Robert Edwin Peary (May 6, 1856 – February 20, 1920) was an American
explorer who claimed to have been the first person, on April 6, 1909, to reach
the geographic North Pole -- a claim that subsequently attracted much criticism
and controversy, and is today widely doubted.
Robert Edwin Peary (May 6, 1856 – February 20, 1920) was an
American explorer who claimed to have been the first person, on April 6, 1909,
to reach the geographic North Pole -- a claim that subsequently attracted much
criticism and controversy, and is today widely doubted.
Peary was born in the town of Cresson, 80 miles east of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
in 1856. He moved to Maine, attended Portland High School, was a graduate of
Bowdoin College, where he was a member of Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity. He was
commissioned a Civil Engineer Corps Officer in the United States Navy October
26, 1881. With his wife, Josephine Diebitsch Peary, he had two children: Marie
Peary and Robert Edwin Peary, Jr. During the Arctic expeditions, both Peary and
his fellow explorer Matthew Henson fathered children with Inuit women, two of
whom were brought to the attention of the American public by S. Allen Counter,
who met them on a Greenland expedition.
Initial Arctic expeditions
Peary made several expeditions to the Arctic, exploring Greenland by dog sled in
1886 and 1891 and returning to the island three times in the 1890s. He twice
attempted to cross northwest Greenland over the ice cap, discovering Navy Cliff.
Unlike most previous explorers, Peary studied Inuit survival techniques, built
igloos, and dressed in practical furs in the native fashion both for heat
preservation and to dispense with the extra weight of tents and sleeping bags
when on the march. Peary also relied on the Inuit as hunters and dog-drivers on
his expeditions, and pioneered the use of the system (which he called the "Peary
system") of using support teams and supply caches for Arctic travel. His wife,
Josephine, accompanied him on several of his expeditions. During the course of
his explorations, he had 8 toes amputated.
His 1898-1902 expedition was darkened by an unfounded attempt to put forth a
1899 visual discovery of "Jesup Land" west of Ellesmere, leading to his
allegation that this was his sighting of Axel Heiberg land prior to its
discovery by Norwegian explorer Otto Sverdrup's expedition, a Peary claim now
universally rejected. However, the genuine achievements of this remarkable
expedition were weightier. The gold medals of the American Geographical Society
and Royal Geographical Society of London honored Peary's tenacity, his mapping
of his considerable real discoveries, and his discovery in 1900 of Cape Jesup at
the north tip of Greenland. Peary also achieved a farthest north for the western
hemisphere in 1902 north of Canada's Ellesmere Island.
The 1905-06 expedition
Peary's next expedition was supported by a $50,000 gift by George Crocker.
Peary's new ship Roosevelt battled its way through the ice between Greenland and
Ellesmere Island to an American hemisphere farthest north by ship. The 1906
"Peary System" dogsled drive for the pole across the rough sea ice of the Arctic
Ocean started from the north tip of Ellesmere at 83° north latitude. The parties
made well under 10 miles a day until they became separated by a storm, so Peary
was inadvertently without a companion sufficiently trained in navigation to
verify his account from that point northward. With insufficient food and with
the negotiability of the ice between himself and land an uncertain factor, he
made the best dash he could and barely escaped with his life off the melting
ice. On April 20th, he was no further north than 86°30' latitude yet he
claimed to have the next day achieved a Farthest North world record at 87°06'
and returned to 86°30' without camping, an implied trip of at least 72 nautical
miles (83 statute miles) between sleeps, even assuming undetoured travel.
After returning to the Roosevelt in May, Peary in June began weeks of further
agonizing travel by heading west along the shore of Ellesmere, discovering Cape
Colgate, from the summit of which he claimed in his 1907 publications he had
seen a previously undiscovered far-north "Crocker Land" to the northwest on June
24th of 1906. Yet his diary for this time and place says "No land visible"
and Crocker Land was in 1914 found to be non-existent by Donald MacMillan and
Fitzhugh Green. On December 15, 1906 the National Geographic Society, which was
primarily known for publishing a popular magazine, certified Peary's 1905-6
expedition and Farthest with its highest honor, the Hubbard Gold Medal; no major
professional geographical society followed suit.
