Robert Peary

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Robert Peary
Robert Peary self-portrait, 1909.jpg
Robert Edwin Peary

(1856-05-06)May 6, 1856
DiedFebruary 20, 1920(1920-02-20) (aged 63)
Alma mater Bowdoin College
Known forClaim to have reached the geographic North Pole on his travels with Matthew Henson.
Spouse(s) Josephine Diebitsch Peary
Military career
Allegiance United States of America
BranchFlag of the United States Navy (1864-1959).svg  United States Navy
Service years1881–1911
Rank Rear admiral
Unit Civil Engineer Corps

Robert Edwin Peary Sr. ( /ˈpɪəri/ ; May 6, 1856 – February 20, 1920) was an American explorer and United States Naval officer who made several expeditions to the Arctic in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He is best known for claiming to have reached the geographic North Pole with his expedition on April 6, 1909. He completed this with fellow explorer Matthew Henson, who is thought to have reached what they believed to be the North Pole narrowly before Peary.


Peary was born in Cresson, Pennsylvania, but following his father's death at a young age, was raised in Portland, Maine. He attended Bowdoin College, then joined the National Geodetic Survey as a draftsman. Peary enlisted in the navy in 1881, as a civil engineer. In 1885, he was made chief of surveying for the Nicaragua Canal (which was never built). Peary visited the Arctic for the first time in 1886, making an unsuccessful attempt to cross Greenland by dogsled. He returned in 1891 much better prepared, and by reaching Independence Fjord (in what is now known as Peary Land) proved conclusively that Greenland was an island. He was one of the first Arctic explorers to study Inuit survival techniques. During an expedition in 1894 he was the first Western explorer to reach the Cape York meteorite and its fragments, which were subsequently taken from the native Inuit population who had relied on it for creating tools. During that same expedition, Peary deceived six indigenous individuals, one of them Minik Wallace, to travel to America with him by promising they would be able to return with tools, weapons and gifts within the year. This promise would be unfulfilled, with four of the six dying of illnesses within a few months. [1]

On his 1898–1902 expedition, Peary set a new "Farthest North" record by reaching Greenland's northernmost point, Cape Morris Jesup. Peary made two further expeditions to the Arctic, in 1905–1906 and in 1908–1909. During the latter, he claimed to have reached the North Pole. Peary received a number of awards from geographical societies during his lifetime, and in 1911 received the Thanks of Congress and was promoted to rear admiral. He served two terms as president of The Explorers Club and retired.

Peary's claim to have reached the North Pole was widely debated in contemporary newspapers (along with a competing claim made by Frederick Cook), but eventually won widespread acceptance. In 1989, British explorer Wally Herbert concluded Peary did not reach the pole, although he may have been as close as 60 mi (97 km). His conclusions have been widely accepted, although disputed by some authorities.

Early life, education, and career

Peary c. 1900 Peary.jpg
Peary c.1900

Robert Edwin Peary was born on May 6, 1856, in Cresson, Pennsylvania, to Charles N. and Mary P. Peary. After his father died in 1859, Peary's mother moved with their son and settled in Portland, Maine. [2] After growing up there, Peary attended Bowdoin College, some 36 mi (58 km) to the north, where he was a member of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity and the Phi Beta Kappa honor society. [3] He was also part of the rowing team. [4] [5] He graduated in 1877 with a civil engineering degree. [6]

Peary lived in Fryeburg, Maine, from 1878 to 1879. During that time he made a profile survey from the top of Fryeburg's Jockey Cap Rock. The 360-degree survey names the larger hills and mountains visible from the summit. After Peary's death, his boyhood friend, Alfred E. Burton, suggested that the profile survey be made into a monument. It was cast in bronze and set atop a granite cylinder and erected to his memory by the Peary family in 1938. A hike of less than a mile leads visitors to the summit and the monument. [7]

After college, Peary worked as a draftsman making technical drawings at the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey office in Washington, D.C. He joined the United States Navy and on October 26, 1881, was commissioned in the Civil Engineer Corps, with the relative rank of lieutenant. [2] From 1884 to 1885 he was an assistant engineer on the surveys for the Nicaragua Canal and later became the engineer in charge. As reflected in a diary entry he made in 1885, during his time in the Navy, he resolved to be the first man to reach the North Pole. [6]

