Three 20th Century explorers, one 'mystery' island


Frederick A. Cook (1865 - 1940), Vilhjmur Stefansson (1879 - 1962) and Hans Kruger (1886 - 1930?) were three early 20th century Arctic explorers whose careers were inextricably entwined with Meighan Island.  Stefansson is acknowledged as its discoverer in 1916 and Kruger is presumed to have perished after leaving a note in the island's cairn in 1930.  Cook's role would become a significant sub-dispute in the larger controversy involving his 1908 - 09 Polar expedition.  Below:  Map outline of Meighan from Canadian government, with positioning by John Euller, 1964.


1 Finding Kruger’s Last Camp?
2 Stefansson’s Redoubt Collapses
3 The Solution: Cook’s Vindication

Part I


On July 3, 1999 three members of the Polar Continental Shelf Project of the Natural Resources of Canada were surveying shorelines on Axel Heiberg Island between Cape Southwest and Surprise Fiord. There on a beach they discovered several artifacts that would reopen the 90 year-old (or 83 depending upon another version) controversy surrounding Frederick A. Cook’s return from the Pole.

In the June 2004 number of Arctic, the Journal aof the Arctic Institute of America (57:2) two of those who discovered the artifacts – John England and Arthur S. Dyke joined with two other Canadian physical scientists in authoring “Kruger’s Final Camp in Arctic Canada?” They described their findings thusly:

Objects found on the site included a wooden box containing a small transit (with spare parts and tools), an unopened tin of food, an enameled metal cup and plate, a small compass, a heavy canister with cork stopper probably intended to hold fuel or spirits (about two gallons in capacity and galvanized, or at least unrusted), and a small pile of rock samples. Only the compass and the transit were collected for preservation and identification. Protruding through the surface sand was evidence of additional material, including what appeared to be tent canvas, as well as printed material and a shirt (or long underwear) with label of German origin. Most of the artifacts were still on the surface, though some items were partially buried in wind-drifted sand. The compass, for example, was about 95% buried, lying face up in the centre of the site. The transit box, found near the west side of the site, was only slightly settled into the sand. The item of clothing was inconspicuous at first, being largely drifted over. It had wooden buttons, and the label was still attached to the collar.

While cautious, the writers suggest that they had found the location of the last camp of the abortive 1930 expedition of Hans Kruger, who disappeared with his Danish assistant Age Rose Bjare and their Inuit guide, Akqioq after heading north on Eureka Sound on April 1 of that year. For years there had been speculation that Kruger’s party had been lost in the vicinity of Meighan Island.

Stefansson believed that Cook had discovered the island he did not see

In 1957, a note by the German explorer, also signed by his two companions, was found at Anderson Point on Meighan Island, in a cairn that Stefansson had erected in 1916, a date which also figures in the Meighan controversy. The 1999 camp discovery suggests that Kruger and his party made it back to Axel Heiberg (thus discounting earlier theories that they had perished on the Polar ice cap) and that they had to abandon their camp in a quick snowstorm and may have perished in the proximity. A planned archeological survey will continue in the area.

To many, Meighan Island has been the Achilles heel in Cook’s account, concluding that had he followed the route he said he did, then he should have seen the as-then-undiscovered Meighan. Stefansson in 1916, at the latitude and longitude given by Cook, saw the island in the direction Cook had recorded sighting land (which he [Cook] believed was Axel Heiberg Island).

A 1999 location of artifacts may have found Kruger's camp

In My Attainment, Cook gives his position as latitude 79 32’ north and longitude 101 22’ west in the Crown Prince Gustav Sea. In his posthumous volume, Return From the Pole, he reported that ‘…land appeared far to the east and far to the south…I guessed the land to the east to be Heiberg Island, the land to the south, Ringnes Land.’ Later he declares that his initial observations ‘proved to be true’, but as ‘crushed ice and impassable lines of open water’ prevented his party from going eastward toward their caches of food on Heiberg, it would seem that Cook’s conclusion was in reference to his eventual southerly landfall, the Ringnes Islands.

