The Iron Mountain, Part I

Taissumani: 2008-03-21

By Kenn Harper

A month ago Inuit in the High Arctic were startled to see a bright light streak across the night sky. Astronomers have said that it was a meteor but that there is probably little chance that it actually hit the earth. surrounding it. (In general terms, it's a meteor when it's in the sky. If parts of it survive burning up while passing through the earth's atmosphere, and reach the earth, it's a meteorite.) When I heard about the event I was reminded of the existence of meteoric iron in northern Greenland, and of the legends.

John Ross was the first white explorer to encounter the Polar Eskimos – the Inughuit – in the High Arctic on the northwest coast of Greenland in 1818. He observed with surprise that they used metal tools. They alone, of all Inuit, had discovered a local source of meteoric iron – three meteorites that were located about 35 miles to the east of Cape York, a place that would in later years become a meeting point for explorers or whalers, and Inuit anxious to trade.

In 1818, Ross and his fellow officers were interested in the knives that their first Inuit visitors had carried, a few of which they acquired in trade. Although the Inuit had never bartered with, or even met, white men before, their knives contained pieces of iron. Alexander Fisher, assistant surgeon, described them as being "…made of small pieces, or plates of iron, which were set close together in a groove made in a piece of narwhal's horn; the end piece was riveted, but the others were kept in their places merely by being tightly ­driven into the groove."

The ship's armourer gave them a cursory examination, and concluded that they were made from pieces of iron hoop, or flattened nails. Through his interpreter, John Sakeouse, Ross asked the Inuit about the source of this iron. They replied that "a piece of wood with some nails had come on shore, and been picked up." Ross was satisfied that this accounted for the source of their iron, and inquired no further.

But Fisher was not so sure. The Inuit had said that "they met with it near the shore, at some distance from this place" but Fisher and some of the officers thought it was "native iron." They thought the Inuit were not telling the truth about it, fearing that the white men might find their treasure and take it away. The hunters promised to bring samples of the iron with them on their next visit.

Now, with the ships becalmed in Prince Regent's Bay, John Ross questioned Sakeouse, his interpreter, more intensely about the natives' knives and the unexpected iron blades. And Sakeouse provided information that startled the captain.

The Englishmen had misunderstood the information of a day earlier – the source of the iron in the Inuit knives was not nails in planks that had washed ashore, but rather a mountain near shore. Alexander Fisher's hunch that the iron was native to the region had been correct after all. When the Inuit returned, if they did, John Ross would certainly have more questions on this topic!

A few days later, a group of Inuit again visited the ship. Using Sakeouse as interpreter, Ross questioned one man, Meigack, about the iron. The Inuit's only purpose in traveling so far from their own country farther to the north, he told the interpreter, was to procure some of this iron, "which they break off with great difficulty by the means of stones, and then beat out into the small plates of which the knives are made."

Edward Sabine wrote that they "cut it off with a hard stone, and then beat it flat into pieces of the size of a sixpence, but of an oval shape." But Alexander Fisher gave the most detailed account; Fisher reported that "…they said that there were two… masses of it, the largest of which they described as being about the size of the skylight over Captain Ross's cabin, which is about four feet across. The other mass was reported by them to be considerably smaller."

It came, Meigack said, from a place called Sowallick (Fisher wrote it as Soovilik), a day's sled journey distant, at least 25 miles away. Despite the orthography, the word is easily recognizable as "Savilik" – the place with iron.

Ross regretted that time and ice conditions prevented him from sending a party to survey the area. His orders were to search for a Northwest Passage, not meteoric iron on the shores of Greenland. He would have to be content with the few knives he had bought and the information he had collected.

Ross returned to England that fall, and thus was born the myth of an "Iron Mountain" in northern Greenland.

Next week: more on the Iron Mountain.

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 kennharper@hotmail.com.

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