In April 1886, he wrote a paper for the National Academy of Sciences proposing two methods for crossing Greenland's ice cap. One was to start from the west coast and trek about 400 mi (640 km) to the east coast. The second, more difficult path, was to start from Whale Sound at the top of the known portion of Baffin Bay and travel north to determine whether Greenland was an island or if it extended all the way across the Arctic. [8] Peary was promoted to the rank of lieutenant commander on January 5, 1901, and to commander on April 6, 1902. [2]

Initial Arctic expeditions

Peary made his first expedition to the Arctic in 1886, intending to cross Greenland by dog sled, taking the first of his own suggested paths. He was given six months' leave from the Navy, and he received $500 from his mother to book passage north and buy supplies. He sailed on a whaler to Greenland, arriving in Godhavn on June 6, 1886. [6] Peary wanted to make a solo trek, but a young Danish official named Christian Maigaard convinced him he would die if he went out alone. Maigaard and Peary set off together and traveled nearly 100 mi (160 km) due east before turning back because they were short on food. This was the second-farthest penetration of Greenland's ice sheet at the time. Peary returned home knowing more of what was required for long-distance ice trekking. [8]

Matthew Henson, Peary's assistant, in 1910 Matthew Henson 1910.jpg
Matthew Henson, Peary's assistant, in 1910

Back in Washington attending with the US Navy, in November 1887 Peary was ordered to survey likely routes for a proposed Nicaragua Canal. To complete his tropical outfit he needed a sun hat. He went to a men's clothing store where he met 21-year-old Matthew Henson, a black man working as a sales clerk. Learning that Henson had six years of seagoing experience as a cabin boy, [9] Peary immediately hired him as a personal valet. [10]

On assignment in the jungles of Nicaragua, Peary told Henson of his dream of Arctic exploration. Henson accompanied Peary on every one of his subsequent Arctic expeditions, becoming his field assistant and "first man", a critical member of his team. [8] [10]

Second Greenland expedition

In 1891, Peary returned to Greenland, taking the second, more difficult route that he laid out in 1886: traveling farther north to find out whether Greenland was a larger landmass extending to the North Pole. He was financed by several groups, including the American Geographic Society, the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, and the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences. Members of this expedition included Peary's aide Henson, Frederick A. Cook, who served as the group's surgeon; the expedition's ethnologist, Norwegian skier Eivind Astrup; bird expert and marksman Langdon Gibson, and John M. Verhoeff, who was a weatherman and mineralogist. Peary also took his wife along as dietitian, though she had no formal training. [8] Newspaper reports criticized Peary for bringing his wife. [11]

Peary in civilian clothing Portrait of Robert Edwin Peary.jpg
Peary in civilian clothing

On June 6, 1891, the party left Brooklyn, New York, in the seal hunting ship SS Kite. In July, as Kite was ramming through sheets of surface ice, the ship's iron tiller suddenly spun around and broke Peary's lower leg; both bones snapped between the knee and ankle. [8] [11] [12] Peary was unloaded with the rest of the supplies at a camp they called Red Cliff, at the mouth of MacCormick Fjord at the north west end of Inglefield Gulf. A dwelling was built for his recuperation during the next six months. Josephine stayed with Peary. Gibson, Cook, Verhoeff, and Astrup hunted game by boat and became familiar with the area and the Inuit people. [8]

Peary was one of the first Arctic explorers to study Inuit survival techniques. Robert Edwin Peary.jpg
Peary was one of the first Arctic explorers to study Inuit survival techniques.