Of importance to polar geographers in any re-thinking of the problem are the actual conditions of the sea ice, the topography of the charted islands in the Canadian Arctic in the latitude and longitude under question, and the possible relationship of known drift in the polar basin in the years when the visitations took place. The judgments of MacMillan in regard to both the ‘probable’ route of Cook as well as the Eskimo versions and later of Stefansson with particular emphasis on Meighan Island, can then be placed in better perspective.

British explorer Wally Herbert, author of a critical biography of Peary (who concludes that neither he nor Cook has reached the Pole) followed much of Cook’s route in a 1968 “shakedown” expedition which preceded his epic trans-polar crossing of the top of the Arctic Ocean.

Stefansson's cairn at Anderson Point, by CGS Survey team  (CGS Bulletin 75, 1960)

In a letter to the writer, dated August 14, 1967, Herbert expresses the belief that MacMillan’s speculations as to Cook’s ‘probable’ route (the basis, incidentally, for Hobbs, Mirsky, Andrews, and other Cook critics) is difficult to accept. He offers the following comments on Meighan Island and Cook’s route: ‘It is more than likely that at the time Cook was passing Meighan Island, the island was shrouded in fog. When we ourselves were approaching Meighan from Cape North West we did not get our first glimpse of it until we were only three miles away. On the day we left the island visibility was 50 yards for five hours and we followed the tide crack.’.

Recalling that Stefansson ‘did himself not see Meighan until he was about three or four miles from it’, Herbert adds that he believes ‘that in all possibility Cook’s landfall was in the vicinity of Perley Island just north of Amund Ringnes, an area that was just as fogbound as Meighan Island’. The same speculations were made to the writer by two members of parties who have camped on Meighan Island, K.C. Arnold (1962), and Horace Gardner (1964). Mr. Gardner observes that all of the accounts of the area, although separated by half a century, agree as to fog conditions during the time of year (June) in which both Cook and Stefansson were in the vicinity. The description which Cook gives of his landfall, ‘a vague, shapeless uplift, a sand dune or an elevated submarine bank’ and with ‘our general surroundings under a high fog’ are not too dissimilar to those encountered by the Herbert party in the vicinity of Perley Island, one of the Ringnes.

Meighan - flat and undistinguished - is a riddle in the Polar controversy

Mr. Arnold, who had spent several seasons as a glaciologist on Meighan Island, has participated in the preparation of what little recent literature there is on the island from the vantage point of the polar historian. In 1963 he contributed an article entitled ‘Who Discovered Meighan Island?’ in the publication of the Norwegian Polar Club, Polarboken. He suggests that rather than either Cook or Stefansson it might have been Sverdrup who unknowingly discovered Meighan.

In 1939, following threatened litigation by Cook’s attorneys, Stefansson decided to delete his chapter on “The Problem of Meighan Island” from his book, Unsolved Mysteries of the Arctic and published it as a 70-page booklet (sought by Polar bibliophiles today).

Concluding his study of the Meighan Island problem, Stefansson declared that it was ‘impossible to believe’ that he had discovered it; found it ‘difficult to believe’ that Cook did not discover it yet felt it was ‘seemingly impossible to explain’ why Cook would refuse to acknowledge the discovery. He sums up his dilemma with this statement: ‘It is one of those problems where every answer seems wrong.’

To many, Meighan was the 'Achilles heel' in Cook's Polar account

The “Mystery of Meighan Island” may rival the obscurity of the man after whom it was named – the “particularly undistinguished” Arthur Meighan, Prime Minister of Canada – as he was described by one of that country’s historians.
The two essays that follow deal with the “mystery” from two different vantage points some four decades apart. Both writers have published on Polar matters for much of the last half century, and their commentary provides an update to what some have said is a “riddle in the larger enigma of the Polar controversy.”

