Taissumani: May 1, 1914 — Getting away with murder
Last week, I wrote about Donald MacMillan’s disappointment in discovering that Crocker Land, said by Peary to lie to the north of Axel Heiberg Island, was but a mirage. MacMillan’s expedition was a failure within its first year.
But MacMillan would remain in the Arctic for three more years. More disappointments would follow, and one tragedy.
Safely back on Axel Heiberg Island after chasing the mists that were Crocker Land, MacMillan felt a need to salvage something from his journey. He decided to travel to a cape on Ellesmere Island with Ittukusuk, to retrieve a record left there by Sverdrup. He instructed Fitzhugh Green to travel westward with Piugaattoq to further explore the coast of Axel Heiberg.
But Piugaattoq objected because a storm was brewing. Nevertheless, MacMillan ordered them to leave at once, and Piugaattoq reluctantly obeyed.
When the storm hit, Piugaatoq dug a shelter for the two men in a snow bank. Then a snowslide buried Green’s sled and killed his dogs. Desperately, Piugaattoq worked to keep a pocket of air open in the cavern he had hollowed out for himself and Green. The American was Green in more than name, but Piugaattoq persevered, and kept him alive.
When the storm abated, Piugaattoq announced that they must return to rendezvous with MacMillan. But Green, despite his inexperience, wanted to continue. The two men argued. A second storm forced them back into the close confines of their refuge.
Finally, Piugaattoq had had enough. He told Green that he was turning back. They had only one sled between them, and Piugaattoq forced Green to walk, knowing that the activity was necessary to keep his toes from freezing. Green complained that he could not keep up, but Piugaattoq maintained a steady pace.
Green may have felt that Piugaattoq was abandoning him. On the march, he snatched a rifle from the sled and brandished it in Piugaattoq’s direction, ordering the Inuk to follow behind him. When he turned a few minutes later, he saw a frightened Piugaattoq whipping the dogs frantically off in another direction.
Green reported what happened next in a matter-of-fact manner in his journal: “I shot once in the air. He did not stop. I then killed him with a shot through the shoulder and another through the head.”
Piugaattoq had been a trusted travel companion of Peary on all his polar expeditions. Knud Rasmussen described him as “a man whom one could trust” and “a comrade who in difficult or dangerous circumstances was ready to make personal sacrifices in order to help and support his companions.” Piugaattoq had tried to save Green’s life. Green had taken his.
On May 1, MacMillan recorded in his diary the death of Piugaattoq. Back in America in 1918, he published his story of the Crocker Land Expedition, and wrote dispassionately that “Green, inexperienced in the handling of Eskimos, and failing to understand their motives and temperament, had felt it necessary to shoot his companion.”
MacMillan and Green determined the keep the truth from the Inughuit. They told them instead a half-truth. There had been a snowslide, they said, and Piugaattoq had suffocated under it. But Ittukusuk knew the truth as soon as Green returned to MacMillan’s camp. He knew a little English, and he had heard the distraught Green blurt out his dismal tale to MacMillan. Ittukusuk told the other Inughuit the truth when they returned to Etah. The Inughuit decided not to let on that any of them knew.
Green’s actions defy logic. If a man felt he was being abandoned by his guide in unfamiliar and dangerous territory, why shoot the guide? That would simply lessen one’s chance of survival. The story makes no sense. Unless there was more to it.
Many of the Inughuit thought that, indeed, there was another reason. A quarter century ago, when I asked the elders in Qaanaaq why they thought Fitzhugh Green had killed Piugaattoq, they told me that the reason was simple — Green had wanted Piugaattoq’s wife, Aleqasina. She was a strikingly beautiful woman and had been Peary’s mistress until he abandoned her in 1909. Green, the Inughuit believed, desired her. No other reason could explain such an irrational act.
Although MacMillan wrote about it, the murder of Piugaattoq was never investigated. Fitzhugh Green was never punished.
Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History recounts a specific event of historic interest, whose anniversary is in the coming week. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.