Independence Fjord, Peary, and the First Thule Expedition

Independence Day 2012. Independence Fjord 1912. The mapping of northern Greenland.

I am reading 100-year-old travel reports by Danish polar explorers Knud Rasmussen and Peter Freuchen who visited Independence Fjord exactly 100 years ago to resolve a puzzles of Greenland’s geography: Is Peary Land an island or Greenland’s North? It is Greenland, but their detailed report has data I want: glaciers mapped, temperatures recorded, ice described, rocks sampled, musk ox killed. It is all part of an ongoing scientific journey of discovery and writing, but I am getting ahead of my Independence Day and Independence Fjord story:

Map of Greenland as included in the Report of the First Thule Expedition 1912 by Knud Rasmussen also showing contemporary expeditions across the Greenland ice sheet.

The Greenland mapping and early science was done painstakingly via sled dog teams by hardy people and adventurous spirits who had to find and hunt game to avoid death by starvation. Rasmussen, Freuchen, and their Inuit companions Uvdloriaq and Inukitsoq set out over Greenland’s inland ice from Thule on April 19, 1912 with 54 dogs to return 5 months later with only 8 dogs.

Ascent of the Inland ice in April 1912 as the First Thule Expedition starts from Clemens Markham’s Glacier to Independence Fjord. All 4 explorers returned, but only 8 of the 54 dogs did.

This was the First Thule Expedition that was supported by the Thule Trading Post at North Star Bay that Rasmussen and Freuchen had privately established in the fall of 1909. Today it is the location of Thule Air Force Base. My father-in-law served here for a year as a young Airman in the 60ies. It is also where our Nares Strait science party will board the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Henry Larsen Aug.-1, 2012. I am thinking of Peter Freuchen and his Inuit wife Naravana, Knud Rasmussen, and Independence Fjord on this Independence Day.

The Freuchen family on a visit to Denmark: Naravana, Pipaluk, Peter, and Mequsaq [Source: Freuchen, P., 1953: Vagrant Viking. Julian Messner Inc., NY, 312 pp.]

Independence Fjord in the summer of 2007 as seen from Kap Moltke looking south. [Source: web]

Independence Fjord in north-east Greenland was named by Robert E. Peary on America’s birthday 120 years ago on July 4, 1892 when he was the first white person to get there. Prehistoric people of the Independence cultures left artifacts from 3000 years ago. Hunting was good then, too. The 120 year old photograph of Peary shows him standing atop Navy Cliff next to a cairn with two Star Spangled Banners fluttering in the wind. The view eastward is along the 120 mile (200 km) long and 19 miles (30 km) wide Independence Fjord that opens into the Greenland Sea.

Peary at Navy Cliff, Greenland on July 4, 1892 atop Independence Fjord. [Photo Credit: Bowdoin College]

Note left by R.E. Peary on July 5, 1892 at a cairn at Navy Cliff overlooking Independence Fjord which he named here such. The darker pencil at the bottom is Peter Freuchen’s.

Peter Freuchen of the Thule expedition recovered Peary’s note 100 years ago. He then made and left a copy, added his own note, and headed home to Thule, Greenland. Besides checking on Peary the two Danes were also looking for a lost Danish expedition led by Einar Mikkelsen, who in turn was looking to recover the bodies of two Danish explorers of Independence Fjord, Ludvig Mylius-Erichsen and Niels Peter Hoegen-Hagen who had died nearby in 1907. Almost all these explorers have mountains, glaciers, land, and capes named after them or their sponsors, only Independence Fjord is different.

Independence Fjord celebrates the birthday of a young nation, the idea of a painfully evolving democracy, work still in progress. Peary may have made many claims that were not always supported by the evidence he presented, such as claiming to have reached the North Pole. He was no scientist, but a manager driving hard to secure funds, a ruthless self promoter, and autocrat assigning native women to men of his liking. But in this one instance of naming one of Greenland’s grand fjords Independence Fjord, he did good. Recall that this was the time when unelected kings, queens, generals, and dictators were ruling over expanding colonial empires. It was a few years before World War I and its follow-up World War II that caused global devastation to usher in a new set of world powers. The idea of independence is symbolized both in Independence Fjord and Independence Day. Both celebrate the same thing: freedom. There will be fireworks tonight …

P.S.: Some maps

North-East Greenland [Source: web]

MODIS-Terra imagery of Independence Fjord for June 18, 2012. Top panel shows reflectance in the near infra-red (1240 nm) emphasizing land while the bottom panel shows reflectance in the visible red (865 nm) emphasizing ice. The red dot indicates Navy Cliff, the vantage point at the western terminus of Independence Fjord with Academy Glacier to its south-east and Sophie Marie Glacier to its north-west.

3 responses to “Independence Fjord, Peary, and the First Thule Expedition

  1. >>>Recall that this was the time when unelected kings, queens, generals, and dictators were ruling over expanding colonial empires.>>>>

    I wonder this opinion.
    There was independence and a democratic rule even in those countries ruled by kings.
    Moreover, in my country, Finland, even the poorest people and women had civil rights and electoral rights on those days of Peary.
    In the USA the right to vote was not granted to those being not good tax payers. I mean those having too low income.
    United States of America was also a colonial power in the Philippines and Cuba, despite that 4th of July, I would not mention the republic of Panama, how it was created

  2. Sarah E Smithers

    I was reading Vagrant Viking by Peter Freuchen and was surprised and perturbed that it included no maps..
    And looking up any locations in Greenland on Google maps will not give any information.
    Thank you for having these published so I can see what he’s talking about, because it is a fascinating tale, but I couldn’t figure out where he was going. I had no idea he was that far north.

  3. Pingback: How big is Greenland? | Icy Seas

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