

Luke Spencer
Luke Spencer

In the archives of the American Geographical Society in Milwaukee lies a century-old map with a peculiar secret. Just north of Greenland, the map shows a small, hook-shaped island labeled “Crocker Land” with the words “Seen By Peary, 1906” printed just below.

The Peary in question is Robert Peary, one of the most famous polar explorers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the man who claimed to have been the first to step foot on the North Pole. But what makes this map remarkable is that Crocker Land was all but a phantom. It wasn't “seen by Peary”—as later expeditions would prove, the explorer had invented it out of the thin Arctic air.

Explorer Robert Peary aboard the Roosevelt.

Robert Peary aboard the Roosevelt.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

By 1906, Peary was the hardened veteran of five expeditions to the Arctic Circle. Desperate to be the first to the North Pole, he left New York in the summer of 1905 in a state-of-the-art ice-breaking vessel, the Roosevelt—named in honor of one of the principal backers of the expedition, President Theodore Roosevelt. The mission to set foot on the top of the world ended in failure, however: Peary said he sledged to within 175 miles of the pole (a claim others would later question), but was forced to turn back by storms and dwindling supplies.

Peary immediately began planning another attempt, but found himself short of cash. He apparently tried to coax funds from one of his previous backers, San Francisco financier George Crocker—who had donated $50,000 to the 1905-'06 mission—by naming a previously undiscovered landmass after him. In his 1907 book Nearest the Pole, Peary claimed that during his 1906 mission he'd spotted “the faint white summits” of previously undiscovered land 130 miles northwest of Cape Thomas Hubbard, one of the most northerly parts of Canada. Peary named this newfound island “Crocker Land” in his benefactor’s honor, hoping to secure another $50,000 for the next expedition.

His efforts were for naught: Crocker diverted much of his resources to helping San Francisco rebuild after the 1906 earthquake, with little apparently free for funding Arctic exploration. But Peary did make another attempt at the North Pole after securing backing from the National Geographic Society, and on April 6, 1909, he stood on the roof of the planet—at least by his own account. “The Pole at last!!!" the explorer wrote in his journal. "The prize of 3 centuries, my dream and ambition for 23 years. Mine at last."

Peary wouldn't celebrate his achievement for long, though: When the explorer returned home, he discovered that Frederick Cook—who had served under Peary on his 1891 North Greenland expedition—was claiming he'd been the first to reach the pole a full year earlier. For a time, a debate over the two men's claims raged—and Crocker Land became part of the fight. Cook claimed that on his way to the North Pole he’d traveled to the area where the island was supposed to be, but had seen nothing there. Crocker Land, he said, didn't exist.

Peary’s supporters began to counter-attack, and one of his assistants on the 1909 trip, Donald MacMillan, announced that he would lead an expedition to prove the existence of Crocker Land, vindicating Peary and forever ruining the reputation of Cook.

There was also, of course, the glory of being the first to set foot on the previously unexplored island. Historian David Welky, author of A Wretched and Precarious Situation: In Search of the Last Arctic Frontier, recently explained to National Geographic that with both poles conquered, Crocker Land was “the last great unknown place in the world.”

A report from the Crocker Land expedition.
American Geographical Society Library. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.

After receiving backing from the American Museum of Natural History, the University of Illinois, and the American Geographical Society, the MacMillan expedition departed from the Brooklyn Navy Yard in July 1913. MacMillan and his team took provisions, dogs, a cook, “a moving picture machine,” and wireless equipment, with the grand plan of making a radio broadcast live to the United States from the island.

But almost immediately, the expedition was met with misfortune: MacMillan’s ship, the Diana, was wrecked on the voyage to Greenland by her allegedly drunken captain, so MacMillan transferred to another ship, the Erik, to continue his journey. By early 1914, with the seas frozen, MacMillan set out to attempt a 1200-mile long sled journey from Etah, Greenland, through one of the most inhospitable and harshest landscapes on Earth, in search of Peary’s phantom island.

Though initially inspired by their mission to find Crocker Land, MacMillan’s team grew disheartened as they sledged through the Arctic landscape without finding it. “You can imagine how earnestly we scanned every foot of that horizon—not a thing in sight,” MacMillan wrote in his 1918 book, Four Years In The White North.

