Behind the American Museum of Natural History’s most venerable artifact is the shameful tale of a relentless explorer and a young boy’s torturous journey from Greenland to New York.
The hulking, craggy rock that looms largest in the Arthur Ross Hall of Meteorites at the American Museum of Natural History seems immovable, and is in fact so heavy that its supports go right down to the bedrock of Manhattan beneath the museum. Of course, the hefty iron meteorite didn’t just plummet from space right into New York. Along with the two smaller meteorites placed alongside it, the rock has had a long journey from its original place of impact. Its journey is the story of a determined leader in the Age of Arctic Exploration, and the tragic life of a young Inuk boy, quite possibly the loneliest boy in nineteenth century New York, who briefly lived at this very museum.
The three specimens are all part of a 4.5-billion-year-old rock that was once the center of a two-hundred-ton asteroid that fell to Earth 10,000 years ago, breaking and scattering in pieces across Greenland. Known as the Cape York meteorites, they were used for centuries by the Inuit as a sort of quarry for iron shards to make harpoons, knives and other tools, an essential resource in Greenland, where there is little wood and most implements were made from bone. The first non-Inuit to find out about the meteorites was the British naval officer John Ross, during his unsuccessful 1818 expedition to try to find the Northwest Passage. Ross was curious about the Inuits’ iron, which they told him came from a distant “mountain.” Because the Inuit were reluctant to reveal the location of their only metal supply, Ross didn’t see the meteorites in person, but returned to England with some of the tools, a couple of which were given to the British Museum. His report on the expedition mentioned the meteoric material in the artifacts, which would inspire another adventurous nineteenth-century naval officer: the American explorer Robert Peary.
Peary first visited in Greenland in 1886, gradually moving north on each of his return expeditions, until 1909 when he finally was able to declare “Stars and Stripes, nailed to the pole”—meaning he had reached his ultimate goal of being the first at the North Pole and planting the flag for America. (There is some debate over whether Peary or another explorer named Frederick Cook who almost simultaneously claimed the North Pole, was first, or whether either man reached the pole at all, but the title is officially given to Peary.) Despite his record-setting aims and constant quest for fame, what Peary most significantly achieved in his decades voyaging over the ice was mapping this previously undocumented tip of the world, and providing a view of how existence was eked out in its harsh conditions. What the Inuit gained from Peary was rather less, as he was notoriously ethnocentric and saw them primarily as a resource for his own ambitions. For six Inuit in particular his 1897 expedition, which aimed to bring back the largest of these meteorites, would be especially devastating. One boy named Minik would find himself stranded in the strange land of New York, feeling as alien as the planetary rocks.
* * *
The main reason for Peary’s 1894 voyage had been to set a farthest north record, but having failed at that, Peary was looking for alternative ways to squeeze out some glory from the expedition. More than anything, Peary wanted fame, and each journey to the Arctic that didn’t achieve his ultimate goal of being first at the Pole still needed some greatness. The massive meteorite, being such a rare and giant object, would offer this. Like the North Pole itself, it was something to conquer, and would be an otherworldly trophy the likes of which New York had never seen.
As more explorers came north and linked the area with trade, the iron from the meteorites became less vital to the Inuit’s survival, which may explain what led an Inuit man to take Peary to the location of the Cape York meteorites during his 1894 expedition. (Peary also promised him a gun.) Peary and the guide traveled for eleven days over twenty-five miles to finally arrive at the two smaller meteorites. The Inuit called them “the Woman” and “the Dog,” with a larger rock on a separate island known as “the Tent.” Each was encircled with thousands of “hammerstones,” brought over hundreds of years by the Inuit to carve the rocks.
Peary never got permission from the Inuit to take the meteorites, but once he discovered their location he retrieved “the Woman” and returned the same year to get the smaller “Dog.” These were both ferried on ice floes to his ship, although “the Woman” was almost lost to the sea when the ice broke and it had to be precariously and quickly pulled up to safety from the frigid waters. Measuring more than eleven feet long, “the Tent” meteorite was much harder to extract. The bay adjacent to its island is frozen for the majority of the year, so there were only a few weeks during which Peary’s crew was able to work. The first attempt was thwarted when the ship started to get frozen in the ice. Peary’s return 1896 expedition was dedicated to securing it.
One of the passengers on Peary’s ship, the Hope, was artist Albert Operti, whose photographs documenting the expedition and the moving of the meteorite are kept at the Explorers Club in New York. Viewing them on their crumbling pages with handwritten descriptions reveals the arduous process of dislodging and moving the meteorite three hundred feet from where it was rutted in the earth. Men drag the extraterrestrial boulder with chains wrapped around its girth, hauling it over the rocky shore and across stretches of snow. In one photo captioned “moving the meteorite,” seven men in floppy hats and jackets that seem light for the Arctic weather work to push the rock across a short rail bridge constructed to connect the shore with the Hope. In another photo, J. D. Figgins, the taxidermist for the expedition, poses with one hand on the meteorite like it’s the slayed body of some petrified beast. When it was finally aboard, an American flag was draped over the top and Robert Peary’s young daughter Marie broke a bottle of wine against the rock to christen it with her middle name: Ahnighito. (Marie Peary had been born in Greenland during an expedition in 1893, her Inuit middle name a tribute to the woman who sewed her a newborn-sized fur snowsuit.)
