by Mark Bostick
The Cape York Misconception
The Cape York meteorite is one of the most
famous meteorites in world. Only the Hoba meteorite of Africa can claim to be a
larger mass, and if your were to add up all the later Cape York finds, and weigh
the Hoba, the Cape York might have the largest known mass of any meteorite. The
largest of the Cape York irons weighs in at 34 tons and has the nickname "Ahighito".
To the meteorite collector, Ahighito is like the Hope Diamond is to the jewel
collector. Something amazing and breathtaking. Hard to imagine the existence of
and impossible to have. This however, was not felt by its finder, Robert Peary.
The story of the Cape York meteorite starts in 1818. During this year, a British explorer, Captain John Ross sailed along the Westside of Greenland to its northern shore. Here, John Ross found friendly Eskimos using knifes and harpoons, some completely metal. Others with tiny pieces of metal worked careful into its edge. The Eskimos told of a huge iron rock. By labor of pounding rocks, small pieces were broken off the large mass and fashioned into tools. Ross figured it was a meteorite but was unable to explore the region. Along with other artifacts, he did trade for a few of the Eskimo tools and returned to Europe with first scientifically collected pieces of the Cape York find.
It would be over seventy-six more years before the meteorite was officially discovered. Explorers in Greenland from all over the world had searched out the iron. The natives would not tell of its location and the meteorite was never found. In the 1890's the world had a race much like that of the 1960's moon landing race. The finish line, the north pole. Most believed it to be a frozen lake bed, at best a frigid land of "abnormal conditions". Whatever the scientific value the north pole held was of no matter. The many European countries or the North Americans? Who would get there first was unknown. The honor and prestige of the accomplishment was however well known and understood by all.
The North American's entry into the race was Lient. Robert. E. Peary. A Civil Engineer at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Peary was a well known explorer, made famous by his dog sled cross of Greenland. Something that now, over a hundred years later, few would even think about attempting. The Eskimos held high respect of Peary for this task.
In 1894, Peary made his second trip to Greenland. If you were to read about this story in most meteorite publications you might very well get the impression that Peary's mission was to recover the iron meteorite. This however was not true at all. In fact, it was unknown if the Eskimos would even show him the mass. This was never a concern to Peary. He had one thing on his mind, the north pole. A chance to explore northern Greenland also meant a chance to learn more about the uncharted north. The meteorite however was one of the things on Peary's list and he talked two of the natives to lead him to the stone. A week and a half, with one less guide, Peary found iron. In Cape York, on the northern shore of Melville Bay, two masses were uncovered. One about 3 tons and the other around 1,100 pounds. He was also told of another and even larger mass, four miles north. Peary still had work to do and lacked the supplies to tackle collecting the meteorites. They would have to wait until a later visit.
A year later, 1895, Peary returned to Cape York. Using wooden sleds Peary's men removed the two smaller meteorites and made their way to the shore, were they would be loaded onto the ship. The larger mass was another story. After seeing the meteorite for the first time, Peary estimated it's weight at 100 tons, it's size was much bigger then Peary had imagined. According to a friend of Peary's as reported in the The New York Times, April 22, 1896, "The party dug around the object but it was too large to be conveyed to the ship, which could not be brought near enough without extra means of lifting the interesting specimen." To Peary however, the meteorite was not his main discovery on this trip. But instead, the land he found north of Greenland, separate from the mainland itself. "Lockwood and Brainerd of the Greely party went as far north as 83 degrees 24 seconds and they could see land nearly as far north as 84 degrees, but did not know it was detached from the mainland. I proved the insularity of Greenland and found the archipelago, and I believe that explorations further north must be along the shore line of these new-found land masses. " By this time in history, several nations were actively trying to make it to the pole. The race was on.
In August 1896, Peary once again made it to Greenland, his fourth visit. This time Peary brought equipment to tackle the big stone, including the 370 ton steamer "The Hope". The meteorite, however, was again, not the focus of the mission, more of a bonus. Peary was a delivery boy for the American Museum of Natural History, who had commissioned Peary to secure ethnological specimens of the northern Eskimos. To bring back clothing and tools so that more could be learned on their culture. Among the "two car loads" of artifacts brought back by Peary, including summer and winter clothing from baby to man, a pack of hunting dogs, and a very large collection of arctic skins and skeletons. While Peary did his job for the AMNH which he considered "successful even beyond his...expectations." The meteorite however proved too much. Peary on multiple occasions managed to bring back large collections of scientific interest, while at the same time increased our knowledge of the northern latitude land, paving the way to the north pole. He had hired many natives, some to make supplies and other to help move the stone by the shore where it could be loaded onto the Hope. It's weight however, made loading impossible and it was left on the shore for another exploration.
The New York Times reported on the meteorite in October 18, 1896, "He was not successful, however, as the apparatus he took for moving the great mass proved unequal to the task, and he or some one else will have to try again."
