On August 31st, 1818, around 3 p.m., the Arctic explorer John Ross was called away from his dinner and onto the deck of the ship he commanded, the Isabella. Ross and his crew were moored in Baffin Bay, just south of Greenland, seeking a way through to the Arctic sea beyond. All day, they had been waiting for the fog to clear, so they could take a look around and try to find it.
Ross stepped out onto the deck and began scanning the horizon: ice, more ice, and, in between, an imposing set of peaks. “I distinctly saw the land, round the bottom of the bay, forming a connected chain of mountains with those which extended along the north and south sides,” he wrote soon after. There was, he concluded, no way through.
Some are born great; some achieve greatness; some have greatness thrust upon them. And some narrowly miss greatness, kept from it by a pesky propensity to imagine land where there is none. Such is the case of Ross, who was just one fake mountain range away from discovering a critical entrance to the Northwest Passage, and more lasting explorational fame. No one is sure why he saw them—but, in the words of one biographer, the false mountains “would haunt Ross for the rest of his life.”
According to a biography by M.J. Ross, John started sailing professionally in 1786, when he was just nine years old, and was on the water “almost continuously” after that. In December of 1817, the British Admiralty decided to send a couple of ships up to the Arctic, “to ascertain the existence or non-existence of a north-west passage,” as Ross later put it to a friend. The expedition was in need of a commander—was Ross up to the task? He accepted, and by April of the following year, he had chosen his ships—the formidable Isabella and the smaller Alexander—gathered his crew, loaded up with thousands of pounds of beef, bread, and raisins, and set a course for the North.
The British had been actively looking for the Northwest Passage since the end of the 15th century, when King Henry VII sent the explorer John Cabot to find a more direct route to China. (From 1744 to 1818—the year Ross set out—there was even prize money at stake.) Although certain expeditions had managed to push deeper into the massive archipelago north of the Canadian mainland, no one had yet found a way through.
For this new expedition, Ross was told to follow a forceful northward current, which had previously been reported by whalers. That current shot through the water south of Greenland and continued up along the coast of Canada. Its strength suggested it came from the open ocean, and that following it would lead there. “Having rounded the northeastern point of the North American continent,” wrote M.J. Ross, “he was to steer straight for Bering Strait, enter the Pacific, hand over a copy of his journals to the Russian governor of Kamchatka for dispatch to London, and proceed to Hawaii for replenishment and recreation—an enticing prospect!”
This indeed sounded nice. But once the explorers got to the icier parts of the ocean, the reality was a bit more of a slog. In early June, Ross wrote, the Isabella and the Alexander found themselves trapped in a semi-frozen strait, trapped by “at least seven hundred icebergs” alongside a few dozen whaling ships. (Ross amused himself by pulling up specimens of starfish, mud, and worms from the ocean floor, using a scientific instrument of his own devising, which he called the “Deep Sea Clamm.”)
For much of late July, they couldn’t sail at all, and the crew had to drag the Isabella and the Alexander through the slush. At least once, the two ships crashed into each other, though no damage was done. In the middle of August, the ships finally got to Baffin Bay, and began to sail counter-clockwise around its edges, exploring various inlets. After a few days, they had nosed into Lancaster Sound: a channel between two islands that, we now know, provides an Eastern entrance to the Northwest Passage.
It was exactly what they had been looking for—but Ross couldn’t see it. Instead, he saw that mountain range, which conveniently blocked their path forward. From his perch on the ship’s deck, he began assigning names to the landscape’s various capes and bays—and to the fake peaks, which he called Croker’s Mountains, after First Secretary of the Admiralty John Wilson Croker. Then, without asking anyone else’s opinion, he ordered the crew to head back into the bay.
Some of his shipmates did not agree with this choice. From their vantage point, “it was quite impossible to say what openings there might not be,” the ship’s purser, W.H. Hooper, wrote at the time. “We could not but feel that, in turning to the Southward, we might be leaving the North West Passage behind us.” (Later, Hooper described the shipwide mood as they turned around: “To describe our mortification and disappointment would be impossible at thus having our increasing hopes annihilated in a moment, without the shadow of a reason appearing.”)