Unlike most previous explorers, Peary had studied Inuit survival techniques; he built igloos during the expedition and dressed in practical furs in the native fashion. By wearing furs to preserve body heat and building igloos, he was able 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. He pioneered the system—which he called the "Peary system"—of using support teams and establishing supply caches for Arctic travel. The Inuit were curious about the American party and came to visit Red Cliff. Josephine was bothered by their body odor (they did not bathe), their flea infestations and their food. She studied the people, however, and kept a journal of her experiences. [11] [12] In September 1891, Peary's men took dog sled teams and pushed inland onto the ice sheet to lay caches of supplies. They did not go farther than 30 mi (48 km) from Red Cliff. [8]

Peary's leg mended by February 1892. By April, he made some short trips with Josephine and an Inuit dog sled driver to native villages to purchase supplies. On May 3, 1892, Peary finally set out on the intended trek with Henson, Gibson, Cook, and Astrup. At about the 150 mi (240 km) mark, Peary continued on with Astrup. The two found the 3,300 ft (1,000 m) high view from Navy Cliff to be revealing: they saw Independence Fjord and concluded that Greenland was an island. The men trekked back to Red Cliff and arrived on August 6, having traveled a total of 1,250 mi (2,010 km). [8]

In 1896, he received his degrees in Kane Lodge No. 454, New York City, [13] [14] and presented the Lodge the Masonic Flag that was raised on May 20–25, 1895, at Independence Bay, Greenland. [15] He was a Master Mason. [13]

1898–1902 expeditions

Peary used abandoned Fort Conger on Ellesmere Island during his 1898-1902 expedition Ipy-conger1 figure-01.jpg
Peary used abandoned Fort Conger on Ellesmere Island during his 1898–1902 expedition

As a result of Peary's 1898–1902 expedition, he claimed an 1899 visual discovery of "Jesup Land" west of Ellesmere. [16] He claimed that this sighting of Axel Heiberg Island was prior to its discovery by Norwegian explorer Otto Sverdrup's expedition. This contention has been universally rejected by exploration societies and historians. [17] However, the American Geographical Society and the Royal Geographical Society of London honored Peary for tenacity, mapping of previously uncharted areas, 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. Peary was promoted to lieutenant commander in the Navy in 1901 and to commander in 1902. [18]

1905–1906 expedition

Peary's next expedition was supported by fundraising through the Peary Arctic Club, with generous gifts of $50,000 from George Crocker, the youngest son of banker Charles Crocker, and $25,000 from Morris K. Jesup, to buy Peary a new ship. [19] The SS Roosevelt navigated through the ice between Greenland and Ellesmere Island, establishing 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 mi (16 km) a day until they became separated by a storm.

Roosevelt in the Hudson-Fulton parade in 1909 Peary's steamer Roosevelt, Hudson-Fulton Parade.jpg
Roosevelt in the Hudson–Fulton parade in 1909

As a result, Peary was without a companion sufficiently trained in navigation to verify his account from that point northward. With insufficient food, and uncertainty whether he could negotiate the ice between himself and land, he made the best possible dash and barely escaped with his life from the melting ice. On April 20, he was no farther north than 86°30' latitude. For obvious reasons, this latitude was never published by Peary. It is in a typescript of his April 1906 diary, discovered by Wally Herbert in his assessment commissioned by the National Geographic Society in the late 1980s. (Herbert, 1989). The typescript suddenly stopped there, one day before Peary's April 21 purported "farthest". The original of the April 1906 record is the only missing diary of Peary's exploration career. [20] He claimed the next day to have achieved a Farthest North world record at 87°06' and returned to 86°30' without camping. This implied a trip of at least 72 nautical miles (133 km; 83 mi) between sleeping, even assuming direct travel with no detours.

After returning to Roosevelt in May, Peary began weeks of difficult travel in June heading west along the shore of Ellesmere. He discovered Cape Colgate, from whose summit he claimed in his 1907 book [21] that he had seen a previously undiscovered far-north "Crocker Land" to the northwest on June 24, 1906. A later review of his diary for this time and place found that he had written, "No land visible." [22] On December 15, 1906, the National Geographic Society of the United States, which was primarily known for publishing a popular magazine, certified Peary's 1905–1906 expedition and "Farthest" with its highest honor, the Hubbard Medal. No major professional geographical society followed suit. In 1914 Donald MacMillan and Fitzhugh Green's expedition found that Crocker Land did not exist.