Peary had been asked by Franz Boas (the future “Father of Modern Anthropology”) at the natural history museum in New York to bring back one living Inuit for study. Peary apparently decided six was even better, and convinced a man named Qisuk and his young son Minik; as well as another man, Atangana, his wife and daughter; and a third man named Uisaakassak to join, luring them with the promise of “nice warm houses in the sunshine land, and guns and knives and needles and many other things,” according to Kenn Harper’s book on Minik’s life, Give Me My Father’s Body: The Life of Minik, The New York Eskimo. Minik’s mother was dead, and the seven-year-old and his widowed father only expected to be in New York for a year.
As a teenager, Minik would relate his journey to the San Francisco Examiner (as recorded in “Northern Voices: Inuit Writing in English” by Penny Petrone):
“When Mr. Peary came to us, twelve years ago, we had never seen a white man…At the start, Peary was kind enough to my people. He made them presents of ornaments, a few knives and guns for hunting and wood to build sledges. But as soon as he was ready to start home his other work began. Before our eyes he packed up the bones of our dead friends and ancestors. To the women’s crying and the men’s questioning he answered that he was taking our dead friends to a warm and pleasant land to bury them. Our sole supply of flint for lighting and iron for hunting and cooking implements was furnished by a huge meteorite. This Peary put aboard his steamer and took from my poor people, who needed it so much. After this he coaxed my father and that brave man Natooka [also called Atangana in some sources], who were the strongest hunters and the wisest heads for our tribe, to go with him to America. Our people were afraid to let them go, but Peary promised them that they should have Natooka and my father back within a year, and that with them would come a great stock of guns and ammunition, and wood and metal and presents for the women and children…We were crowded into the hold of the vessel and treated like dogs. Peary seldom came near us…
On September 27, 1897, the Boston Post front page blared: “Explorer Peary brings a company of esquimaux with him to Boston,” accompanied by a drawing of the six Inuit with their dogs on the deck of the Hope at Long Wharf. “When the Hope came up Boston Harbor yesterday morning,” the reporter boasted, “a representative of the Post was the second person to board her, and the first to see the wonderful piece of iron, which is supposed to have dropped from the heavens.”
The public swarmed to view “the strange cargo” on the Hope, reported the Post. “Once on board, their first object was to get a view of the much-famed meteorite, and after that they gave all their attention to the six red-faced natives of the Arctic who made a laughable sight as they ran up and down the deck in the clothes the sailors had given them.”
The article continues: “Next spring they will go back to their home in Cape York, but until that time will be under Mr. Peary’s care.”
In truth, most of them wouldn’t even make it to the next spring alive.
After Boston, the Hope continued to New York, anchoring at the Brooklyn Navy Yard on October 2, 1897, where some twenty thousand visitors paid twenty-five cents each to climb aboard and see the same spectacle that had been witnessed in Boston. A one-hundred-ton floating crane at the Navy Yard retrieved the meteorite from the ship, and the Inuit were taken to the natural history museum.
As Minik later told the Examiner, “After this we were sent to the Museum of Natural History in New York. There we were quartered in a damp cellar most unfavorable to people from the dry air of the North.”
There at the museum, Franz Boas and his assistant Alfred Kroeber, another influential early anthropologist, studied the Inuit intently. Unfortunately, a heat wave and their total lack of immunity to American diseases had all of the Inuit sick in only a couple of weeks. Within eight months, four were dead, including Minik’s father. Uisaakassak, the only other survivor, returned to Greenland and Minik was left alone. Minik’s father and the other deceased Inuit were reportedly dissected by medical students, their bones cleaned and stored as part of the museum’s collection, although never officially put on display.
Abandoned totally and financially by Peary, Minik was adopted by William Wallace, the superintendent of the museum, and his wife Rhetta, joining their existing son at their home on West Tremont Avenue in Highbridge in the Bronx. Minik took their last name for the rest of his life. As the only Inuit in New York, Minik felt incredibly isolated, even with his loving adopted family. He briefly enrolled at Manhattan College in 1909, hoping to study civil engineering, but felt like “a freak to those about [him].”
After he found out that he had witnessed a log wrapped in cloth wearing a mask being buried in Central Park instead of his father, he spent much of his life trying and failing to get his father’s remains back from the museum.
