The Eskimo boy who lived in a New York museum


It’s a story that seems incredulous to modern sensibilities.

On September 1897, American explorer Robert Peary and his crew docked their steamer under the Brooklyn Bridge after returning from a long expedition to Greenland.

It was one of several trips Peary took to the Arctic beginning in the 1880s in his quest to become the first Westerner to reach the North Pole.

Peary didn’t reach his goal on this voyage. But he did bring back some curious cargo, which he displayed a few days later at the Brooklyn Navy Yard for thousands of New Yorkers who turned out for a glimpse.


On deck was a 100-ton meteorite—and six Inuits, including a father and his 7-year-old son, Mene, but called Minik.

It’s unclear why Peary brought the Inuit people, who were dressed in sealskin coats trimmed with polar bear fur and appeared somewhat distressed in the early autumn sun, reported the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

Apparently he thought experts he knew at the American Museum of Natural History would like to study them.

Abandoned by Peary and with no where to go, the Inuits were housed in the museum basement and “treated as specimens and spectacles,” according to They were not part of an official exhibit but were on view for some museum guests.

MuseumofnaturalhistoryThe Inuits didn’t stay at the museum long. Their next stop was Bellevue.

With no immunity, all six became ill. In the fall, Minik’s father and three others died; one returned to Greenland. Minik survived but was now on his own.

Although he found New York at first to be “like a land that we thought to be just like heaven,” and he laughed when he saw bicycle riders in Central Park, he was now an orphan.

“Alone and out of place in New York, Minik benefited from the benevolence of one person—William Wallace, the superintendent at the Museum of Natural History,” stated

RobertpearyThe Wallace family (with Minik, above) educated him; he even attended Manhattan College. “But despite being adopted and raised as part of the Wallace family, Minik never really felt at home in this foreign land.

“One newspaper described him as a “virtual prisoner.”

To make matters worse, he discovered that museum officials never gave his father the proper burial they claimed. Instead, his body became part of the museum collection.

In 1909, the same year Peary (at right) claimed to have reached the North Pole (a claim that has long been in doubt), Minik was finally able to leave New York and sail back to Greenland.

Menewallace“The appeal of the Eskimo, Mene Keeshoo, brought here by Commander Peary and left on the lee shore of New York, to be returned to his native North Greenland again proves that home is a lodestone’s attraction for the most uncivilized of God’s creatures,” wrote the Eagle.

It wasn’t the homecoming he’d hoped. Minik didn’t feel as if he belonged in Greenland either. In 1916 he returned to America, where he found work in a New Hampshire lumber camp.

There, he contracted influenza during the epidemic of 1918 and died.

Minik is not the only human who lived in the museum. In 1906, a Congolese pygmy named Ota Benga also spent time there—before being put on exhibit in the Bronx Zoo. Really.

[Second photo: PBS American Experience; Fifth photo (the birthdate is said to not be accurate):]

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5 Responses to “The Eskimo boy who lived in a New York museum”

  1. wack60585 Says:

    Reblogged this on wack60585.

  2. LadyG Says:

    This is just very sad and infuriating. They destroyed a whole family with their stupidity and ignorance. Curiosity is one thing, but that was too much. 😦

  3. igotnohting Says:

    There’s a book, “not without my father” – i believe, that chronicles the whole thing.

  4. Dink Newcomb Says:

    Slightly different circumstances but compare it to the story of Ishi, a Yahi indian (from near Mt Lassen in Calif.) who spent the last 5 years of his life at UC Berkeley in relative peace and happiness. Of course.
    HE was the last surviving member of his tribe and discovered as a forlorn, shivering, middle aged refugee in a corral near Oroville in 1911 with nowhere to go. His people had moved to the steep canyon bottoms of the area and lived in the thick brush for seclusion and security after a large massacre in 1865. None of the white settlers in the area knew any of the Yahi were still living 40+ years later when Ishi showed up.
    Those who took him in gave him shelter, companionship and productive work–among other more scientific cultural demonstrations, he was a janitor for the school which he was proud of.

  5. Inwood Hill Park, Manhattan – Hidden Waters blog Says:

    […] Zoo had a Congolese pygmy living among its animals, or when the American Museum of Natural History kept a Greenland Inuit family in its basement. All of this happened in the early 20th […]

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