Claiming to reach the North Pole

The party at what was assumed to be the North Pole Photograph of the Robert Peary Sledge Party Posing with Flags at the North Pole - NARA - 542472.jpg
The party at what was assumed to be the North Pole

On 6 July 1908, the Roosevelt departed New York City with Peary's eighth Arctic expedition of 22 men. Besides Peary as expedition commander, it included master of the Roosevelt Robert Bartlett, surgeon Dr. J.W. Goodsell, and assistants Ross Gilmore Marvin, Donald B. MacMillan, George Borup, and Matthew A. Henson. After recruiting several Eskimos and their families at Cape York (Greenland), the expedition wintered near Cape Sheridan on Ellesmere Island. The expedition would use the 'Peary system' for the sledge journey, with Bartlett and Eskimos Poodloonah, "Harrigan," and Ooqueah, composing the pioneer division. Borup, with Eskimos Keshunghaw, Seegloo, and Karko, composed the advance supporting party. On 15 February, Bartlett's pioneer division departed the Roosevelt for Cape Columbia, followed by 5 advance divisions. Peary, with the Eskimos Arco and Kudlooktoo, departed on 22 February, bringing to the total effort 7 expedition members, 19 Eskimos, 140 dogs, and 28 sledges. On 28 February, Bartlett, with Eskimos Ooqueah, Pooadloonah, and Harrigan, accompanied by Borup, with Eskimos Karko, Seegloo, and Keshungwah, headed North. [23] [23] :41

On 14 March, the first supporting, composed of Dr. Goodsell and the Eskimos Arco and Wesharkoupsi, party turned back towards the ship. Peary states this was at a latitude of 84°29'. On 20 March, Borup's third supporting party, with 3 Eskimos, started back to the ship. Peary states this was at a latitude of 85°23'. On 26 March, Marvin, with Kudlooktoo and Harrigan, headed back to the ship, from a latitude estimated by Marvin as 86°38'. Marvin would meet his death on this return trip South. On 1 April, Bartlett's party started their return to the ship, after Barlett estimated a latitude of 87°46'49". Peary, with Eskimos Egingwah and Seeglo, and Henson, with Eskimos Ootah and Ooqueah, using 5 sledges and 40 dogs, planned 5 marches over the estimated 130 nautical miles to the pole. on 2 April, Peary led the way north. [23] :235,243,252254,268271,274 [24]

On the final stage of the journey toward the North Pole, Peary told Bartlett to stay behind. He continued with five assistants, Matthew Henson, Ootah, Egigingwah, Seegloo, and Ooqueah. None but Henson (who had served as navigator and craftsman on Peary's 1891-2 expedition) was capable of making navigation observations. On April 6, Peary established Camp Jesup within 3 mi (5 km) of the pole, according to his own readings. [25] Peary estimated the latitude as 89°57', after making an observation at approximate local noon using the Columbia meridian. Peary used a sextant, with a mercury trough and glass roof for an artificial horizon, to make measurements of the Sun. Peary claims, "I had now taken in all thirteen single, or six and one-half double, altitudes of the sun, at two different stations, in three different directions, at four different times." Peary states some of these observations were "beyond the Pole," and " some moment during these marches and counter-marches, I had passed over or very near the point where north and south and east and west blend into one." [23] :287298 [24] :7275 Henson scouted ahead to what was thought to be the North Pole site; he returned with the greeting, "I think I'm the first man to sit on top of the world," much to Peary's chagrin. [26]

On 7 April, Peary's group started their return journey, reaching Cape Columbia on 23 April, and the Roosevelt on 26 April. MacMillan and the doctor's party had reached the ship earlier, on 21 March, Borup's party on 11 April, Marvin's Eskimos on 17 April, and Bartlett's party on 24 April. On 18 July, the Roosevelt departed for home. [23] :302,316317,325,332 [24] :7881

Peary was unable to fully enjoy the fruits of his labors. Upon returning to civilization, he learned that Dr. Frederick A. Cook, a surgeon on the 1891–1892 Peary expedition, claimed to have reached the pole in 1908. [9] Despite remaining doubts, a committee of the National Geographic Society, as well as the Naval Affairs Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives, credited Peary with reaching the North Pole. [27]

A reassessment of Peary's notebook in 1988 by polar explorer Wally Herbert found it "lacking in essential data", thus renewing doubts about Peary's discovery. [28] [29]