He eventually got the Peary Arctic Club to pay for his passage back to Greenland, after advocates had urged Peary to claim at least that responsibility. Otherwise, Peary had totally moved on from contact with Minik.
At the age of around eighteen in 1909, Minik boarded a ship with the explorer Herbert Bridgman for what was expected to be a one-way trip to Greenland. Before leaving, Minik bitterly told a reporter:
“You’re a race of scientific criminals. I know I’ll never get my father’s bones out of the American Museum of Natural History. I am glad enough to get away before they grab my brains and stuff them into a jar!”
Not by chance, Minik was sent back the same year that Peary was plotting a triumphant return to New York as the first man at the North Pole, fulfilling his lifelong obsessive goal, and he couldn’t afford the bad press.
In the Examiner story Minik explained his desire to leave:
“I have felt that I must go North, back to Greenland somehow, some way. I am a burden on my friends and I see clearly that as long as I live they will have me a weight upon their hands helping me always…I can never forgive Peary and I hope to see him to show him the wreck he has caused. I have lost hope. I lost it when Peary refused to take me with him this last trip. And I have given up believing your Christian creed that you taught me was meant for one and all–Christian and savage alike. I gave that up finally when Professor Bumpus at the museum told me for the last time I could not have my father’s bones to bury them. Where is your Christianity? My own people are kinder and better, more human, and I am going back to them. My land is frozen and desolate, but we can bury our dead there. What has your civilization done to my people and me but harm us? We are tens now where we were thousands, and what is left is dying fast through your work.”
* * *
After spending his youth in New York, Minik’s reassimilation into the Arctic was a failure. He had forgotten the language and how to hunt, and while he relearned quickly, he found himself missing the bright lights and bustle of the city.
He left Greenland in 1916 and returned to New York, and to his quest to get back his father’s remains. He was again unsuccessful, and the press and public had moved on from his plight. Unable to find work in the city, he moved to New Hampshire and became a lumberjack and lived on a farm with a friend.
Just when he seemed to find a place for himself in the American wilderness, he died in the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic and was buried in his friend’s family plot. He was only twenty-eight years old (an estimate), but few had traveled as far culturally and spatially as Minik in his short life.
In regards to Minik’s legacy in New York, Kenn Harper stated that, “There is no memorial, no obvious sites to visit except the museum itself.” However, in 2012 a mural from the Brooklyn-based nonprofit Groundswell led by artist Tanya Linn Albrigtsen-Frable included a portrait of Minik in its vibrant tribute to the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s complicated history.
There was once an Eskimo Hall in the American Museum of Natural History cluttered with artifacts from expeditions like Peary’s, but it no longer exists, and aside from the portrait in the mural, the primary monument to these years of Arctic exploration is now the meteorite. Photos in the library archives at the museum show the effort to get the Ahnighito meteorite from the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1904, when it was sold to the museum for $40,000. It was pulled on a cart by a herd of twenty-eight horses and rumbled through the streets from Brooklyn to the Upper West Side, with people lining the streets to watch. At the museum, it was finally rolled inside on logs, with even Andrew Carnegie in attendance, his top hat standing out in the crowd.
The meteorites were first displayed in the “Grand Gallery” of the museum and the main entrance at 77th Street. In the 1930s they were relocated to the Hayden Planetarium, the Ahnighito, celebrated as “the largest meteorite in captivity,” placed on a commissioned Toledo Scale in 1956 to show it weighing in at 36.5 tons (in comparison, the “Woman” meteorite is three tons and the “Dog” is one-half ton). Visitors could even test it themselves by stepping on the platform by the meteorite and watching the scale’s dial change to add their own weight to the meteorite’s.
In 1970, they were relocated to the new Arthur Ross Hall and have been there ever since, with the Ahnighito still one of the largest iron meteorites ever discovered. It’s also the most formidable object in the museum. “Nothing [else is] comparable,” Denton Ebel, curator at the museum stated. “It’s not about weight; it’s about density. [It’s] thirty-four tons, but at a density of 7.6 or so.”
As for Minik’s father, his remains were finally returned to Greenland, and buried in 1993 in a church cemetery with a plaque installed that reads, in his language, “They have come home.”
Spend more than a few moments by the Ahnighito meteorite in the museum, and you’ll see people curiously running their hands over its pocked surface, some 2,500 miles from where it once rested in the Arctic. While it isn’t a stunningly beautiful specimen, with its surface scratched and pocked from years of movement and centuries of supplying metal to the Inuit, it is as close a tribute as there is in this city to the complicated side of the history of exploration. The human stories of Arctic exploration, although brief compared to its ancient age, haunt its looming form.
* * *
Allison Meier was born in Oklahoma and studied journalism at the University of Oklahoma. Now based in Brooklyn, she works as a writer focusing on contemporary art and overlooked history, and moonlights as a cemetery tour guide and amateur memorial arts historian. Twitter: @allisoncmeier