-Russell W. Gibbons

John Euller has travelled both Polar regions and written extensively on them, including Arctic World and other books. He lives in Webster, NY.

Sheldon S.R. Cook has spent more than 40 years researching the field explorations of Dr. Frederick A. Cook. He is an attorney in Atlanta, GA.

Russell W. Gibbons is editor of Polar Priorities. Part of his essay originally appeared in Polar Notes, a journal of the Stefansson Collection (8:1968).


Part II



Note left by Hans Kruger and signed by his two companions on the German Arctic Expedition, found in the cairn at Anderson Point, Meighan Island (Geological Survey of Canada, 1960)

      The confirmation of the correctness of Cook’s celestial observation of June 13, 1908 and of his location in the Crown Prince Gustav Sea on that date is one of the more interesting though not perhaps one of the most important of the multitude of verifications of Cook’s account of his sledge journey to the North Pole, of the physical geography and natural conditions at the Pole and of his return trek to land.

In brief, the circumstances which render the verification of the correctness of Cook’s observation of June 13, 1908 especially interesting may be termed “The Meighan Island Episode”. The Meighan Island Episode, which resulted in the complete vindication of Dr. Cook, reduced to its essentials, was as follows:

Vilhjalmur Stefansson, an ardent supporter of Peary, led the Canadian Arctic Expedition (1913-1918) into the Ellef Ringnes Island, Crown Prince Gustav Sea, western coast of Axel Heiberg Island area in 1916. In June 1916, Stefansson and his party discovered a small island in the Crown Prince Gustav Sea about 30 miles west of the coast of Axel Heiberg Island. The little island, not officially known to exist until Stefansson discovered it in June 1916, was named Second Land, a name later changed to Meighan Island. [Stefansson, Solving the Problem of the Arctic, Harper’s Magazine, September 1919, pp. 717-720.]

Upon his return from the Arctic, Stefansson asserted that in the course of his recent expedition, he had found “incontrovertible proof” that Cook never even tried to reach the Pole. His “proof” that Cook had not reached the North Pole consisted of the alleged “fact” that Cook’s observation of June 13, 1908, 79 degrees 32 minutes Latitude North and 101 degrees 22 minutes Longitude West, is not in the Crown Prince Gustav Sea, as Cook had written in My Attainment of the Pole, but is instead located in the center of Second Land, later known as Meighan Island, the small island in the Crown Prince Gustav Sea “discovered” by Stefansson in 1916. Stefansson charged that Cook could not have been where he said he was on June 13, 1908, at 79 degrees 32 minutes Latitude North and 101 degrees 22 minutes Longitude West, because, it he had been, he would have known that he was in the center of an island, Stefansson’s Second Land, not on the pack ice of the Crown Prince Gustav Sea.

First, it must be pointed out that Cook’s statement that the co-ordinates which he gave were in the Crown Prince Gustav Sea, even had he been mistaken, which he was not, would not have constituted “incontrovertible proof” that he had not reached the North Pole. If Cook’s co-ordinates had been off by several miles, which they were not, such a variance might well have been the result of a slight and honest error in his calculations and would not have constituted “proof” that he had not reached the Pole approximately 628 geographical miles to the north. Stefansson’s denunciation of Cook was utterly absurd. The fact that Stefansson made such a sweeping and wholly unjustified accusation against Cook makes it absolutely clear, transparent, that Stefansson’s charge was a sham and a propaganda device from the beginning, deliberately fabricated for the purpose of discrediting Cook. But, as we shall see, Cook did not make an error in his observation of June 13, 1908, the co-ordinates he gave are located in the Crown Prince Gustav Sea, exactly where Cook asserted that they are, while his accuser mistakenly placed Meighan Island, Second Land, several miles to the west of its true location as determined by later surveys and mapping. Furthermore, Stefansson falsified Cook’s alleged position according to Stefansson’s own erroneous co-ordinates for Meighan Island. Even according to Stefansson’s mistaken location for Meighan Island, Cook’s stated position is in the Crown Prince Gustav Sea, miles west of the island, and no segment of Cook’s route touches the island. [Hall, Has the North Pole Been Discovered? V. 2, supra.]