Later life

Amundsen, Shackleton, and Peary, in January 1913 The Three Polar Stars, 1913 (8889621500).jpg
Amundsen, Shackleton, and Peary, in January 1913

Peary was promoted to the rank of captain in the Navy on October 20, 1910. [30] By his lobbying, [31] Peary headed off a move among some U.S. Congressmen to have his claim to the pole evaluated by other explorers. Eventually recognized by Congress for "reaching" the pole, Peary was given the Thanks of Congress by a special act on March 4, 1911. [32] By the same Act of Congress, Peary was promoted to the rank of rear admiral in the Navy Civil Engineer Corps, retroactive to April 6, 1909. He retired from the Navy the same day, to Eagle Island on the coast of Maine, in the town of Harpswell. [33] His home there has been designated a Maine State Historic Site.

After his retirement, Peary received many honors from numerous scientific societies in Europe and America for his Arctic explorations and discoveries. He served twice as president of The Explorers Club, from 1909 to 1911, and 1913 to 1916.

In early 1916, Peary became chairman of the National Aerial Coast Patrol Commission, a private organization created by the Aero Club of America. It advocated the use of aircraft to detect warships and submarines off the U.S. coast. [34] Peary used his celebrity to promote the use of military and naval aviation, which led directly to the formation of Naval Reserve aerial coastal patrol units during the First World War. At the close of the First World War, Peary proposed a system of eight airmail routes, which became the genesis of the U.S. Postal Service's airmail system. [35]

Peary died in Washington, D.C. on February 20, 1920. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. [36] More than 60 years later, Matthew Henson was honored by being re-interred nearby on April 6, 1988. [37]

Marriage and family

Josephine Diebitsch in 1892 Josephine Peary portrait 1892.jpg
Josephine Diebitsch in 1892

On August 11, 1888, Peary married Josephine Diebitsch, a business school valedictorian who thought the modern woman should be more than just a mother. Diebitsch had started working at the Smithsonian Institution when she was 19–20 years old, replacing her father after he became ill and filling his position as a linguist. She resigned from the Smithsonian in 1886 upon becoming engaged to Peary.

The newlyweds honeymooned in Atlantic City, New Jersey, then moved to Philadelphia because Peary was assigned there. Peary's mother accompanied them on their honeymoon, and she moved into their Philadelphia apartment but not without friction between the two women. Josephine told Peary that his mother should return to live in Maine. [38]

Marie Ahnighito Peary was born in 1893. Marie Peary.jpg
Marie Ahnighito Peary was born in 1893.

They had two children together, Marie Ahnighito and Robert Peary, Jr. His daughter wrote several books, including a children's book about the Arctic adventures. [39] As an explorer, Peary was frequently gone for years at a time. In their first 23 years of marriage, he spent only three with his wife and family.

Peary and his aide Henson both had relationships with Inuit women outside of marriage and fathered children with them. [40] Peary appears to have started a relationship with Aleqasina (Alakahsingwah) when she was about 14 years old. [41] [42] She bore him at least two children, including a son called Kaala, [42] Karree, [43] or Kali. [44] French explorer and ethnologist Jean Malaurie was the first to report on Peary's descendants after spending a year in Greenland in 1951–52. [42]

S. Allen Counter, a Harvard neuroscience professor, interested in Henson's role in the Arctic expeditions, went to Greenland in 1986. He found Peary's son Kali and Henson's son Anaukaq, then octogenarians, and some of their descendants. [44] Counter arranged to bring the men and their families to the United States to meet their American relatives and see their fathers' gravesites. [44] Later, Counter wrote about the episode in his book, North Pole Legacy: Black, White, and Eskimo (1991). He also gained national recognition of Henson's role in the expeditions. [44] A subsequent documentary by the same name was also released. Wally Herbert also noted the relationship and children in his book on Peary's 1909 expedition, published in 1989. [45]

Treatment of the Inuit

A Narwhal tusk lance with an iron head made from the Cape York meteorite. Meteorite iron harpoon.jpg
A Narwhal tusk lance with an iron head made from the Cape York meteorite.
Minik, one of the Inuit whom Peary took back to America for study. Minik in New York.jpg
Minik, one of the Inuit whom Peary took back to America for study.

