A Wretched and Precarious Situation
David Welky; Norton; 512 pages; 2017; $28.95
If it's possible that an expedition could be cursed from the outset, the signs didn't bode well for the seven men who journeyed north in 1913 to locate and set foot on Crocker Land, an undiscovered continent then believed to lie in the Arctic Ocean. Before the group even departed the United States, one of its two leaders died in a boating accident. The ship chartered to carry them north ran aground off the coast of Canada and was too severely damaged to travel further. The captain of the quickly arranged replacement ship was skittish of sea ice and dropped the men on the western coast of Greenland instead of ferrying them to their planned basecamp location further northwest on Canada's Ellesmere Island. It only got worse from there.
The story of the hardships and heartbreaks that befell the men who went north looking for an undiscovered continent has been largely forgotten, owing mostly to the fact that they found nothing. Yet for all they endured, they survived, although four years would pass before the last of them was rescued. After decades of obscurity, their tale has been magnificently brought to life by David Welky, a history professor at the University of Central Arkansas. His book, "A Wretched and Precarious Situation," is one of the most well-written and engrossing works of Arctic history in recent memory.
Crocker Land was first spotted in 1906 by Robert Peary after a failed attempt to reach the North Pole. While awaiting the summer sea ice melt that would allow him to return south, he traveled to Axel Heiberg Island to the west of Ellesmere. From there, he spotted a not-too-distant landmass of mountains sweeping up from the frozen sea. He named it Crocker Land in honor of George Crocker, a San Francisco banker who had donated generously to his expedition. He hoped right then that someone would be able to reach what clearly had to be a continent. Or so he later wrote. He made no mention of his discovery in his journal that day.
On his next trip, in 1908, Peary reached the Pole (a claim now widely disputed). But more important for Welky's story, he brought along two men, Donald MacMillan and George Borup, who became fast friends and who were fired up by dreams of attaching their names to the discovery of Crocker Land. Immediately upon their return to the States they began the arduous process of making plans, finding sponsors and turning their ambition to reality.
It was Borup who died in the accident. MacMillan was left to lead the mission alone. He found an able assistant in a young Navy officer named Fitzhugh Green, who seemed the ideal replacement for Borup. The expedition went forward.
Drawing from an enormous wealth of sources, including the participants' personal journals and correspondences, Welky fully fleshes out the characters of each of the seven men who went north, and charts how their interpersonal relationships shifted as events overtook the party. He writes like a literary novelist. While the early chapters move a bit slowly as Welky sets the stage, once the men reach Greenland, readers will be irresistibly drawn into what becomes a tale of humans struggling and sometimes cracking under extreme duress.
The first winter went mostly well. The men built a weather-proof house and forged relationships with the local Inuit groups from whom they would hire help when it came time to traverse the sea ice. Mumps and influenza wore on their health, but the shared dream of discovering new lands kept them cohesively working as a group.
Early the following spring MacMillan led a charge across Ellesmere to find Crocker Land. In the end it was just he and Green, along with two Inuit men, who took to the ice to reach the continent rising up in the distance that proved to be … mist. What Peary saw — if he saw anything at all — was a mirage. A fata morgana. Welky argues persuasively that Peary knew this in 1906 but later made a fraudulent claim, hoping to charm Crocker into giving him more money by naming a continent after his benefactor.
From there, things spiraled downward. Green went mad on the return trip and killed one of the Inuit. To prevent troubles with the victim's family and other Inuit — whose help the Americans depended upon for their lives — a cover story was created. When the full team reassembled at their base on the shore of Greenland, the expedition's failure and the underlying differences between the men caused the the group to rupture.
"Crocker Land had brought the seven Americans together," Welky writes. "When that vanished, along with their dreams of fame and glory, the only things unifying the group were a mutual hostility and a shared desire for home. Arguments broke out around the table. Half of the team was inert. Green 'is not at all himself' Mac observed, without realizing that the ensign had become a bottle of emotional poison. Green shut himself in his room, claiming he was too busy studying to do any work. The ensign's toxic attitude infected Allen, who emulated his antisocial existence. Tanquary remained bedridden for weeks following the brutal amputation of his toes."
Frostbite, lice and hunger took hold. Men would stalk off to find their own way off the island, several making it and others returning to camp. The first rescue ship, sent north in 1915, got iced in and added more refugees and more rancor to the population. The second ship, dispatched the following year, went temporarily missing. Only in 1917 were the remaining members of the expedition retrieved. They returned hoping for recognition. But with America at war, few cared about a mission gone so wrong.
Welky spools this story out with remarkable detail, yet the book never lags. For this reviewer, it consumed several dark nights of the final week of 2017 and was by far the best book I read all year.