The final 1908-09 expedition
For his final assault on the pole, he and 23 men set off from New York City
aboard the Roosevelt under the command of Captain Robert Bartlett on July 6,
1908. They wintered near Cape Sheridan on Ellesmere Island and from Ellesmere
departed for the pole on February 28-March 1, 1909. The last support party was
turned back from "Bartlett Camp" on April 1, 1909 in latitude no greater than
87°45' north. (The figure commonly given, 87°47', is based upon Bartlett's
slight miscomputation of the distance of a single Sumner line from the pole.) On
the final stage of the journey towards the North Pole only five of Peary's men,
Matthew Henson, Ootah, Egigingwah, Seegloo and Ooqueah, remained. On April 6, he
established "Camp Jesup" allegedly within five miles of the pole. In his diary
for April 7 (but actually written up much later when preparing his journals for
publication), Peary wrote "The Pole at last!!! The prize of 3 centuries, my
dream and ambition for 23 years. Mine at last..."
Honors and legacy
The monument for the memory of Robert Peary at Cape York, Greenland.Peary's
lobbying early headed off an intention among some congressmen to have his
claim to the pole evaluated by explorers. As eventual congressionally recognized
"attainer" of the pole (not "discoverer" in deference to 1908 North Pole
claimant Frederick Cook's supporters) Peary was given a Rear Admiral's pension
and the thanks of Congress by a special act of March 30, 1911. In the same year,
he retired to Eagle Island, located on the coast of Maine, in Freeport. (His
home there is now a Maine State Historic Site.) Civil Engineer Peary received
honors from numerous scientific societies of Europe and America for his Arctic
explorations and discoveries. He died in Washington, D.C., February 20, 1920 and
was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Matthew Henson was reinterred nearby
on April 6, 1988.
The Liberty ship SS Robert E. Peary, the destroyer USS Peary (DD-226) the cargo
ship USNS Robert E. Peary (T-AKE-5), and Knox-class frigate USS Robert E. Peary
(FF 1073) were named for him. The Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum at Bowdoin
College is named for Peary and fellow Arctic explorer Donald B. MacMillan.
Peary was the author of several books, the most famous being Northward over the
Great Ice (1898) and The North Pole (1910). The movie Glory & Honor by Kevin
Hooks (2000) effectively dramatizes his hellish 1909 journey to the vicinity of
the pole. Even explorer A.Greely who with the majority of explorers came (after
initial acceptance) to doubt Peary's reaching 90°, correctly notes that no
Arctic expert questions that (unlike Cook) Peary courageously risked his life
travelling hundreds of miles from land and that he reached regions adjacent to
In his book Ninety Degrees North, polar historian and author Fergus Fleming
describes Peary as "undoubtedly the most driven, possibly the most successful
and probably the most unpleasant man in the annals of polar exploration." He was
also one of the most intelligent, bold, and able. His skills with the
instruments and the mathematics of surveying ensured that all of his genuine
exploring discoveries are placed beyond doubt by his records of celestial
observations in connection with magnetic variation determination and finding
longitude by application of spherical trigonometry via logarithms.
Some modern critics of Peary focus on his treatment of the Inuit, including
Minik Wallace an Inuit boy who was brought to the United States of America from
Greenland along with five other Inuit in 1897. Most of them died and Wallace had
considerable difficulty in returning to his home. Other criticisms involve his
theft of several enormous meteorites from the same Inuit band. These allegedly
were the only local source of iron, and were sold by Peary for $50,000.
Peary and Henson both fathered children with Inuit women outside of marriage.
This was brought up by Cook and his followers during Peary's lifetime and would
have damaged his advancement if it had been widely believed. Peary appears to
have started his relationship with his Inuit wife "Ally" when she was 14 years
old. Furthermore, Peary's main financial backer was New York philanthropist
Morris Ketchum Jesup, a major force in the founding of Anthony Comstock's New
York Society for the Suppression of Vice. Many of the explorers knew the facts,
but had no wish to mention them publicly, in case this endangered their
financial backing by scandal-shy geographical societies or their own Inuit
By the 1960s the truth was widely acknowledged and Peary’s son Kali was
eventually brought to the attention of the broader American public by S. Allen
Counter, who met him on a Greenland expedition. The "discovery" of these
children and their meeting with their American relatives were documented in a
book and documentary titled North Pole Legacy: Black, White and Eskimo.
