Peary Finds the Cape York Meteorites

Taissumani: 2008-03-28

By Kenn Harper

John Ross's voyage of 1818 had created the myth of an "Iron Mountain" on the shores of Melville Bay near Cape York, Greenland. Since Ross's time, other expeditions had set out in search of it. Usually it was a secondary objective of a whaling or exploring expedition. In 1883, Baron Nordenskjold's expedition tried to reach Cape York, its sole purpose being to discover and bring back the meteorites. But ice prevented them from reaching the site.

In 1891, Robert Peary, United States naval officer, visited northern Greenland for the first time. He would become obsessed with finding a route to the North Pole. It would dominate activities in the region for the next 18 years.

But he had another obsession as well – finding and taking home the meteorites that had traditionally provided the Inughuit with their only source of iron.

Peary first heard about the meteorites in 1892 from Qisuk, one of his regular hunters and dog drivers. But just as the Inuit had been reluctant to tell John Ross where the meteorites were located, so too they were hesitant to share their secret with Peary.

In both cases, they expected the white men to try to deprive them of their treasure. It was true that in the years since Ross's expedition, the waters of north Greenland had come to be frequented by whalers – the upernaallit, those who come in spring, as they called them – and that these men from far-off Scotland traded metal implements to the Inuit in return for furs and ivory. But what if they ceased coming? What if the Inuit needed to rely again on their hidden source of iron? And so they guarded the secret.

The Inuit had legends about these meteorites. Collectively they were called the Saviksuit – the great irons. Peary recounted what he had learned about them from the Inuit:

"They were originally an Innuit [sic] woman and her dog and tent hurled from the sky by Tornarsuk (the Evil Spirit). They say that at first the "woman" was in shape like a woman seated and sewing, but that the constant chipping of fragments through successive ages has gradually removed the upper portion of her body and reduced her size one-half or one-third.

"Years ago her head became detached and a party of Eskimos from Peterahwik (Pitoraarfik) or Etah (Iita) (settlements north of Whale Sound) attempted to carry it away, actuated probably by the desire to have a supply of the precious metal more convenient, and save themselves the long and arduous journey to Cape York and into Melville Bay, when they needed to replenish their stock of iron. The head was lashed upon a sledge and the party started for their home, but when well out from the shore the sea ice suddenly broke up with a loud noise, and the head disappeared beneath the water, dragging down with it the sledge and dogs. The Eskimos narrowly escaped with their lives, and since that time no attempt has been made to carry away any but the smallest fragments of the heavenly woman."

Finally, in May of 1894, Peary badgered one man, Aleqatsiaq, to take him to the meteorites. When they reached the site, they dug away the snow and revealed a large brown mass. Aleqatsiaq proclaimed it to be the headless woman.

Peary spent the following day measuring, sketching and photographing the treasure. Then, in an act of supreme arrogance, he carved a rough "P" on the metallic surface. This was, he said, "an indisputable proof of my having found the meteorite." Apparently, the fact that Inuit had known about it all along counted for nothing.

Aleqatsiaq also showed Peary the site of the largest of the meteorites, called "the tent," on Bushnan Island, but deep snow prevented him from actually setting eyes on it.

Peary wondered which had arrived first on the peninsula at Cape York, the Inuit or the meteorite. He concluded that it must have been the Inuit because their legends referred to the meteorites being "hurled from the sky." Some generations before, he thought, Inuit had seen a shower of fiery balls streak across the night sky. The spirits were angry. It was a fortuitous coincidence that Inuit subsequently chanced upon the site where some of these objects had struck the earth.

Back at his headquarters at Anniversary Lodge, Peary began planning how to make the meteorites, all of them, his own. He would take them back to America and use them to raise cash to finance future expeditions.

Next Week – How to Steal a Meteorite

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to

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