German manufactured transit found at the location of what may be
Kruger's last camp on Axel Heiberg beach (from Arctic, June 2004)

Stefansson’s charge against Cook with regard to Second Land, later known as Meighan Island, and his denunciation of Cook’s claim to the Discovery of the North Pole on the basis of this charge were set forth in an article by Stefansson, “Solving the Problem of the Arctic”, which was published in Harper’s Magazine in September 1919. Capt. Thomas F. Hall in a careful and thorough study of the matter in 1920 utterly demolished Stefansson’s denunciation of Cook. In his addendum to his exhaustive treatise, Has the North Pole Been Discovered?, known as volume 2 of that work, Hall demonstrated positively that according to Stefansson’s own co-ordinates for Second Land, or Meighan Island, neither Cook’s observation of June 13, 1908 nor any segment of his route touched the island but were located some miles to the west of it in Crown Prince Gustav Sea, precisely as stated by Cook in My Attainment of the Pole.

Later surveys and cartography revealed that Meighan Island is in fact located some miles to the east of the location assigned it by Stefansson. Cook’s observation of June 13, 1908 and his southward path through the Crown Prince Gustav Sea were thus proven by later surveys and maps to be even further west of Meighan Island and shown to have been exactly where Cook had said they were. [Heckathorn, supra.]

Stefansson then changed his tactics. Anxious that his denunciation of Cook based upon the existence of Meighan Island somehow seem to continue to have life, Stefansson asserted that even though Cook’s stated position on June 13, 1908 had been shown to have been in the Crown Prince Gustav Sea, as Cook had said, there remained a serious problem for Cook. According to Stefansson, Cook’s problem was that he did not see Meighan Island to the east from his stated position in the Crown Prince Gustav Sea on June 13, 1908, only ten to fifteen miles away, although Cook asserted that he saw the mountains of Axel Heiberg Island more than fifty miles away to the east.

Stefansson thus charged, in his change of direction of attack, that since Cook did not state that he saw Meighan Island, a then undiscovered and uncharted island, to the east of his asserted position in the Crown Prince Gustav Sea but alleged that he saw the mountains of Axel Heiberg Island, a then known and mapped land mass, much further away to the east from his position, he had raised the very serious probability that his claimed position in the Crown Prince Gustav Sea on June 13, 1908 was fictitious. Had Cook in fact been at the location he claimed, he must have seen Meighan Island. He did not see the island, therefore he almost certainly was not there. [Stefansson, The Problem of Meighan Island, New York, 1939].

Transit and other objects from the Kruger expedition camp on
Axel Heiberg Island, found in 1999 (from Arctic, June 2004) 

Stefansson’s allegation that had Cook in reality been in the Crown Prince Gustav Sea fifty miles west of Axel Heiberg Island at 79 degrees 32 minutes Latitude North and 101 degrees 22 minutes Longitude West on June 13, 1908 he must have seen Meighan Island to the east has been determined to be unfounded and erroneous.

Plotting Cook’s June 1908 observation on a current map (1991 Official Explorers Map, published by the Government of the Northwest Territories, Yellowknife, NWT, Canada) indicates that the nearest point of Meighan Island was about 27.8 statute miles away in a north-northeast direction. The southern tip of Meighan Island was about 30.5 statute miles in a northeasterly direction. Looking directly east from Cook’s position on a clear day, one could see the mountains of Axel Heiberg Island, but not Meighan Island. In fact, it would have been virtually impossible for Cook to see Meighan Island from his position because the island’s southern half is only slightly above sea level.