But a discovery one April day by Fitzhugh Green, a 25-year-old ensign in the US Navy, gave them hope. As MacMillan later recounted, 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.”

But visions of the fame brought by being the first to step foot on Crocker Land quickly evaporated. “I turned to Pee-a-wah-to,” wrote MacMillan of his Inuit guide (also referred to by some explorers as Piugaattog). “After critically examining the supposed landfall for a few minutes, he astounded me by replying that he thought it was a ‘poo-jok' (mist).”

Indeed, MacMillan recorded that “the landscape gradually changed its appearance and varied in extent with the swinging around of the Sun; finally at night it disappeared altogether.” For five more days, the explorers pressed on, until it became clear that what Green had seen was a mirage, a polar fata morgana. Named for the sorceress Morgana le Fay in the legends of King Arthur, these powerful illusions are produced when light bends as it passes through the freezing air, leading to mysterious images of apparent mountains, islands, and sometimes even floating ships.

Fata morganas are a common occurrence in polar regions, but would a man like Peary have been fooled? “As we drank our hot tea and gnawed the pemmican, we did a good deal of thinking,” MacMillan wrote. “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.”

MacMillan’s mission was forced to accept the unthinkable and turn back. “My dreams of the last four years were merely dreams; my hopes had ended in bitter disappointment,” MacMillan wrote. But the despair at realizing that Crocker Land didn’t exist was merely the beginning of the ordeal.

Donald MacMillan in seal skin coat on the Crocker Land Expedition.
Donald MacMillan in seal skin coat on the Crocker Land Expedition.
American Geographical Society Library. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.

MacMillan sent Fitzhugh Green and the Inuit guide Piugaattog west to explore a possible route back to their base camp in Etah. The two became trapped in the ice, and one of their dog teams died. Fighting over the remaining dogs, Green—with alarming lack of remorse—explained in his diary what happened next: “I shot once in the air ... I then killed [Piugaattog] with a shot through the shoulder and another through the head.” Green returned to the main party and confessed to MacMillan. Rather than reveal the murder, the expedition leader told the Inuit members of the mission that Piugaattog had perished in the blizzard.

Several members of the MacMillan mission would remain trapped in the ice for another three years, victims of the Arctic weather. Two attempts by the American Museum of Natural History to rescue them met with failure, and it wasn’t until 1917 that MacMillan and his party were finally saved by the steamer Neptune, captained by seasoned Arctic sailor Robert Bartlett.

While stranded in the ice, the men put their time to good use; they studied glaciers, astronomy, the tides, Inuit culture, and anything else that attracted their curiosity. They eventually returned with over 5000 photographs, thousands of specimens, and some of the earliest film taken of the Arctic (much of which can be seen today in the repositories of the American Geographical Society at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee).

It’s unclear whether MacMillan ever confronted Peary about Crocker Land—about what exactly the explorer had seen in 1906, and perhaps what his motives were. When MacMillan’s news about not having found Crocker Land reached the United States, Peary defended himself to the press by noting how difficult spotting land in the Arctic could be, telling reporters, “Seen from a distance ... an iceberg with earth and stones may be taken for a rock, a cliff-walled valley filled with fog for a fjord, and the dense low clouds above a patch of open water for land.” (He maintained, however, that "physical indications and theory" still pointed to land somewhere in the area.) Yet later researchers have noted that Peary’s notes from his 1905-'06 expedition don’t mention Crocker Land at all. As Welky told National Geographic, “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.”

There’s no mention of Crocker Land in early drafts of Nearest the Pole, either—it's only mentioned in the final manuscript. That suggests Peary had a deliberate reason for the the inclusion of the island.

Crocker, meanwhile, wouldn’t live to see if he was immortalized by this mysterious new land mass: He died in December 1909 of stomach cancer, a year after Peary had set out in the Roosevelt again in search of the Pole, and before MacMillan’s expedition.

Any remnants of the legend of Crocker Land were put to bed in 1938, when Isaac Schlossbach flew over where the mysterious island was supposed to be, looked down from his cockpit, and saw nothing.

