Man vs. Meteorite?

10,000 years ago, a giant meteorite plunged to the earth, smashing its way into Savissivik, Greenland. In 1895, famed Arctic explorer Robert Peary trekked across the icy expanse and laid eyes on the 31-metric ton slab of iron. The three year struggle that followed would go down as one of the greatest “man vs. nature” battles in all of history. Did Robert Peary get his meteor? Or did it send him to his grave?

Robert Peary

Robert Peary on the main deck of steamship “Roosevelt” (1909)
Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

A Mysterious Meteorite?

In 1818, Sir John Ross landed in northwestern Greenland while in search of the elusive Northwest Passage. He discovered an unknown Inuit tribe and was surprised to learn that they possessed items made from iron. The area contained no natural iron deposits and the Inuits lacked smelting technology. Although the natives refused to show Ross their source, they told him that it came from saviksoah, or “mountain of iron.” Subsequent tests of the iron-based items showed that they contained a high degree of nickel, which indicated that the “mountain of iron” was in fact, a giant meteorite.

From 1818 to 1883, five separate expeditions tried to locate the meteorite. All failed.

Robert Peary Explores the North Pole?

By the 1890s, the world was engaged in a race of exploration the likes of which wouldn’t be seen again until the 1960s space race. The goal was to locate and map the North Pole, one of the last remaining unexplored places on earth. Lieutenant Robert E. Peary aimed to be the first one there.

At that time, a man named Morris Jesup was President of the American Museum of Natural History. According to Douglas Preston’s Dinosaurs in the Attic: An Excursion Into the American Museum of Natural History, Jesup struck a deal with Peary. Jesup would “help finance the explorer’s work and pull strings to keep him on leave from the navy if Peary would make collections in the Arctic for the Museum.”

In 1894, Peary sailed to Greenland. While his main goal was to reach the North Pole, he also wanted to find things that could help fulfill his bargain with Jesup. The meteorite was one of those things. The natives liked Peary and one of them agreed to lead him to the iron mass on May 16, 1894.

Robert Peary Strikes…Iron?

After two days of traveling, a fierce blizzard caused the native guide to flee the expedition. Undaunted, Robert Peary and a man named Hugh Lee pushed on, found another village, and hired another guide named Tallakoteah. Tallakoteah told Peary that there were actually several iron slabs – the “Woman,” the “Dog,” the “Tent,” and the “Man.” After a brutal foray through ice, slush, and wind, Robert Peary finally found the two and a half ton “Woman” and the half ton “Dog” near Cape York. They were brown and covered with hammer marks, thanks to centuries of Inuit prospecting.

“The brown mass, rudely awakened from, its winter’s sleep, found for the first time in its cycles of existence the eyes of a white man gazing upon it.” ~ Robert Peary, Northward over the Great Ice

Peary was told that the “Tent” was even larger and rested on an island about six miles away. Lacking the equipment for a proper retrieval, he marked the locations and headed home.

Robert Peary Excavates a Gigantic Meteorite

In 1895, Robert Peary returned to Cape York. As the curious Inuits watched, Peary wrestled the two meteorites aboard his steamer, the Kite. However, the “Tent” was another story.

“The party dug around the object but it was too large to be conveyed to the ship, which could not be brought near enough without extra means of lifting the interesting specimen.” ~ New York Times, April 22, 1896

It measured 11 by 7 by 5.5 feet and weighed about 31 metric tons, making it the largest known meteor on earth at that time. Peary returned to Cape York in August 1896 with a new ship named The Hope. His crew dug around the meteorite and placed hydraulic jacks underneath it.

“The first thing to be done was to tear the heavenly visitor from its frozen bed of centuries, and as it rose slowly inch by inch under the resistless lift of the hydraulic jacks, gradually displaying its ponderous sides, it grew upon us as Niagara grows upon the observer, and there was not one of us unimpressed by the enormousness of this lump of metal.” ~ Robert Peary, Northward over the Great Ice

Next, Peary attempted to use the jacks to roll the meteorite down a steep hill. But the jacks were wearing out and ice threatened to trap The Hope. Ultimately, Peary was forced to abandon the giant iron beast near the shore line.

In the summer of 1897, Robert Peary returned once again to Cape York. Risking everything, Peary brought his ship right up to the bluff where the “Tent” lay waiting. Steel rails were placed between the deck and the bluff. Then the giant meteorite was slid over the rails and onto the ship. The compass needles went crazy, locking onto the great iron mass. But it was of little concern. Peary had won.

“Never have I had the terrific majesty of the force of gravity and the meaning of the terms ‘momentum’ and ‘inertia’ so powerfully brought home to me, as in handling this mountain of iron.” ~ Robert Peary, Northward over the Great Ice

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

On September 30, 1897, Robert Peary arrived at Brooklyn Naval Yard with the meteor in tow. While Mrs. Peary, acting on behalf of her husband, haggled over the price, the American Museum of Natural History took possession of the meteorite. In 1904, Mrs. Peary officially sold the meteorite to the Museum for $40,000.

The “Tent” has since given way to other names. It’s now commonly referred to as Ahnighito, in reference to syllables uttered by Peary’s four year old daughter when she first saw the iron mass. Experts prefer to call it the Cape York meteorite.

Today it sits in Arthur Ross Hall. It remains the largest meteorite ever moved by man. However, it is no longer the single largest intact meteorite known to man (that honor belong to the 60 ton Hoba meteorite).

Although Peary’s expedition is over, his story may not be finished. Five additional pieces of the same meteorite have been found over the ensuring decades, including the 20 ton Agpalilik, which is widely believed to be the lost “Man.” For the intrepid polar explorer, there may be other pieces still out there, waiting to be discovered.