Peary's claim to have reached the North Pole has been subject to doubt for a
number of reasons: He had no sooner returned from the Arctic when he learned
Frederick Cook claimed to have reached the pole the previous year. Cook's claims
were quickly dismissed after he submitted to the scientific community alleged
1908 North Pole logs that were obvious frauds. Cook also was met with
skepticism since his claim of being the first to climb Mt. McKinley in 1906 was
found to be a hoax.
A few weeks before Cook's pole pretension was rejected by a Danish panel of
explorers and navigational experts, Peary (who did not make Cook's mistake of
submitting to international neutrals or to explorers) saw his claim certified by
the National Geographic Society whose chief Gilbert Grosvenor had persuaded the
National Academy of Sciences not to get involved. Despite internal council
splits (which only became known in the 1970s) the Royal Geographical Society of
London gave Peary its gold medal in 1910. Neither the American Geographical
Society nor any of the geographical societies of semi-Arctic Scandinavia has
recognized the North Pole claim.
The party that accompanied Peary on the final stage of the journey included no
one who was trained in navigation and could independently confirm his own
navigational work, a point exacerbated by Peary's omission to produce records of
observed data for steering: for the direction ("variation") of the compass, for
his longitudinal position at any time, or for post-Bartlett Camp zeroing-in on
the pole either latitudinally or transversely.
The last five marches when Peary was accompanied by a navigator (Capt. Bob
Bartlett) averaged no better than 13 miles/march northing. But once the last
support party turned back at "Camp Bartlett" from where Bartlett was ordered
southward, at least 135 nautical miles (155 statute miles) from the pole,
Peary's claimed speeds immediately double for the five marches to Camp Jesup,
and then quadrupled during the 2½ day return to Camp Bartlett -- at which point
his speed slowed drastically compared to that pace. Peary's account of a beeline
journey to the pole and back — which would have assisted his claim of such speed
— is contradicted by companion Henson's account of tortured detours to avoid
"pressure ridges" (ice floes' rough edges, often a few meters high) and "leads"
(of open water between those floes). The conflicting and unverified claims of
Cook and Peary prompted Roald Amundsen to take extensive precautions in
navigation during his Antarctic expedition so as to leave no room for doubt
concerning his 1911 attainment of the South Pole, which (like Robert Scott's a
few weeks later in 1912) was supported by the sextant, theodolite, and compass
observations of several other navigators. See Polheim.
Some polar historians believe that Peary honestly thought he had reached the
pole. Others have suggested that he was guilty of deliberately exaggerating his
accomplishments. The latter class of skeptics are assisted by the fact that at
the alleged victory moment Peary stopped writing in his diary until return to
Bartlett Camp and permanently stopped conversing with Henson. Others have
suggested that any hint that Peary did not reach the pole must be the work of
pro-Cook conspirators who are simply out to discredit Peary, though no current
leading explorer or scientist who is skeptical of Peary's pole claim believes in
Ongoing defenses and time's end
In 1989, the National Geographic Society (a major sponsor of Peary's
expeditions) concluded, based on the shadows in photographs and ocean depth
measures taken by Peary, that he was no more than five miles away from the pole.
But since Peary's original camera (a 1908 #4 Folding Pocket Kodak) has not
survived, and the camera was made with at least six different lenses from
various manufacturers, the focal length of the lens -- and hence the shadow
analysis which is based upon it -- must be considered uncertain at best. The
National Geographic Society has never released Peary's photos for independent
analysis. Scientific specialists' reaction to the National Geographic's two
dimensional photogrammetry has not been warm.