So for the fourth year in a row, Perry waited for the large ice sheets of frozen northern ocean to melt and break apart. Now on his fifth trip to Greenland, and once again with the steamer Hope, Perry went to Greenland with much to do. This time Peary had four hydraulic jacks capable of lifting 30 tons each. It is obvious Peary very much wanted the stone, but once again it would be very wrong to say the Peary went to Greenland for the meteorite, which is how it sounds in meteorite folklore. Peary even called the stone the "Saviksoah Demon", but perhaps this was because of the many times Peary, the meteorite and "he failed" appeared in print. Peary went to Greenland to collect more ethnological specimens and to examine the northern islands he had discovered on his earlier trip. Mostly to prepare for another trip in which he would he would go farther, the later trip would hopefully lead to the north pole. The New York Times of May 28th, 1897, reported the nature of his mission.
NEW YORK, May 27. -Lieut. Peary, who yesterday received five years leave of absence from his duties in the navy for the purpose of making another attempt to reach the North Pole, will start north on July 8th, making a preliminary journey, the sole object of which will be to make arrangements for the final trip, which will be in July, 1898. Lieut. Peary's object in his preliminary trip will be to communicate with a colony of Esquimaux at Whale Sound. He has the utmost confidence in the people, and says they will do anything for him within their power. He will pick out six or eight of the most intelligent young men in the colony and prepare them to take their families north with them to establish another colony, which, the year after, will be his base of supplies. At this village, which they will found, they will work throughout the year collecting meat, furs and bearskins to be made into trousers. They will also make sealskin boots, sleds and other supplies, and will collect and train a pack of the best Esquimaux dogs obtainable.
Lieut. Peary will be accompanied on this summer's trip by his wife and three-year-old daughter, but on the main expedition Mrs. Peary and her child will remain in this country. Lieut. Peary is enthusiastic over the plans of his trip, and is looking forward to his five years of work with the greatest pleasure.
The fact that Peary's wife and child went in 1897, does confirm that Peary was not attempting a North Pole trip at this time. Peary was determined to get the meteorite this time. It can be noted here however, the lack of mention of the meteorite in the article above. The goal of the north pole was soon to be reality. But to who, Nanse? The famous Norwegian explorer? Perhaps the balloon ride being planned by Andree? To Peary, being the first to the north pole was probably his American duty. The meteorite was just an extra. Frosting on the cake, so to speak.
It has been noted that when the large mass was loaded onto the Hope by Peary's crew, that the Eskimos abandoned ship, fearing the large mass would sink it. While I can not dispute this, these reports are at best misleading. In fact, six Eskimos returned to New York with Perry aboard the Hope with the meteorite. Peary's adventure was the topic of the week and much was written about the exploration and the items Peary brought back. If the meteorite was tossed around during shipment and the shipmates feared it breaking through the side, as reported by Richard Norton in Rocks from Space, this fact was shortly forgotten as no reference of it can be found in the many Peary article's of the New York Times. Peary was stationed at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, and you might consider this his hometown paper.
October 2, 1897 is the date that has been given as the return of Peary with the meteorite. This however is untrue. The New York Times of October 1, 1897 reports that Peary was "BACK FROM THE FAR NORTH", and having returned the day earlier, September 30, 1897. The ship with meteorite and Eskimos was moored at Dock Street in Brooklyn. There it sat for two days and on October 2, 1897 was moved to the Navy Shipyard. Here the big meteorite was taken from her hold and put ashore. The Eskimos were now the spotlight and it would be many years before the Cape York was even properly examined.
Peary continued his explorations and did complete his dream, becoming the first man to "discover" the North Pole. The meteorite however, Peary seemed to be unconcerned about. In the weeks following Peary's return he was often celebrated. The many artifacts brought back by Peary made him one of the great explorers of all time. However, not all of the scientific world agreed with his findings and some even questioned the meteorite itself.
On October 23, 1897, Dr. Fridtjof Nanse, the Norwegian explorer, came to New
York to a very large welcome. Local Norwegians and the scientific community
greeted Nanse with open arms. Here he was questioned by many reporters a list of
questions. One of them was on Peary's meteorite, "It is not a meteorite, "but
merely telluric Iron, the same thing that Nordenskjold discovered." Nanse
replied. Later, that same day a dinner party was thrown in Nanse's honor. Among
the many prominent guests, included Peary. A guest speaker, Peary wearing his
Naval uniform, although he was officially on a five year leave, did not mention
the meteorite but "spoke of the admiration of the American people had for Nanse,
and said they would greet him with the warmest welcome." If Peary was angry
about the meteorite comment made by Nanse earlier that day. He did not show it.
When the meteorite was sold to the American Museum of Natural History in 1904 for the paltry sum of $40,000. It was not Peary who sold the stone, but his wife. Mrs. Peary had been given the stone a number of years earlier by her husband. The meteorite now had a home. Many people lined the streets as Ahighito made its way to the museum. Robert Peary was not one of them, his interest as always remained focused. The North Pole, not the meteorite.