The Quest for the North Pole Bonus Episode 2: Minik and the Meteorites
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As you pass through the main entrance of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, you meet a statue of Theodore Roosevelt and enter a hall crowded with tourists and dinosaur skeletons. You walk past a herd of taxidermied elephants, Native American artifacts, and the new gallery of gems and minerals before reaching a small room dominated by a giant meteorite.
It weighs about 34 tons, but it’s just a fragment of the colossal rock that crashed into northwest Greenland as much as 10,000 years ago. Scientists estimate it’s about 4.5 billion years old, roughly the same age as the sun. It’s about 90 percent iron, and so heavy that the apparatus supporting it had to be drilled right into the Manhattan bedrock. Two other pieces of the meteorite are in the same room.
Before white explorers arrived in Greenland, bringing with them metal tools, these meteorites were the only sources of metal for the Inughuit people. How did these massive, heavy meteorites make their way from the Arctic to a museum in New York City?
From Mental Floss and iHeart Radio, you’re listening to The Quest for the North Pole. I’m your host, Kat Long, science editor at Mental Floss, and this bonus episode is "Minik and the Meteorites."
John Ross was the first white explorer to learn about the meteorites. On his 1818 expedition to the Northwest Passage, he met Inughuit who described black mountains, some distance away, where they chipped off pieces of iron for their knives. Though he was intrigued by this information, Ross didn’t have time to see them himself. And they would remain an Arctic mystery until Robert Peary searched for them in the 1890s.
By then, Peary had already completed two expeditions to northern Greenland with the idea of traversing its ice sheet. On his third trip in 1893, his goal shifted to conquering the North Pole. The expedition was memorable for a few reasons: His pregnant wife, Josephine, held down operations at their base camp and gave birth to their daughter Marie Ahnighito there. Peary and Matthew Henson made a death-defying dash over the Greenland Ice Sheet looking for a route to the North Pole. And Peary would be shown the valuable meteorites that the Inughuit had described to John Ross 75 years earlier.
After months of preparation, Peary and a small crew launched their reconnaissance of the northern ice sheet in March 1894. But a little over a month after setting off, Peary had to admit failure. The weather was just too terrible and it took weeks for everyone to recover. In May, Peary asked the Inughuit assisting his expedition to lead him to the black mountains.
With his guide Tallakoteah, they drove dogsleds over the treacherous spring ice to the edge of Melville Bay. Tallakoteah spied a pile of stones poking through the snow that he said were used to chip pieces from the mountains. As Peary wrote in his book Northward Over the Great Ice, “he then indicated a spot four or five feet distant as the location of the long-sought object.” Tallakoteah began sawing away blocks of snow, and three feet beneath the surface, “the brown mass, rudely awakened from its winter’s sleep, found for the first time in its cycles of existence the eyes of a white man gazing upon it,” Peary wrote. Tallakoteah said the boulder was thought of as a female figure in a sitting position—they called it the Woman. Peary estimated it at roughly 4 feet long, 3 feet wide, and 2 feet deep at its maximum points—and weighing about 6000 pounds [PDF].
Peary continued, “I scratched a rough ‘P’ on the surface of the metal, as an indisputable proof of my having found the meteorite, in case I should not be able, later on, to reach it with my ship.”
Because that was his plan. It wasn’t enough for Peary to find the legendary meteorites. He wanted to excavate them and take them home as personal trophies.
I asked Kenn Harper, author of the book Minik: The New York Eskimo, how the Inughuit might have felt about that.
Kenn Harper: The meteorites had been the only source of iron for the Inughuit for a very long time. But it's also true that by the time Peary took them, the Inughuit were no longer chipping off iron to use as tools from the meteorites. They would get metal objects and knives and other metal trade goods from the whalers and then from Peary.
People were dependent on Peary, so if this is his mission, in certain years is to get these meteorites and get them aboard ship and use Inuit labor to help to do that, and pay in trade goods and foodstuffs for that Inuit labor, then the Inuit are going to help him.
But that still doesn't mean he should have taken them, they weren't his.
Kat Long: Right. He wasn't given permission.
Kenn Harper: It was not within Peary's character to ask Inuit if he could do something. He was there to do things, and in his view, they were there to do his bidding. So he didn't ask for permission, he gave himself permission.
The following spring, Peary returned with his ship and crew to abscond with the Woman and another, smaller meteorite that the Inughuit called the Dog, an oval mass a little over two feet long and weighing about 900 pounds.