~Sheldon S.R. Cook

Part III


In December 1964, an Arctic and Antarctic traveler and author published an editorial in Arctic, the Journal of the Arctic Institute of America entitled “The Centenary of the Birth of Frederick Albert Cook: a Reconsideration.” Previously, he had an extensive exchange with Vilhjalmur Stefansson on the issue of Meighan Island. This essay, part of the Cook Collection at the Byrd Polar Research Center Archives at The Ohio State University, is printed here with his permission:

One of the lesser known items in the vast Cook-Peary literature is the essay “The Problem of Meighan Island” by Vilhjalmur Stefansson, privately printed in 1939. Avoiding all details for the moment, the burden of the argument presented by Stefansson is that Cook’s veracity is thrown into serious doubt, and therefore, although this is not explicitly stated, the essay must be considered as an argument against Cook’s having journeyed to the Pole.

My own contact with Stefansson’s essay was via the book To the Arctic by Jeannette Mirsky, in which it is stated that on his return to land, Cook passed within eight miles of the then undiscovered Meighan Island without reporting seeing same. Mirsky’s authority for this statement is the Stefansson essay.

In checking Mirsky’s statement with the latest charts, I found it to be in serious error, and this led to a brief but interesting correspondence with Stefansson which is here reproduced with additional comments where they seemed called for.
Dear Dr. Stefansson: As a result of the publication of a recent article of mine, I have found out that interest in Frederick A. Cook and his claim to have reached the North Pole is by no means dead. On the contrary, I find that interest is very keen. It is in this connection that I write you this letter.

Although I have never…found a specific statement by you on the matter, much has been made by the historian Jeannette Mirsky of the fact that Dr. Cook did not see Meighan Island when he returned to land after his polar trip in 1908. Miss Mirsky also states on page 302 of To the Arctic, 1948, that Cook’s reported position placed him no more than eight miles from Meighan Island, at which distance it was an utter certainty that unless the whole story was a fabrication he would have seen the island. Since he did not see and report it, concludes Miss Mirsky, his story was a fabrication, “exciting and well written, but nevertheless…mainly fiction.” Since you wrote an introduction to this book, I have concluded that you endorsed these conclusions.

However, endeavouring to leave no stone unturned in following the argument, I recently procured from the office of the Surveyor General at Ottawa a copy of the most recent edition of the Sverdrup Is ands sheet of the National Topographic Series. If Dr. Cook’s position is plotted on this map, it will be found that he was not eight miles but over thirty miles from the nearest Meighan Island coast. There is no need to point out how seriously this weakens, if it does not destroy altogether, Miss Mirsky’s argument. Since I am quite sure that my data are correct, I am at a loss to explain how either you or Miss Mirsky fell into this inaccuracy. If I am in error, or if there is some explanation, I should very much like to hear your views on the matter….

It may be mentioned here that although I knew of the existence of Stefansson’s essay The Problem of Meighan Island, because of its unavailability, I had not read it. I had also gathered that it was on the strength of this essay that Mirsky had drawn her conclusions. Stefansson’s reply follows.

Dear Mr. Euller: …From the fact that I wrote an introduction for Jeannette Mirsky’s To the North, later used in slightly modified form by her second edition, called To the Arctic, has led you to feel that I endorse her expressed views on Cook. Cook himself made the same inference, and so named me as one of three defendants in a suit he brought against the Viking Press, Miss Mirsky, and me. The contention of the suit was that since I endorsed the book as truthful, and since Miss Mirsky had in effect called him a liar, therefore I had in effect also called him a liar. A lawyer for publisher and author defended them on the usual grounds; I retained a separate lawyer and he decided on defending nothing but on contending that it would be dangerous to introduce into U.S. law the new principle that the author of the preface to a book became responsible for things done in that book, outside the preface, by publisher and author. The judge agreed with my lawyer and refused to entertain the suggestion that a preface-writer is responsible for the whole book. Cook lost his suit against author and publisher as well.

