Though Arctic animals have long flourished on Wrangel, people most emphatically have not. Lying 88 miles off the coast of northeastern Siberia, Wrangel was for centuries little more than a rumor, a mirage, a fog-gauzed dream. Perhaps it was an island, perhaps a continent, perhaps a magical gateway to the Pole.
Throughout much of the 19th century “Wrangell Land” functioned as a kind of ultima Thule:
a hypothetical realm just beyond the veil of the known world.
Before its existence was proved, Wrangel Island went by a succession of tentative names:
Tikegen Land, Plover Island, Kellett Land.
Wrangel loomed in cartographers’ imaginations—some even surmised that it was an extension of Greenland that stretched clear across the Pole.
Throughout the 1800s and early 1900s almost every exploring expedition that blundered anywhere near Wrangel ended up with the adjective “doomed” in front of it.
In the early 1820s Chukchi hunters on the northeast Siberian coast told Russian explorer Ferdinand von Wrangel about a land to the north that could sometimes be seen when atmospheric conditions were just right.
Wrangel sailed for the mythic land but was thwarted by ice and failed to snatch even a glimpse of it.
Nearly 30 years afterward, the captain of an English vessel searching for Sir John Franklin’s expedition thought he spotted a large Arctic island shimmering in the distance.
Later, various whaling captains insisted they’d seen it, although their claims were disputed, since the Arctic is notorious for fata morganas and other fantastical illusions.
An American Arctic expedition launched in 1879 drifted close to Wrangel — close enough for its commander, George Washington De Long, to determine that it was not a polar continent after all.
De Long was never able to land on Wrangel, however; his ship, the U.S.S. "Jeannette", was beset in the polar ice pack for nearly two years, until it sank some 800 miles to the northwest.
It wasn’t until August 1881 that a group of Americans aboard the steamer "Thomas L. Corwin",
scouring the Arctic in search of the lost "Jeannette", set foot on Wrangel and proved its hard-soil existence once and for all. The search party, which included the young Muir, hoisted an American flag and declared Wrangel a new U.S. possession in the name of their President.</b>
(Unbeknownst to the explorers, President James Garfield lay slowly dying from an assassin’s bullet.)
The Corwin party called the island "New Columbia", but the name never stuck. That same year Muir published the world’s first description of Wrangel in a San Francisco newspaper series, later collected in a piquant travelogue called "The Cruise of the Corwin". Although he considered Wrangel a “notable addition ... to the national domain,” Muir thought the geography of the new land would not be known “until some considerable change has taken place in the polar climate.”
The island dwelled in near solitude for over 30 years. Then came another succession of doomed expeditions, beginning with the Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913, whose survivors were forced to leave their crushed brigantine "Karluk" and trudge 80 miles over the ice pack to take refuge on Wrangel. By the time they were rescued eight months later, 11 of the 25 men had perished on or near Wrangel. A Canadian-led attempt in 1921 to settle Wrangel Island and claim it for the British motherland resulted in four more deaths.
In 1926 the Soviets, attempting to extend their sovereignty over Wrangel, forcibly relocated Chukchi there from Siberia. A tiny colony persisted until the 1970s, when, with the creation of the sanctuary, descendants of the original settlers started being repatriated to the mainland.
Because the Corwin party was the first to plant a flag on Wrangel, certain jingoistic groups in the United States have insisted the island is rightfully American soil.
One Tea Party blogger last year ranted that President Barack Obama was giving away Wrangel to the “Putin regime” as part of an “apparent war against U.S. energy independence.” The U.S. State Department, however, has long maintained that the United States asserts no territorial claim to the island—and never has.
The region around Wrangel is not known to have substantial oil reserves, and even if it did, its nearly year-round ice would likely make extraction prohibitively difficult and expensive.