Ross Marvin. From “Marvin’s Ice Shelf Journey, 1906” by Vivian C. Bushnell, Arctic, volume 9 (3), 1956.

The killing of Ross Marvin

By Kenn Harper

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.

Qilluttooq, (sometimes spelled as Kudlooktoo), shot Ross Marvin in 1909. (Photo from a private collection, courtesy of Stephen Loring, Arctic Studies Center, Smithsonian Institution.)

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 kennharper@hotmail.com.

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(9) Comments:

  1. Posted by Kyle Shepard on

    Its crazy to think of all the people (Inuit’s) that made a trip through the north pole, and have never once gotten recognized as an Explorer for being the first or just in general going to the Northpole, Just like Mount Everest, you never hear about the all the Sherpas that die every year, trying to get these Explores to the top. Just like this story, It’s so crazy!!

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    • Posted by Tulugaq on

      Indeed, it’s so true. History is full of White people who “discovered” a place thanks to Indigenous guides. Amongst the most famous were Lewis & Clark who “discovered” the way to the Pacific Ocean across the mountains thanks to a French Canadian guide Toussaint Charbonneau who had turned Indigenous and his First Nation wife, Sacajawea who was pregnant at the time but worked like 2 White guys! Alexander Mackenzie too had Indigenous guides on his trip across the Rockies and the Coast Mountains to the Pacific Ocean near today’s Bella Coola but he got his name to a river and the Indigenous guides who allowed him to succeed and not get lost are forgotten. The truth is important and these Indigenous people who contributed significantly to a successful expedition deserve as much credit as the White “explorers”.

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      • Posted by Big picture is bigger on

        They had considerable help from indigenous peoples, no doubt. Still, what they accomplished is outstanding, they mapped an entire continent whose dimensions I would guess most if not all indigenous people had no idea about.

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        • Posted by Bigger photo is even bigger on

          I’m pretty sure if they asked us Inuit( all hunters) to draw a map, we can lay it out to a tee. As we use land as our maps, they could have just asked us and saved alot of time and lives, right?
          I’ve never used GPS, and I can draw out the land pretty darn well, but “had no idea about” coming on really? We know every inch out there.

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          • Posted by More specific on

            You know your region in and out, no one doubts that.

            But was there any indigenous group that could map the Americas at that time? How about the globe?

            My point, what those explorers accomplished was extraordinary, by any standard.

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          • Posted by Phil Lange on

            What you suggest actually happened. In the 1800s in different arctic regions a trader, a qallunaaq whaling captain, or an explorer sat down with Inuit—who had rarely seen qallunait, never seen a map nor held a pencil—and handed the Inuk a pencil and paper and asked to draw a specific area, the hunter or hunters together traced out the shapes with contours and distances highly accurate as verified by aerial mapping. These Inuit produced maps were of huge benefit to the newcomers.

  2. Posted by The GC on

    Qilluttook did what he felt was right. He felt remorse after being put in a life and death matter. The explorer in the quest lost the sense of humanity and no doubt racism was a part of the bad judgement. Racism is as present today what with the genocide in the near East.

  3. Posted by Mark Seidenberg on

    It was on 7 April 2023 that Anequin
    (also known as Aneguin) was honored at Valdez, AK for his discovery of Bennett Island, Alaska in 1881 in the Arctic Ocean. The Anequin House was named in his honor.

    Aneguin joined the US Navy in 1879 and died in Siberia in late December 1882 (o.s., January 1883 n.s.) at Kirensk, Siberia. Aneguin was from St. Michael, Alaska.

    In Aneguin case he was recognized as the discover of Bennett Island by the SecNav. It was on 17 May 1884 that Bennett Island entered the District of Alaska.

    It was a landing party from the USS
    Polaris on 13 September 1871 at Thank God Harbor that took formal possession of Greenland in the n.ame of G-d, POTUS, and the SecNav.

    That was followed on 29 July 1881 by the formal possession of Bennett
    Island in the name of G-d, POTUS, and the SecNav.

    It was on 17 May 1884 that the Alaska board of the United States Department of the Treasury by resolution placed six additional islands in Alaska, viz., Bennett, Forrester, Henrietta, Herald, Jeannette, and Wrangell.

    At least in the United States native Alaska get acknowledge for discovery of islands.

  4. Posted by Kenn Harper on

    This is pat of your usual rant about Siberian islands actually belonging to the USA. Except that they don’t. They belong to Russia.

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