Peary has received criticism for his treatment of the Inuit, not only for fathering children with Aleqasina, but especially for bringing back a small group to the United States along with the Cape York meteorite (which was of significant local importance and Peary sold for $40,000 in 1897). [46]

Working at the American Museum of Natural History, the anthropologist Franz Boas had requested that Peary bring back an Inuit for study. [47] [48] [49] During his expedition to retrieve the Cape York meteorite, Peary convinced six individuals, including a man named Qisuk and his child Minik, to travel to America with him by promising they would be able to return with tools, weapons and gifts within the year. [50] Peary left the people at the museum when he returned with the Cape York meteorite in 1897, where they were kept in damp, humid conditions unlike their homeland. Subsequently, four died of tuberculosis within a few months, their remains were dissected and the bones of Qisuk were put on display after Minik was shown a fake burial. [49] [48]

Speaking as a teenager to the San Francisco Examiner about Peary, Minik said:

At the start, Peary was kind enough to my people. He made them presents of ornaments, a few knives and guns for hunting and wood to build sledges. But as soon as he was ready to start home his other work began. Before our eyes he packed up the bones of our dead friends and ancestors. To the women’s crying and the men’s questioning he answered that he was taking our dead friends to a warm and pleasant land to bury them. Our sole supply of flint for lighting and iron for hunting and cooking implements was furnished by a huge meteorite. This Peary put aboard his steamer and took from my poor people, who needed it so much. After this he coaxed my father and that brave man Natooka, who were the strongest hunters and the wisest heads for our tribe, to go with him to America. Our people were afraid to let them go, but Peary promised them that they should have Natooka and my father back within a year, and that with them would come a great stock of guns and ammunition, and wood and metal and presents for the women and children … We were crowded into the hold of the vessel and treated like dogs. Peary seldom came near us. [50]

Peary eventually helped Minik travel home in 1909, though it is speculated that this was to avoid any bad press surrounding his anticipated celebratory return after reaching the North Pole. [49]

Controversy surrounding North Pole claim

Commander Robert E. Peary speaks at the Appalachian Mountain Club in February 1910 Commander Robert E. Peary - 10713770703.jpg
Commander Robert E. Peary speaks at the Appalachian Mountain Club in February 1910

Peary's claim to have reached the North Pole has long been subject to doubt. [28] [51] [27] 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. Peary's account has been newly criticized by Pierre Berton (2001) and Bruce Henderson (2005).

Lack of independent validation

Peary did not submit his evidence for review to neutral national or international parties or to other explorers. [27] Peary's claim was certified by the National Geographic Society (NGS) in 1909 after a cursory examination of Peary's records, as NGS was a major sponsor of his expedition. [27] This was a few weeks before Cook's Pole claim was rejected by a Danish panel of explorers and navigational experts.

The National Geographic Society limited access to Peary's records. At the time, his proofs were not made available for scrutiny by other professionals, as had been done by the Danish panel. [27] Gilbert Grosvenor persuaded the National Academy of Sciences not to get involved. The Royal Geographical Society (RGS) of London gave Peary its gold medal in 1910, [52] despite internal council splits which only became known in the 1970s. The RGS based their decision on the belief that the NGS had performed a serious scrutiny of the "proofs", which was not the case.[ citation needed ] Neither the American Geographical Society nor any of the geographical societies of semi-Arctic Scandinavia has recognized Peary's North Pole claim.


Omissions in navigational documentation

The party that accompanied Peary on the final stage of the journey did not include anyone trained in navigation who could either confirm or contradict Peary's own navigational work. This was further exacerbated by Peary's failure to produce records of observed data for steering, for the direction ("variation") of the compass, for his longitudinal position at any time, or for zeroing-in on the pole either latitudinally or transversely beyond Bartlett Camp. [53]

Inconsistent speeds

Peary and Robert Bartlett at Battle Harbour in 1909 PearyBartlett.png
Peary and Robert Bartlett at Battle Harbour in 1909

The last five marches when Peary was accompanied by a navigator (Capt. Bob Bartlett) averaged no better than 13 mi (21 km) marching north. But once the last support party turned back at "Camp Bartlett", where Bartlett was ordered southward, at least 133 nmi (246 km; 153 mi) from the pole, Peary's claimed speeds immediately doubled for the five marches to Camp Jesup. The recorded speeds quadrupled during the two and a half-day return to Camp Bartlett – at which point his speed slowed drastically. Peary's account of a beeline journey to the pole and back—which would have assisted his claim of such speed—is contradicted by his companion Henson's account of tortured detours to avoid "pressure ridges" (ice floes' rough edges, often a few meters high) and "leads" (open water between those floes).

