The killing of Ross Marvin
On March 1, 1909, a determined band of American explorers and Inughuit from northwestern Greenland left Cape Columbia, at the northern tip of Ellesmere Island, bound for the North Pole.
Their leader was Robert Peary, whose expeditions to northern Greenland had spanned a period of 18 years. This would be his final attempt to claim the ultimate geographical prize for which he had yearned so long.
Peary’s method involved advance parties preceding him on the route northward to lay out caches of supplies for his own group and their dogs. Other parties, also carrying supplies for later stages of Peary’s dash for the pole, would accompany him to perform specific tasks along the route – one was a pickaxe brigade to clear the route ahead for Peary.
At various points along the route, Peary would take over the other party’s supplies and a sledge party would be sent back to Cape Columbia with only enough provisions for their own lightly-laden return.
One of these support parties was led by Ross Marvin, a young graduate of Cornell University. He had been to the Arctic with Peary once before, on the explorer’s 1905-06 expedition.
After two years back in America, he left the United States again with Peary in the summer of 1908 and wintered in the High Arctic, revelling in the outdoor life and in the opportunity to prove himself against new and unique challenges.
At Cape Columbia, Peary placed him in charge of a group of three Inughuit – Qilluttooq, his younger cousin Inukitsupaluk, and Aarqioq.
The trip north to supply Peary was rough on Marvin. He suffered from frostbite to his heels and toes.
Bob Bartlett, leader of another party, said, “All the skin was taken off both heels and all his toes. He was in a sorry plight, but as far as I could see, it did not worry him in the least.”
Marvin and his men accompanied Peary to 86 degrees 38 minutes north before the commander ordered their return to Cape Columbia on March 26.
When the three Inughuit reached the Roosevelt, Peary’s ship frozen in on the Ellesmere coast, it was without Ross Marvin and with a tragic tale of an accident: Ross Marvin had fallen through a lead on their return on April 10 and had drowned. They had been unable to recover his body.
Peary had continued north after the two parties separated and claimed to reach the North Pole on April 6. He returned to the ship on April 23 where he learned the sad news of Marvin’s death.
In September, on Peary’s return to America, it was to glory and, ultimately, to controversy. Hidden within the press’s adulation of Peary were brief reports of the accidental drowning of Ross Marvin. But the reports were soon lost in the multitude of articles on Peary’s alleged triumph. Marvin was quickly forgotten.
Amazingly, a different story — the truth — came out over a decade later. Qilluttooq had been converted to Christianity by the missionary at Thule in December 1923, and had made a confession to clear his conscience. Ross Marvin had not drowned on that distant day as the party sledged southward from their farthest north. Rather, Qilluttooq had shot him.
The circumstances, he recounted, were these: Marvin’s behaviour had become irrational. He was extremely demanding. He forced the Inughuit to cross dangerous stretches of new ice over barely frozen leads instead of waiting for more solid ice as the Inughuit suggested.
He accused the Inughuit of laziness. Twice Marvin himself fell through the ice and the Inughuit rescued him. Then Inukitsupaluk, the youngest member of the group, fell ill. Marvin ordered the others to abandon him.
As Marvin began to load Inukitsupaluk’s sled, Qilluttooq asked the young man to bring him his rifle and calmly shot Marvin through the head. They sank his body through a hole in the ice and waited two days for Inukitsupaluk to regain his strength. During this time they devised the story that they would tell on their return to the Roosevelt.
In 1925, Knud Rasmussen heard about Qilluttooq’s confession and questioned the Inughuit about the matter. Inukitsupaluk told him, “I saw Qilluttooq on a big piece of rough ice and he yelled to me that I should bring him his rifle. He had seen a seal in the open water. I brought his rifle and went back to the sled. I heard a shot a moment after and expected that Qilluttooq had shot the seal. But right away he came over to me and told me what had happened. He had shot Marvin in order to save my life.”
Knud Rasmussen reported his findings to the Danish government.
“In no single instance is there any reason to doubt that the reports of the Eskimos are truthful. An entire winter’s fatiguing travel got the best of Marvin’s nerves, and in a fit of anger he acted without thinking…. the Eskimos looked upon his action [in threatening to leave Inukitsupaluk behind] as if he really meant it, and for this reason, I feel, they were fully justified in considering the situation dangerous.… As the matter stands now, I don’t see how Qilluttooq can in any way be held responsible for the sad outcome of the trouble.”
No charges were ever brought.
Taissumani is an occasional column that recalls events of historical interest. Kenn Harper is a historian and writer who lived in the Arctic for more than 50 years. He is the author of “Minik: The New York Eskimo” and “Thou Shalt Do No Murder,” among other books. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to email@example.com.