The overall questions, expressed and implied, in your letter would require an answer of chapter if not book length. It happens that I have answered, to the best of my ability, in what was originally a chapter in my Unsolved Mysteries of the Arctic, 1938, the chapter called “The Problem of Meighan Island.” A lawsuit against my publishers, the Macmillan Company, and against Professor W.H. Hobbs of the University of Michigan, was then pending, brought on account of Hobbs’ biography Peary. (i.e., the suit was pending as I was writing, the year before publication). My book, containing the Meighan Island chapter, was accepted, was set up in type and carried to the page-proof stage, when the publishers decided:

“It cost us $5,000 to win the Peary suit that Cook brought; we cannot afford to win any more suits from him and think it best to cut out the Meighan Island chapter”— or words to that effect. So they cut out the chapter, and a friend, Joseph Robinson, had it printed privately in 300 copies…

A newish, if not wholly new, angle is brought in where you say that, if the plotting of Cook’s alleged route back from the Pole be transferred to the latest Sverdrup Islands sheet it will show his route as “not eight miles but over thirty miles from the nearest Meighan Island coast.” You go on to say: “There is no need to point out…(etc.)…

Here I suggest two checks bearing on the situation. Does Cook say or imply, or does his plotting show, that he approached Hassel Sound from the north? You might then draw a line north (if a reasonable interpretation of Cook shows he claims to have been traveling straight south, this claim either verbal or through his line on the map) through Hassel Sound and see how near this comes to Cook’s plotted line. The second check is as to whether Cook says, or implies, that he could see Heiberg Island to the east. If he could see Heiberg, according to his claim, then why did he not see the intervening Meighan Island?

On how Meighan Island looked to us, both when we first saw it from the west and later when we were on or near it, you might want to read The Friendly Arctic, pages 517-524. The island was estimated by us at 800 feet high. It has cliffs to the west and north which would be snow free.

Please let me hear something further on the results of your studies. — Vilhjalmur Stefansson.

The parts omitted from Dr. Stefansson’s letter had to do with his offer to present a copy of The Problem of Meighan Island to the University of British Columbia so that I might have an opportunity to study it. As the University had a copy, this was not necessary. I replied immediately with a short note of thanks and then, some time later, with the more detailed comment below.

Dear Dr. Stefansson: This is further to our exchange of a few months ago concerning Dr. Cook and Meighan Island. I have read your The Problem of Meighan Island, as well as, other material pertaining to the matter. I am replying to your invitation to hear the results of my further studies.

Briefly, your argument as presented in The Problem of Meighan Island is that a map of sorts of the island existed before it had been officially discovered by you, that this map was constructed on the basis of stories told by Eskimos who had accompanied Cook, that the trend of the evidence is in the direction of Cook’s having spent considerable time in the vicinity of the island for his Eskimos to have gained such familiarity, and that regardless of the validity of Cook’s polar claim his omission to report the discovery or existence of Meighan casts strong suspicion on his journeys and whereabouts as a whole.

My immediate reaction to this was to see a logical paradox. If Cook had truly been in Meighan Island and subsequently falsified his records, why did he deliberately concoct a position (lat. 79 32 N, long. 101 22 W) that was close, if not dangerously close, to something he wanted to hide? I cannot believe that Cook was that naïve. Nor can I believe that your line of argument can satisfactorily answer this question.

There are also specific points I should like to discuss briefly: Disregarding for the moment what Cook’s Eskimo boys told Peary and his party, I should like to recall the circumstances under which the telling was done, that Cook, as corroborated by Whitney, specifically told the boys to keep secret the details of the trip to the Pole, that Peary was a jealous and unfriendly rival of Cook, that statements from Eskimos cannot be considered as completely reliable. In your experience, would you say that the Eskimo boys were or were not capable of concocting a yarn that the ethnologically unskilled members of Peary’s party were unable to unravel and understand? (I am thinking of the amulet-property mark puzzle described in your Arctic Adventures.) Despite representations to the contrary, do you think it was possible to have conducted any kind of inquiry without letting the boys know which side their bread was buttered on, so to speak? I am not implying bribery; I am implying that Peary and his men lacked the required subtlety and skill to get at the truth. Allow me to remark in passing that I think your approach here has been negative. I feel that with very little effort your argument could be changed to one that showed not that Cook had seen Meighan Island but that the Eskimos had prior knowledge of it.