The latest in Peary advocates' series of attempts to generate the proof of
his pole claim which he neglected to provide occurred in 2005 when the British
explorer Tom Avery and four companions recreated the outward portion of Peary's
journey with replica wooden sleds and Canadian Eskimo Dog teams, reaching the
North Pole in 36 days, 22 hours – nearly five hours faster than Peary. Avery
writes on his web site that "The admiration and respect which I hold for Robert
Peary, Matthew Henson and the four Inuit men who ventured North in 1909, has
grown enormously since we set out from Cape Columbia. Having now seen for myself
how he travelled across the pack ice, I am more convinced than ever that Peary
did indeed discover the North Pole." But analysis of the actual speeds made
by Avery do more to cast doubt on Peary's claim than to confirm it. While Peary
claimed 135 nautical miles made good in his last five marches, Avery managed
only 71 in his last five marches, barely half Peary's claim. Indeed, Avery never
exceeded 90 nautical miles made good in any five day stretch. Avery managed
to match Peary's overall 37 day total only because Peary was encamped for five
days at the Big Lead, making no progress. And Avery and his team were airlifted
off the pole instead of returning by dogsled, a circumstance which allowed his
team to carry much less weight in food and supplies than would otherwise have
been needed, and much less than Peary took.
It has been claimed by supporters of Peary and Henson that the depth soundings
they made on the outward journey match recent surveys and so confirm that they
reached the pole. However, only the first few of the Peary party's
soundings, taken nearest the shore, actually touched bottom; thus their
usefulness is extremely limited.
Following the Cook claim's quick collapse among scientists and explorers,
Peary's adherents have for a century understandably portrayed Cook's few
remaining believers as a quasi-religious cult by quoting a wise 1909 prediction
that "there will be a Cook party to the end of time". The same is probably true
of Peary as well.
Robert Edwin Peary^ For obvious reasons, this latitude was never published by
Peary. It is in a typescript of his April, 1906 diary, discovered by Sir Wally
Herbert (Herbert, 1989). The typescript suddenly stops there, one day before the
April 21 purported Farthest, and the original of the April 1906 record is the
only missing diary of Peary's exploration career (Rawlins, Contributions).
^ E. g., R. Peary, Nearest the Pole, 1907, pages 202, 207, and 280
^ Rawlins, Contributions
^ See Congressman de Alva Alexander in Rawlins, 1973.
^ Bryce 1997; DIO, volume 9, numbers 2 and 3
^ Idem and DIO, volume 7, numbers 2 and 3
^ Herbert, 1989; Rawlins, Contributions
^ E. g., "Washington Post", December 12, 1989; "Scientific American", March and
^ Rawlins, Zero
^ Tom Avery website, retrieved May 2007
^ Avery's Route Barclay's Capital Ultimate North. Retrieved 10 March 2008.
^ "Proof Henson & Peary reached Pole." Matthew A Henson website. Retrieved 11
^ Peary's expedition possessed 4000 fathoms of sounding line but he took only
2000 with him over an ocean already established as being deeper in many regions.
See, e. g., D. Rawlins, U. S. Naval Institute Proceedings, June, 1970, page 38,
and Polar Notes (Dartmouth College), volume 10, October, 1970, page 38.
Coe, Brian (1988, Rev. 2003). Kodak Cameras: The First Hundred Years. East
Sussex: Hove Foto Books. ISBN 1874707375.
Rawlins, Dennis (1973). Peary at the North Pole: fact or fiction?. Washington:
Robert B. Luce. ISBN 0-88331-042-2 LCCN 72-097708 LCC G635.P4 R38.
Robinson, Michael (2006). The Coldest Crucible: Arctic Exploration and American
Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0226721842.
Herbert, Wally (July 1989). The noose of laurels: Robert E. Peary and the race
to the North Pole. New York, NY: Atheneum. ISBN 0-689-12034-6 LCCN 89-90 LCC
G635.P4 H4 1989.
Bryce, Robert M. (February 1997). Cook & Peary: the polar controversy, resolved.
Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books. ISBN 0-689-12034-6 LCCN 96-38215 LCC
G635.C66 H86 1997.
Fleming, Fergus (Sep 27, 2001). Ninety degrees north: the quest for the North
Pole. London: Granta Books. ISBN 1-86207-449-6 LCCN 2004-426384 LCC G620.F54
Engstfeld, Axel - Minik The Lost Eskimo (PBS: The American Experience series,
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