But Ross was unswayed: “It appears perfectly certain that the land is here continuous, and that there is no opening at the northernmost part of Baffin’s Bay,” he wrote. He then doubled down: “Even it be imagined… that some narrow Strait may exist through these mountains, it is evident, that it must be for ever unnavigable.”
He was, of course, incorrect on all counts. The very next year, one of Ross’s crew members, William Parry, headed back to Baffin Bay and sailed straight on through the supposed mountains and into the beginning of the Northwest Passage, which is now called Parry Channel. (“I know it is in existence, and not very hard to find,” a frustrated Parry had written to his family on his way back from Ross’s expedition.)
Meanwhile, Ross’s career was undergoing a reckoning. In early 1819, a popular magazine featured a scathing review of the travelogue Ross had published after his journey. The review took up 49 pages, and, as M.J. Ross put it, “poured scorn on Ross by contradicting in sarcastic and facetious language almost everything Ross had written,” from his descriptions of icebergs to the names he chose to bestow on various landscape pieces to, of course, his decision to turn tail at Lancaster Sound.
Although published anonymously, the article was almost certainly written by John Barrow, then the Second Secretary of the British Admiralty. It was followed by more published criticism from some of Ross’s shipmates. By spring of that year, Ross had been called in front of the Admiralty for questioning, at which point he worked himself into a lather, accusing his former crew of conspiring against him. (He retracted this the next day.) The press had a field day with this spat, and soon, cartoonists and writers were caricaturing Ross, publishing satirical accounts of his journey, and sketching him balancing atop the North Pole and claiming it for England.
This wasn’t a good look for a naval officer—and it certainly didn’t help that Ross had named those voyage-ruining fake mountains after First Secretary Croker. Indeed, Ross never sailed for the Admiralty again. (He did, however, undertake two more privately funded voyages to the Arctic, and regained the public and the government’s respect.)
Why did Ross claim that he saw those mountains? One theory holds that he was fooled by a fata morgana: a trick of the light that causes mirages over large expanses of water, and often convinces sailors that they’ve spotted a land mass or another boat. But as M.J. Ross pointed out, the conditions in Baffin Bay that day weren’t conducive to such apparitions. He speculated instead that John was too hung up on earlier descriptions of the area, and didn’t rely enough on his own eyes: “He seems to have formed a preconceived idea of what a Northwest Passage was going to be like,” he wrote.
Another historian, Glyn Williams, agrees, adding that this tendency may have come from Ross’s commitment to restoring the credibility of William Baffin, who had originally mapped the Bay and insisted there was no passage. But, Williams adds, “no convincing reason for [Ross’s] mistake has ever been produced.”
We may never get one, but a later story sheds a bit of light—or at least establishes a pattern. In 1830, John Ross led another voyage to the Arctic, this time with his nephew, James Clark Ross, as second-in-command. During the trip, James Clark discovered three new islands in the Canadian Arctic. He decided to name them the Beaufort Islands, after the Admiralty’s official hydrographer, and plotted them in the expedition’s chart book.
When the Rosses returned to England three years later, a new king, William IV—formerly the Duke of Clarence—had been crowned. John Ross took the chart book, and, with the enthusiastic consent of the king, erased the “Beaufort” in “Beaufort Islands” and wrote in “Clarence” instead. Then—this time of his own accord—he added six more islands to the map, and named them after the new King’s family members: Munster Island, Erskine Island, Cape Sophia, etc. As a slightly miffed Beaufort later told his friend Lady Franklin, “Ross thought it would be as well to make a few more, so that the [royal family] might have one apiece.”
The next year, in 1834, Ross was knighted. He had clearly learned a lesson: If you’re going to make up land masses, make sure they make someone powerful look good.