You argue that it is one of the peculiarities of Cook’s narrative that it does not much resemble the narratives of Sverdrup and Isachsen but does give one the impression that Cook had Sverdrup’s map before him as he traveled—or as he wrote of his travels. In this I see no peculiarity. Cook was traveling in a region unknown to him; he had as a guide the latest maps, these maps incorporating the information supplied by Sverdrup and Isachsen. I feel that it is not only likely but inevitable that Cook’s statements should be based on constant comparison of what he saw around him with what was on his map. Do you not think that had Cook intended fraud, his certain procedure would have been to read the books of Sverdrup and Isachsen and make sure that his own narrative corroborated theirs in the minutest detail? Do you not think that this very omission lends credence to, rather than detracts, from his story?

You devote several paragraphs to Cook’s sighting of a snow bunting as the first sign of life upon his return to land. This, you contend, is a flaw, because both you and Papanin sighted not snow buntings but gulls in this region. This I must reject as invalid. The factors of pure chance are overwhelming. This is a small point, but it is important, not in itself, but in that it gives me a slight feeling that there has been some bending over backwards to find evidence against Cook. This in turn must shed a less favorable light on the whole essay. Has Cook been judged a Priori? I, of course, cannot and would not suggest any answer to this, mainly because reasoning out such things is a highly subjective process, and we cannot see into each other’s minds.

This is unfortunate. Argument based on subjective processes must eventually resolve itself into two opinions, each one logically unassailable in the eyes of the person presenting it.


Geological Survey/German map studies, 1960, 1974

Above:  the Geological Survey of Canada sent R.M. Thorsteinsson to Meghan Island for a six day exploration of the island during the 1957 field season, which included this sketch map.  Right:  The outline map of the region with overlays by German Polar scholar Dr. Wiard Griepenburg, 1974, showing the limit of visibility from the line of march by Cook's party in June of 1908.

However, this defect is not present in the argument I have previously presented regarding Cook’s passage near Meighan Island. If we do not accept Cook’s position, then we have no argument. If we do accept it, then it is clear now that he was not as close to Meighan as you and Miss Mirsky have given to believe. In your own writings you have somewhat paved the way for this development. I refer to an early statement of yours that Cook’s purported route actually traversed Meighan Island and the subsequent correction of this statement when the position of Meighan Island was moved to the east. It appears that since your analysis there has been further correction and shifting to the east.

In your letter you asked me to make two checks, one of them to see if he implies that he saw Heiberg Island to the east. Yes, he does imply this, but in light of the maps he had and his actual distance from Meighan Island (over 30 miles) it is only natural that he should make this mistake. The other check is that I determine whether Cook implies that he moved into Hassel Sound in a due southerly direction. The answer is again yes, although the map shows that Hassel Sound bears slightly to the east of south from Cook’s position. I reply to this by presenting the enclosed tissue overlay of the Sverdrup Islands map with Cook’s position indicated. Do you think the general situation fits what Cook said? I think it does. It remains debatable whether he should have or should not have described Hassel Sound as due south.

