Friday, October 15, 2021

Ross Marvin Revisited

by Erin Doane, Curator

Ross Marvin’s story is one of tragedy and mystery. Perhaps that’s why I go back to it again and again in my research, writing, and exhibits. Back in 2013, I wrote a brief blog post about him that you can read by clicking here. After eight years, it seems like it’s time to revisit Ross Marvin’s story.

Ross Gilmore Marvin
Ross Marvin was born on January 28, 1880, the youngest of six. He graduated from EFA in 1899, and surprised everyone by earning a scholarship to Cornell University. In 1901, he transferred to the New York Nautical School where he learned nautical astronomy. After graduating from there a year later, he returned to Cornell. In 1905, he graduated with a degree in civil engineering. Before finishing school, Marvin had heard about the Arctic voyage that Robert Peary was planning for 1905-1906. He made it his goal to be part of that expedition. It is said that on graduation day, he received the letter from Peary inviting him to join his team.

Peary’s 1905-1906 attempt to reach the North Pole was not a success but he tried again two years later. Marvin served as chief scientist and Peary’s first assistant on that 1908-1909 voyage. His responsibilities included taking meteorological readings, solar observations, and depth soundings.

According to the caption of this image from an article written by Peary that appeared in the August 1910 issue of The Geographical Journal, that pile of furs is Ross Marvin taking observations at 86 degrees 38 minutes north on March 25, 1909.
Peary purportedly reached the North Pole on April 6, 1909, but Ross Marvin did not survive the journey. His two Inuit companions, Kudlooktoo and Harrigan, reported that on April 10 he broke through the ice while trying to cross a lead and died. It was weeks before Peary and the rest of his men learned of Marvin’s death and it wasn’t until September, some five months after his death, that his family back in Elmira heard the news.

The story of Ross Marvin may have ended there with the local hero’s tragic death, but 17 years later, his name was back in the news. In 1926, Kudlooktoo confessed to killing him. He claimed Marvin went crazy and tried to abandon Harrigan on the ice. Knowing that Harrigan would die if he was left behind, Kudlooktoo shot Marvin.

Kudlooktoo posing with George Borup and other Inuits, from A Tenderfoot with Peary, by George Borup, 1911
The story came as a great shock to those who knew Marvin. His family denounced the story and Peary declared that he didn’t believe it. Peary’s daughter, Marie, who had been a childhood playmate of Kudlooktoo, believed his false confession was induced by religious hysteria and was an attempt to please the white man by having a sin to confess. By that point, 17 years after the fact, there was no way of proving what had truly happened. The Arctic was a sort of no-man’s land at that time with no laws or governance, so Kudlooktoo was never tried for murder. 

Despite the dark turn of Marvin’s story, his life and accomplishments have been memorialized in many ways over the years. Peary erected a stone cairn with a wooden cross at Cape Sheridan overlooking the Central Polar Sea in his honor.

Marvin Memorial, Cape Sheridan, Left from The North Pole, By Robert E. Peary, 1910
Right from Susan Kaplan/Genevieve LaMoine, Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum at Bowdoin College, 2011
In 1910, a large stone with a brass plaque was set on the corner of Lake Street and Union Place in Elmira as a memorial. It has been moved a couple of times since then and now rests at the corner of Lake and Church Streets by the Chamber of Commerce.

Ross Marvin Monument at the corner of Church and Lake Streets
In the late 1920s, a memorial tablet to Marvin was placed in the Sage Chapel at Cornell University.

Dedication of Ross Marvin plaque at Cornell University, c. 1926, Sunday Telegram, April 5, 1931
In 1943, Marvin’s niece Gertrude Colegrove Tum, christened the SS Ross G. Marvin, a liberty ship that was used for cargo transports during World War II. You can read all about that by clicking here.

In 1948, Marvin and all the other men who had served on Peary’s 1908-1909 Expedition were awarded medals by the U.S. government. I have heard that the reason it took so long – nearly 40 years – to be officially recognized for their efforts in reaching the pole was because there were some in congress who did not want to honor Matt Henson, who was an African American, along with the rest. 

Peary Polar Expedition medal awarded posthumously to Ross Marvin, 1948
The Marvin Islands, a group of islands in extreme northern Canada were named after him. In 1957, the Elmira Lions Club dedicated Ross Marvin Park on the triangle of land between Lake Street and Union Place. In 1967, the State University Maritime College, from which Marvin graduated in 1902, named a wing of their new Science and Engineering building Ross G. Marvin Hall. And finally, in Woodlawn Cemetery, in the Marvin family plot, is a stone dedicated to him. The inscription on the stone reads:

 In Memory of
Ross G. Marvin
Jan. 28, 1880 – April 10, 1909

 Scientist with the Peary Arctic Expedition
Which discovered the North Pole
Drowned in the Arctic Ocean Lat 84 degrees North

 Peacefully he sleeps in his watery grave.
Tho no marble shaft marks his last resting place
it is watched o’er by towering sentinels of snow and ice.
The stars too keep silent vigil while the north winds
sing a requiem for a brave soul gone to meet his maker.

Ross Marvin marker in Woodlawn Cemetery, 2018
If you have made it all the way to the end of this post, thank you! I hope you enjoyed this and other stories I have told during my 10+ years as curator at CCHS. This is my very last blog post here. I will be leaving the museum at the end of October. It’s been a great joy learning about the county’s history and being able to share it with all of you!


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