6 Protective Mask Bundles You Can Get On Sale

pinkomelet/iStock via Getty Images Plus
pinkomelet/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Daily life has changed immeasurably since the onset of COVID-19, and one of the ways people have had to adjust is by wearing protective masks out in public places, including in parks and supermarkets. These are an essential part of fighting the spread of the virus, and there are plenty of options for you depending on what you need, whether your situation calls for disposable masks to run quick errands or the more long-lasting KN95 model if you're going to work. Check out some options you can pick up on sale right now.

1. Cotton Face Masks; $20 for 4

Protective Masks with Patterns.
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This four-pack of washable cotton face masks comes in tie-dye, kids patterns, and even a series of mustache patterns, so you can do your part to mask germs without also covering your personality.

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2. CE- and FDA-Approved KN95 Mask; $50 for 10

A woman putting on a protective mask.
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You’ve likely heard about the N95 face mask and its important role in keeping frontline workers safe. Now, you can get a similar model for yourself. The KN95 has a dual particle layer, which can protect you from 99 percent of particles in the air and those around you from 70 percent of the particles you exhale. Nose clips and ear straps provide security and comfort, giving you some much-needed peace of mind.

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3. Three-Ply Masks; $13 for 10

Woman wearing a three-ply protective mask.
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These three-ply, non-medical, non-woven face masks provide a moisture-proof layer against your face with strong filtering to keep you and everyone around you safe. The middle layer filters non-oily particles in the air and the outer layer works to block visible objects, like droplets.

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4. Disposable masks; $44 for 50

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If the thought of reusing the same mask from one outing to the next makes you feel uneasy, there’s a disposable option that doesn’t compromise quality; in fact, it uses the same three-layered and non-woven protection as other masks to keep you safe from airborne particles. Each mask in this pack of 50 can be worn safely for up to 10 hours. Once you're done, safely dispose of it and start your next outing with a new one.

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5. Polyester Masks; $22 for 5

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These masks are a blend of 95 percent polyester and 5 percent spandex, and they work to block particles from spreading in the air. And because they're easily compressed, they can travel with you in your bag or pocket, whether you're going to work or out to the store.

Buy it: $22 for five (56 percent off)

6. Mask Protector Cases; $15 for 3

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You're going to need to have a stash of masks on hand for the foreseeable future, so it's a good idea to protect the ones you’ve got. This face mask protector case is waterproof and dust-proof to preserve your mask as long as possible.

Buy it: $15 for three (50 percent off)

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

29 Prescient Quotes About the Internet from 1996

Many of the predictions made about the internet in 1996 were wildly accurate—and also quite funny.
Many of the predictions made about the internet in 1996 were wildly accurate—and also quite funny.
Evan Agostini/Liaison/Getty Images Plus

In 1996, the Web was young, but it was hot, and everyone was trying to figure out what it meant. While a lot has changed since then, here are 29 quotes from 1996 that were truly prescient.

1. On the future of America Online

“Ten years from now, America Online will have gone the way of the water-bed store,” Bruce R. Burningham wrote in a letter to the editor published in the January 14, 1996 issue of The New York Times.

2. On Microsoft’s Internet Explorer web browser

According to the September 16, 1996 issue of TIME, “It’s the browser your mom will use.”

3. On email

“Email is boring but good. Like pencils, it just works,” Tom Jennings told WIRED in April 1996.

4. A comparison to the past

In September 1996, Jim Barksdale, then the CEO of Netscape Communications Corporation, said that “the Internet is the printing press of the technology era.”

5. Cybersex vs. Bird-Watching

When a reader wrote to Ann Landers in June 1996 to emphasize the benefits of the internet—which the reader said they used for graduate research, as well as to attend bird-watching meetings and support groups—Landers responded, “Thanks for accentuating the positive, but I'm afraid more people are interested in cybersex than bird-watching.”

6. On dating online

In a February 1996 article in USA Today, Leslie Miller interviewed Judith A. Broadhurst, author of The Woman's Guide to Online Services. Broadhurst told Miller, “For better or worse, one of the most popular ways to look for a mate in the '90s is on-line … I heard from so many women who met their husbands on-line ... that I began to wonder if anyone meets in any other way anymore.”