In his official report, Peary claimed to have traveled a total of 304 nautical miles between April 2, 1909, (when he left Bartlett's last camp) and April 9 (when he returned there), 133 nmi (246 km; 153 mi) to the pole, the same distance back, and 38 nmi (70 km; 44 mi) in the vicinity of the pole.[ citation needed ] These distances are counted without detours due to drift, leads and difficult ice, i.e. the distance traveled must have been significantly higher to make good the distance claimed.[ citation needed ] Peary and his party arrived back in Cape Columbia on the morning of April 23, 1909, only about two and a half days after Capt Bartlett, yet Peary claimed he had traveled a minimum of 304 nmi (563 km; 350 mi) more than Bartlett (to the Pole and vicinity).[ citation needed ]

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 Falcon Scott's a month later in 1912—was supported by the sextant, theodolite, and compass observations of several other navigators.

Review of Peary's diary

Peary's diary entry for arrival at the North Pole Diary of Robert E. Peary - NARA - 304960.jpg
Peary's diary entry for arrival at the North Pole

The diary that Robert E. Peary kept on his 1909 polar expedition was finally made available for research in 1986. Historian Larry Schweikart examined it, finding that: the writing was consistent throughout (giving no evidence of post-expedition alteration), that there were consistent pemmican and other stains on all pages, and that all evidence was consistent with a conclusion that Peary's observations were made on the spot he claimed. Schweikart compared the reports and experiences of Japanese explorer Naomi Uemura, who reached the North Pole alone in 1978, to those of Peary and found they were consistent. [54] However, Peary made no entries in the diary on the crucial days of April 6 and 7, 1909, and his famous words "The Pole at Last!", allegedly written in his diary at the pole, were written on loose slips of paper that were inserted into the diary.

1984 and 1989 National Geographic Society studies

In 1984 the National Geographic Society (a major sponsor of Peary's expeditions) commissioned the Arctic explorer Wally Herbert to write an assessment of Peary's original 1909 diary and astronomical observations. As Herbert researched the material, he came to believe that Peary must have falsified his records and concluded that he did not reach the Pole. [28] His book, The Noose of Laurels, caused a furor when it was published in 1989. If Peary did not reach the pole in 1909, Herbert himself would claim the record of being the first to reach the pole on foot. [45]

In 1989 the NGS also conducted a two-dimensional photogrammetric analysis of the shadows in photographs and a review of ocean depth measures taken by Peary; its staff concluded that he was no more than 5 mi (8 km) away from the pole. Peary's original camera (a 1908 #4 Folding Pocket Kodak) has not survived. As such cameras were made with at least six different lenses from various manufacturers, the focal length of the lens—and hence the shadow analysis based on it—must be considered uncertain at best.[ citation needed ] The NGS has never released Peary's photos for an independent analysis. Specialists questioned the Society's conclusions. [55] [29]

The NGS commissioned the Foundation for the Promotion of the Art of Navigation to resolve the issue. Their 1989 report concluded that Peary had indeed reached the Pole. Gilbert M. Grosvenor, president of the NGS, said, "I consider this the end of a historic controversy and the confirmation of due justice to a great explorer." [56]

Review of depth soundings

Supporters of Peary and Henson assert that the depth soundings they made on the outward journey have been matched by recent surveys, and so their claim of having reached the Pole is confirmed. [57] Only the first few of the Peary party's soundings, taken nearest the shore, touched bottom; experts have said their usefulness is limited to showing that he was above deep water.[ citation needed ] [58] Peary stated (in 1909 Congressional hearings about the expedition) that he made no longitudinal observations during his trip, only latitude observations, yet he maintained he stayed on the "Columbia meridian" all along, and that his soundings were made on this meridian.[ citation needed ] The pack ice was moving all the time, so he had no way of knowing where he was without longitudinal observations.[ citation needed ]