The Dog was rolled onto a sledge made of spruce poles and dragged toward the beach. The crew floated it toward the ship on a cake of ice. The Woman had to be transported on iron rollers over a roadway paved with beach pebbles, then ferried to the ship on ice. But before the Woman could be fully secured, the ice beneath it broke and the meteorite began to sink, pulling the ship down with it. By slowly hoisting the massive rock up on chains, the men were able to swing it over the side of the ship and into the hold.
There was still one more prize: the biggest meteorite of all, which the Inughuit dubbed the Tent, a boulder so big and heavy that Peary would need a stronger ship and all of his experience as a civil engineer to extract it. He settled for transporting the two smaller ones to New York in the summer of 1895.
He returned for the iron monster the following year. Peary’s crew and every able-bodied man from the nearby village began digging the meteorite out of the frozen ground with picks and hydraulic lifts while Peary supervised.
“As it rose slowly inch by inch … it grew upon us as Niagara grows upon the observer, and there was not one of us unimpressed by the enormousness of this lump of metal,” Peary wrote. The struggle to move the huge meteorite proved to be a lesson in physics. “Never have I had the terrific majesty of the force of gravity and the meaning of the terms ‘momentum’ and ‘inertia’ so powerfully brought home to me,” he recalled.
After pausing work during the winter, the crew built a sturdy bridge from the shoreline to the ship. They mounted a railroad-like track, and then secured a rolling car to it. The meteorite was lifted by jacks into the car and covered with the American flag, while Peary’s 4-year-old daughter “dashed a little bottle of wine over it and named it 'Ahnighito,'” Peary wrote.
Then, the meteorite was slowly pulled over the bridge and lowered into the hold for its voyage to New York. In his book, Peary includes several letters from eminent geologists asserting the scientific value of his meteorites, as well as reports on their chemical composition and physical appearance. But for all the attention Peary paid his precious rocks, he neglected to mention that he also brought to New York some of his Inughuit helpers and their families—including an 8-year-old boy named Minik.
Let’s take a break here. We’ll be right back.
Peary’s ship, the Hope, arrived at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in late September 1897. Twenty-thousand people, each paying a quarter, came to see the giant meteorite and the six Inughuit, still wearing their fur clothing in the late summer heat. In addition to Minik and his father, Qisuk, were Nuktaq, his wife Atangana, their 12-year-old daughter Aviaq, and a young man named Uisaakassak.
Peary had brought the Inughuit to New York at the request of anthropologist Franz Boas, then the museum’s assistant curator for ethnology. Boas pioneered the theory of cultural relativism—a framework that argues that the values of one culture should not be evaluated based on the values of another. That went against the prevailing belief that human cultures existed on a spectrum from primitive to advanced—and, implicitly, that white Western cultures were the most advanced in the world.
Here’s Kenn Harper.
Kenn Harper: Franz Boas is viewed as the father of modern anthropology. Very much remembered today as an anti-racism activist, and did a lot of good work. But, the Inuit and the other people studied by most of these scientists were subjects, they were subjects for study.
The New York Times reported that the Inughuit would “go to the Museum of Natural History, where they will arrange the exhibit of their implements” that Peary had collected. They planned to return home on Peary’s next expedition.
The museum held an “informal reception” for the Inughuit, who were by then living in its basement. Matthew Henson acted as interpreter. When the throngs of visitors were told the Inughuit were not actually on exhibition, they “had to content themselves with a glimpse through a grating above the basement, and many lay prone, peering through the spaces in the hope of catching a glimpse,” The Times wrote. Between giggling at their unfamiliar clothing and Minik’s “unspellable and unpronounceable name,” The Times reporter mentioned some of the six were not well. The climate didn’t agree with them, the paper said.
Less than a month later, all six were rushed to Bellevue Hospital. Atangana was so weak with pneumonia she had to be carried on a stretcher, while the others appeared to have the flu. Franz Boas explained to a reporter for The New York Sun that the Inughuit had no immunity to urban diseases. “When they come into this climate, they are the prey of every germ that exists,” he said.
Minik seemed to have a milder case. But the five adults and the young girl never fully recovered, despite moving out of the museum’s basement and into the Bronx home belonging to the museum’s buildings superintendent, William Wallace. In February 1898, Minik’s father Qisuk died at Bellevue. Three others died that spring. Only Uisaakassak returned home on Peary’s ship in July 1898.
Now an orphan, Minik continued to live with the Wallace family. He missed his father dearly, but his loss was alleviated somewhat by the funeral service Wallace had arranged.