7. On catfishing before catfishing was a thing

When one reader asked Dear Abby if he should pay for his (married!) online paramour from Australia to visit him in Michigan, she responded in a July 1996 column that, “It sounds like asking for trouble to me. Aside from the fact that you are carrying on with a married woman, Kate may not be what you expect. I recently heard about a teen who was communicating online with a female he thought was about his age; when they met, he found out she was a 76-year-old granny!”

8. On being addicted to the internet (a.k.a. “Netaholism”)

“Dr. [Kimberly S.] Young said that if alcoholism is any guide to Netaholism, between 2 percent and 5 percent of the estimated 20 million Americans who go on line might be addicted,” Pam Belluck wrote in the December 1, 1996 issue of The New York Times.

9. College and internet addiction

According to a piece in the June 26, 1996 issue of the Chicago Tribune, “Universities are considered hot zones for potential Internet junkies because they often give students free and unlimited Net access.”

10. On losing access to your email

“Letting your e-mail address fall into the wrong hands isn’t exactly like having a maniacal stalker parked outside your front door,” the March 1996 issue of Spin noted. “But it’s close.”

11. On the potential of the internet

“These technologies are going to profoundly affect the way we perceive our humanity,” Anthony Rutkowski, “a de facto global spokesman for all things cyberspace,” told the Washington Post in February 1996. “We all have ideas to share and stories to tell and now we really can.”

12. On the ugliness of online behavior and content

“The people decrying the Net are using technology as a scapegoat for the fact that we haven’t, as a society, addressed these problems,” John Schwartz said in a November 1996 Washington Post article. “Yes, it’s a shame that there are pedophiles on the Internet. But the real horror is there are pedophiles in the real world and that pedophilia exists at all. ... Let’s face facts. To the extent that there’s a problem out there, it’s our society that’s sick—or at least, it has spawned a number of sick and broken people. The Internet, as the most personal medium ever developed, reflects that. I guess cartoonist Walt Kelly said it best: ‘We have met the enemy, and he is us.’”

13. On the internet’s “insidious seduction”

In the May/June 1996 issue of The American Prospect, Sidney Perkowitz wrote that “Aimless chat is the insidious seduction of the Internet; it can replace inward contemplation and real experience.”

14. On the internet in education

“The Internet has the potential to raise students’ sensitivity,” Diane Romm, one of the first librarians to use the internet, told The New York Times in June 1996. “Because it is international in its communication, people have to become more sensitive to the way what they say may be interpreted by people who come from different cultural backgrounds.”

15. On the virtual experience

“People can get lost in virtual worlds. Some are tempted to think of life in cyberspace as insignificant, as escape or meaningless diversion. It is not,” Sherry Turkle wrote in WIRED’s January 1996 issue. “Our experiences there are serious play. We belittle them at our risk. We must understand the dynamics of virtual experience both to foresee who might be in danger and to put these experiences to best use. Without a deep understanding of the many selves that we express in the virtual, we cannot use our experiences there to enrich the real. If we cultivate our awareness of what stands behind our screen personae, we are more likely to succeed in using virtual experience for personal transformation.”

16. On trying to get people to pay for content online

“There's so much free content [online], it's going to be extremely hard to get people to pay,” Marc Andreessen told USA Today in February 1996.

17. On the decline of print

“I can imagine a not-so distant future when a sizable fraction of professional writers won't ever enter the world of print but will go directly from school to digital publishing,” Paul Roberts said in the July 1996 issue of Harper’s. “Maybe they'll be constrained at first by the needs of older readers who were raised on print and who have only recently and partially and timidly converted to the nonlinear faith. But in time, this will change, as printing comes to be seen as too expensive and cumbersome, as computers become more powerful and more interlinked, and as they show up in every classroom and office, in every living room and den.”

18. On distinguishing between content and ads on the internet

“Sometimes, surfing along on the World Wide Web, you can cross the line from content to advertisement without even knowing it,” Sally Chew wrote in New York Magazine in May 1996.