Recreation of expedition in 2005

British explorer Tom Avery and four companions recreated the outward portion of Peary's journey in 2005, using replica wooden sleds and Canadian Eskimo Dog teams. They ensured their sled weights were the same as Peary's sleds throughout their journey. They reached the North Pole in 36 days, 22 hours—nearly five hours faster than Peary. [59] 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 traveled across the pack ice, I am more convinced than ever that Peary did indeed discover the North Pole." [60]

After reaching the Pole, Avery and his team were airlifted off the ice rather than returning by dogsled.

Analysis of the speeds made by Avery do more to cast doubt on Peary's claim than to confirm it.[ citation needed ] While Peary claimed 130 nmi (240 km; 150 mi) made good in his last five marches, horrific ice conditions meant that Avery managed only 71 nmi (131 km; 82 mi)[ which? ] in his last five marches. Avery never exceeded 90 nmi (170 km; 100 mi) in any five-day stretch, and was losing over 7 mi (11 km) a day at this time to the southerly drift of the ice.[ citation needed ] Avery matched Peary's overall 37-day total in part because Peary was held up by open water for five days at the Big Lead. But Peary had a team consisting of 133 dogs and 25 men, meaning he was able to keep his "polar party" fresh for the sprint to the Pole. Peary's team was more experienced than Avery's at dog sledding.[ citation needed ]


Peary monument at Cape York, northwest Greenland Robert Peary monument at Cape York, Greenland.jpg
Peary monument at Cape York, northwest Greenland

Several United States Navy ships have been named USS Robert E. Peary. The Peary–MacMillan Arctic Museum at Bowdoin College is named for Peary and fellow Arctic explorer Donald B. MacMillan. In 1986, the United States Postal Service issued a 22-cent postage stamp in honor of Peary and Henson; [61] they were previously honored in 1959. [62]

Peary Land, Peary Glacier, Peary Nunatak and Cape Peary in Greenland, Peary Bay and Peary Channel in Canada, as well as Mount Peary in Antarctica, are named in his honor. The lunar crater Peary, appropriately located at the moon's north pole, is also named after him. [63]

Camp Peary in York County, Virginia is named for Admiral Peary. Originally established as a Navy Seabee training center during World War II, it was repurposed in the 1950s as a Central Intelligence Agency training facility. It is commonly called "The Farm".

Admiral Peary Vocational Technical School, located in a neighboring community very close to his birthplace of Cresson, PA, was named for him and was opened in 1972. Today the school educates over 600 students each year in numerous technical education disciplines.

Major General Adolphus Greely, leader of the ill-fated Lady Franklin Bay Expedition from 1881 to 1884, noted that no Arctic expert questioned that Peary courageously risked his life traveling hundreds of miles from land, and that he reached regions adjacent to the pole. After initial acceptance of Peary's claim, he later came to doubt Peary's having reached 90°.

In his book Ninety Degrees North, polar historian 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".[ This quote needs a citation ]

In 1932, an expedition was made by Robert Bartlett and Peary's daughter, Marie Ahnighito Peary Stafford on the Effie M. Morrissey to erect a monument to Peary at Cape York, Greenland. [64]


Edwin Denby and Peary's daughter at grave, Arlington National Cemetery, April 6, 1922 Peary daughter at grave.jpg
Edwin Denby and Peary's daughter at grave, Arlington National Cemetery, April 6, 1922


Honorary degrees

Honorary memberships



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  30. See Congressman de Alva Alexander in Rawlins, 1973.[ incomplete short citation ]
  32. New York Times, March 30, 1911.[ incomplete short citation ]
  33. New York Times, January 24, 1916, and March 31, 1916.[ incomplete short citation ]
  34. New York Times, November 25, 1918.[ incomplete short citation ]
  35. Burial Detail: Peary, Robert Edwin (Section 8, Grave S-15) – ANC Explorer
  36. Burial Detail: Henson, Matthew A (Section 8, Grave S-15-1) Internment Date: 04/06/1988 – ANC Explorer
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  58. Rawlins, Zero
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  61. Scott catalog # 1128.
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