Kenn Harper: The staff of the museum thought it was important to … bury Qisuk and have a funeral for the benefit of impressing young Minik. So they held this ceremony on the grounds of the American Museum of Natural History, where they conducted, I guess, the New York version of a traditional Inughuit burial.
As he grew up, Minik learned English, rode his bicycle, and befriended the Wallaces’ son Willie, who was about his own age. He excelled in high school and competed in an ice skating competition.
Nine years went by before Minik learned of the deep betrayal that would shatter his trust.
Though William Wallace and the museum had held an elaborate ceremony for Qisuk back in 1898, Franz Boas never actually intended to bury him. Instead, he had planned to add Qisuk’s body to the museum’s collection all along.
At the funeral service , the museum staff had wrapped a log in cloth and placed a mask at its head to mimic Qisuk’s body. The ceremony was held at dusk, and they kept Minik well back from the casket. Wallace later told a newspaper reporter, “The boy never suspected.”
So where was his father’s body? The museum had retrieved it and brought it to Wallace’s farm west of Albany, New York.
Kenn Harper: He had a little building that straddled the stream that went through the property. And that was a defleshing plant. Museum specimens were sent there. And unfortunately, Minik's father Qisuk was sent there. And his body was defleshed in this little building.
Basically, they ran water continually over the body to strip the flesh from the bones.
Kenn Harper: And then the bones were sent back to the American Museum of Natural History.
The three other Inughuit’s bones also ended up at the museum. Though newspaper reports had mentioned the museum’s plans, Minik remained unaware of what had happened until 1907, when he somehow learned his father was at the museum. He demanded that the museum return his father’s remains so he could bury them properly in Greenland. But Wallace, who might have been able to help him convince museum officials, had been fired a few years earlier for taking bribes.
As for Robert Peary, he had washed his hands of the Inughuit the moment they had arrived at the museum. He refused to take Minik home.
Then Minik took his sad story to the media. The bad publicity convinced the Peary Arctic Club that something had to be done—Peary was, at just that time, on his quest to reach the North Pole, and the public relations nightmare that might greet him when he returned would cost them all. Herbert Bridgman, one of the founders of the Peary Arctic Club, arranged for Minik to return to Greenland on Peary’s regularly scheduled supply ship in 1909.
His father’s remains stayed at the museum.
Kenn Harper: He arrived ... with just the clothes on his back. And he was like a fish out of water. He had lost his hunting skills, he had lost his language, he spoke only English.
Minik was 18 or 19 years old, the age when his peers would already be starting families and providing for them by hunting. He relearned his native language, and for a while, he worked as a guide and interpreter for Peary’s former assistant Donald MacMillan on an expedition north of Ellesmere Island.
Kenn Harper: But unfortunately for Minik, he was still neither fish nor fowl. When he had been in New York, he longed for the Arctic, the Arctic that he viewed as his home, but which he did not understand. When he was back in the Arctic. He longed for New York.
Minik never felt quite at home in Greenland following his return in 1909. Several years later, restless and without prospects, he decided to go back to the U.S. and look for employment. But by then, the world had changed. World War I was ripping Europe apart. Peary’s triumph at the Pole—and his bitter feud with his rival Frederick Cook—seemed like a story from the distant past. Polar adventurers turned toward Antarctica to claim their fame, a fact clearly illustrated by Sir Ernest Shackleton’s heroic rescue of his entire crew from shipwreck in 1916.
Minik began working as a lumberjack at a logging camp in northern New Hampshire. There he befriended another worker named Afton Hall, and when logging season ended in spring, Minik stayed with Hall and his parents at their farm.
As Kenn Harper writes, Minik seemed to have finally found a home where he felt loved and cared for. A community where he felt he belonged. But it was not to last.
Minik died in 1918 in the influenza pandemic. But instead of being buried in an unmarked, mass grave—the fate of many of the flu’s victims—the Halls laid Minik to rest in the local cemetery, where you can still visit his grave.
While the three Cape York meteorites remain at the American Museum of Natural History, the bones of Minik’s father and his companions are no longer there. In 1993, as museums began to reckon with their unethical collection practices of the past, officials repatriated the remains of the four Inughuit. They were finally buried in their home village. Which is all Minik had wanted.
The Quest for the North Pole is hosted by me, Kat Long.
This episode was researched and written by me, with fact-checking by Austin Thompson. The Executive Producers are Erin McCarthy and Tyler Klang. The Supervising Producer is Dylan Fagan. The show is edited by Dylan Fagan.
For transcripts, a glossary, and to learn more about this episode, visit mentalfloss.com/podcast.
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