19. On the internet amplifying individual voices

“The Internet has become the ultimate narrowcasting vehicle: everyone from UFO buffs to New York Yankee fans has a Website (or dozen) to call his own—a dot-com in every pot. Technology will only quicken the pace at which news is moving away from the universal and toward the individualized,” Richard Zoglin said in the October 21, 1996 issue of TIME.

20. World peace versus loss of privacy

“The Web is a crazy quilt of both utopian and Orwellian possibilities,” Elizabeth Corcoran wrote in the Washington Post in June 1996. “Its fans make wide-eyed predictions of world peace and democracy even as privacy advocates say that it will destroy the notion of confidentiality in our home lives.”

21. On internet decryption

“As for encryption, the Government keeps trying to do what governments naturally do: control people. They would like to ban encryption [which scrambles and unscrambles information on computers] to make it easier for law enforcement to listen in on people,” Esther Dyson told The New York Times on July 7, 1996. “In principle, all they want to do is stop crime. But the fact is that encryption is defensive technology against big government, big business, big crime. I’d rather have defensive technology than leave the power to snoop in the hands of people I might not trust.”

22. On Corporate America exploiting the internet

“Technolibertarians rightfully worry about Big Bad Government, yet think commerce unfettered can create all things bright and beautiful—and so they disregard the real invader of privacy: Corporate America seeking ever-better ways to exploit the Net, to sell databases of consumer purchases and preferences, to track potential customers however it can,” Paulina Borsook said in the July/August 1996 issue of Mother Jones.

23. On interacting on the internet

“I think the importance of interactivity in online media can’t be overstated,” Carl Steadman, co-founder of early web magazine Suck—“an irreverent online daily”—told TIME in October 1996. “When I can cheerfully scroll past the cyberpundit of the moment’s latest exposé to the discussion area that features the opinions of true experts like myself and my hometown’s own Joe Bob, I’ll feel I’ve finally broken free.”

24. On using the internet for piracy

“As the Internet’s capacity for data transmission increases and multimedia technology improves, it will become as easy to copy music, photos and movies as it is to copy text now,” Steven D. Lavine wrote to The New York Times in March 1996. “How can government hope to prevent copyright infringement without encroaching upon individual privacy rights? It cannot. Content providers must accept the loss of those customers willing to pirate content and concentrate on packaging their products with enough value added so that wealthier customers remain willing to pay.”

25. On CD-ROMs

“CD-ROMs have become so popular that virtually all new desktop computers are shipped with the ability to use them. But by the turn of the century, CD-ROMs could themselves become unused relics, just like those old 5¼-inch floppies,” William Casey wrote in the July 22, 1996 issue of the Washington Post. “And why? The big ol’ Internet, as you might expect.”

26. On an extremely connected world

“Just wait, says Microsoft chief technologist Nathan Myhrvold. Even your hot-water heater will become computerized and hooked to the Net,” Kevin Maney wrote in USA Today in November 1996. Myhrvold told Maney, “Anything that can be networked will be networked.”

27. On communicating on the internet

“How many times have you received a message on paper and wished you could send quick reply back to the sender?” Frank Vizard wrote in Popular Science’s December 1996 issue. “Motorola’s new PageWriter two-way pager lets you do exactly that—no need to connect to a telephone or computer as previous two-way pagers have required. To send a message, all you do is unfold a miniature keyboard and type in your text. [...] Just how big demand for the device will be remains to be seen.”

28. On the growth of the internet

“The Internet as we know it now will be quaint,” Timothy Logue, “a space and telecommunications analyst with Coudert Brothers in Washington,” told Satellite Communications in September 1996. “The Citizen’s Band radio phase died out, and the Internet is kind of in that CB radio state. It will evolve and mature in a couple of ways. It’ll be a global electronic city, with slum areas and red light districts, but it’ll also have a central business district.”

29. On the internet changing the world

We’ll leave you with a quote from Bill Gates, made in the September 16, 1996 issue of TIME: “The Internet is a revolution in communications that will change the world significantly. The Internet opens a whole new way to communicate with your friends and find and share information of all types. Microsoft is betting that the Internet will continue to grow in popularity until it is as mainstream as the telephone is today.”