But again, this subjective angle lessens in importance when we examine still other powerful external factors. I refer to Cook’s actual passage over an ice island. M. Dunbar (Arctic, vol. 5, p. 89) asserts that it is strong indication that he was far out on the polar ice. There is also the sighting of “Bradley Land”. Captain Charles W. Thomas of the U.S. Coast Guard and an ice navigator of some experience states in a letter to me that this could easily have been another, large ice island mistakenly identified through arctic mirage…

This is ex post facto evidence and must be reckoned with. Your essay was written 15 or more years ago and does not do this. I do not say your argument is not strong. I do say it must be reexamined in the light of new developments.
I should very much like to hear your further comments, if any…

The early statement referred to was an article in Harper’s magazine, October 1919, in which Stefansson made a somewhat patronizing attack on Cook on the basis of Cook’s having actually traversed Meighan Island. This is now known to have been too hastily considered by Stefansson, and his revised opinion is as it appears in The Problem of Meighan Island. Stefansson’s reply to the above is as follows.

Dear Mr. Euller: Your long and interesting letter…would require too much time if I were to make even a show of a worthy reply. I am at work now on an autobiography which, if I keep at it, may appear in two years— I am already three years late by the contract which I have with the Macmillan Company. Just possibly you may find a reply to most of your questions if and when the autobiography is printed. Now I have time for only one point. Your argument falls down because Cook let you down.

When Peary charged that Cook had headed from northwestern Heiberg Island to what we now call Meighan Island, Cook issued a denial, widely published, that he had seen such an island. This denying he continued up to and including the time when my publishers, the MacMillan Company (or I on their behalf, I do not remember which) inquired of Cook’s attorneys whether he would object to the publication, as a chapter in my Unsolved Mysteries of the Arctic, of the material which now makes up the small book you and I are discussing, The Problem of Meighan Island.

The manscript of the chapter was studied both by Cook and his attorneys. Cook’s attorneys consulted the Doctor, replying on their own and his behalf, no adverse legal action would be taken if we went ahead and published. But at the time the Mysteries was in page proof we received a letter from the attorneys implying or stating, I do not remember which, that Cook now wanted to contend that he had seen Meighan Island and that he would object to the publication of my chapter. The attorneys regretted that they were not able to assure us that Cook would not bring suit, and said they had done the only thing in their power; they had told Cook that they would no longer represent him.

Cook’s having been on both sides of the question increases the psychological interest of the case, presents an added difficulty to his defenders, and will no doubt add substantially to the eventual volume of the explanatory literature….—Vilhjalmur Stefansson.

There Mr. Stefansson rests his argument, and it would seem to me to be an unsatisfactory rest. Cook’s having been on “both sides of the question” may or may not increase the difficulties for his defenders. It is quite possible that Cook did see Meighan Island but did not realize it was at the time. It is my contention that Cook did see Meighan and because of errors in his charts and reckoning mistook it for Heiberg Island.

The great weakness in Stefansson’s position, however, arises out of the fact that he has nothing to say about the now undeniable fact that Cook was over thirty miles from Meighan Island at a time when his critics, Stefansson included, claimed he was within eight miles or even on the island. Nor does he shed light on the original paradox of the so-called problem of Meighan Island. If Cook had seen and did spend time near or on this island and merely invented his trip to the Pole, why did he invent a position for this return to land that was so close to something he must obviously hide? This would be a stupidity of which Cook cannot reasonably be accused.

No, the correct answer must be that Cook’s story is honest. He returned to land as he said he had. He saw land to the east, which on the basis of his charts he thought to be Heiberg Island. This land has subsequently been identified as Meighan Island. The sum total of these facts neither adds to nor detracts from Cook’s polar claim. We now know also, from the evidence of the ice islands, that he actually was far out on the polar ice. This so adds to the improbability of the Stefansson contention that the problem of Meighan Island must be considered solved.

~John Euller



Early Maps and the Meighan Island Dispute:  1909, 1920

Above:  The disputed map based upon the so-called "eskimo Testimony" given Peary, MacMillan and others by Cook's two Innuit companions, Ahwelah and Etukishook, which has "small low island" at the outline of Meighan.  Overlay type is from Heckathorn, Polar Priorities 18, 1998.  Right:  map from Hall, 1920 ("Has the North Pole Been Discovered?")


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