One hundred years ago…


George Borup

Although this blog is inspired in part by the impending centennial of the Crocker Land expedition, we do not intend to post a stream of “on this day, one hundred years ago” facts. Nevertheless, some days are worth noting, and May 15 is one of them.

By the spring of 1912, preparations for the imminent departure of the expedition were well on their way. A ship, the Diana, had been chartered, supplies had been purchased, and although there was still lots to do, including raising more funds, everything was looking good. But in April, tragedy struck. George Borup, the charismatic young co-leader of the expedition drowned in a boating accident.

At first, Borup’s sudden death threw the plans for the expedition into confusion. Henry Fairfield Osborn, president of the AMNH, formally proposed that the expedition be called off, and that they offer the funders the option of having their money returned or of having it transferred into an endowed memorial fund. Edmund Otis Hovey, chairman of the Crocker Land expedition committee and curator of geology, along with other committee members, successfully argued against this course of action and proposed postponing the expedition for a year, and then going forward with MacMillan as sole leader. George Borup’s father joined the discussion, advocating for postponement rather than cancellation. One hundred years ago, on May 15, 1912, the committee formally accepted this proposal.

In the following weeks and months, preparations continued, including the search for a geologist to replace Borup. Some financial losses were inevitable, such as the penalty for canceling the Diana charter at short notice, but fund-raising also proceeded, to put the expedition on good financial footing.

Everyone concerned felt Borup’s loss, and there was some debate over how to adequately recognize his contribution. In the end, the Crocker Land Expedition became The George Borup Memorial Expedition. Osborn named a museum launch after him, MacMillan named the research station they built in 1913 Borup Lodge, and later, the expedition named a fjord on Ellesmere Island after him.


Beginning at the Beginning


The West 77th Street entrance of the American Museum of Natural History


Manhattan, warm and rainy in mid-May, is a long way from the Polar Sea, but if we are to study the Crocker Land expedition, this is the place to begin. Almost as soon as they returned from their first northern adventure as “tender feet” with Robert E. Peary’s North Pole expedition in 1909, George Borup and Donald B. MacMillan were planning a new expedition. Their goal was to find Crocker Land, an island sighted by Peary to the north and western of Axel Heiburg Island. Such an expedition is not to be undertaken lightly, and the two men soon began looking for sponsors. One of the first places they looked to was The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), in New York. As early as 1911, MacMillan wrote to them suggesting they sponsor a two-year expedition. Ultimately the AMNH did sponsor the expedition, which is why we have come here, to study the papers, photographs and other materials in the museum’s archives, and to learn more about how the expedition took shape.

While the expedition is named for the geographic region MacMillan and Borup intended to investigate, their goals were broader and more scientifically focused. This was in keeping with contemporary trends in exploration, as the unknown areas of the world map were filled in and people turned their attention to understanding the people, animals and plants that inhabited them. In 1911 Borup was a graduate student in geology at Yale, while MacMillan was studying anthropology at Harvard. Their plan was to travel north in the summer to be ready for an early spring sledging trip across the frozen ocean to Crocker Land. In the months prior to this trip, and for the year following, they would conduct scientific research. In 1911 MacMillan estimated that this could be accomplished for about $15,000.

As we know, in broad outline, this is indeed what happened, but not without a lot of ups and downs along the way. Over the next months and years, we will document our studies of this expedition, looking at it from a variety of perspectives and providing glimpses of both how the expedition itself developed, and how our own exhibit research progresses.