On May 6, 1856, Robert E. Peary, who claimed discovery of the North Pole, was born in Cresson, Pennsylvania.
During the early years of the twentieth century, the conquest of the North and South poles became the object of fervent international competition. Teams from Russia, Norway, Italy, and the United States vied to be the first to fly their nation’s flag at the summit of the world. Many expeditions, such as the failed Ziegler Expedition pictured below, sought to explore the Arctic from the northernmost point of Russia, Franz Josef Land. Robert Peary set his sights on Greenland as the launching ground of a northward dash to the pole.
Peary received his degree in civil engineering from Bowdoin College in 1877 and went to work for the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey before obtaining a commission in the U.S. Navy Civil Engineers Corps. His first assignments took him to tropical, rather than arctic climates. In 1884 and again in 1887, Peary was responsible for surveying a route for a proposed canal through the jungles of Nicaragua. On his second trip to Nicaragua, Peary was accompanied by his assistant, Matthew Henson, who also was his trusted companion throughout his Arctic explorations.
In 1886, Peary obtained leave from the Corps and set out to explore the Greenland ice cap. This was the first of a series of trips to Greenland during 1886-97 in which Peary mapped Greenland’s northern coastline and gathered data regarding meteorological and tidal patterns of the Arctic Ocean. Perhaps most important, Peary encountered the Inuit people of northern Greenland. He learned their language and customs as well as techniques of survival in the Arctic—igloo- and sled-building, hunting, and the use of sled dogs and seal-fur suits.
Peary adopted a number of other practices that facilitated his exploration of the region, including the establishment of support bases and shelters, a backup supply line using relay teams, and the construction of a ship, the Roosevelt, built to withstand the Arctic ice.
Peary had powerful support for his project with the enthusiasm of President Theodore Roosevelt and the financial backing of prominent individuals and institutions, including the National Geographic Society. With their support, Peary was able to finance the building of the Roosevelt to his specifications:
The Roosevelt embodies all that a most careful study of previous polar ships and my own years of personal experience could suggest. With the sturdiness of a battleship and the shapely lines of a Maine-built schooner, I regard her the fittest icefighter afloat. As I write these lines, I see her slowly but surely forcing a way through the crowding ice. I see the black hull hove out bodily onto the surface of the ice by a cataclysm of the great floes. I see her squeezed as by a giant’s hand against a rocky shore till every rib and timber is vocal with the strain. And I see her out in the North Atlantic lying to for days through a wild autumn northeaster, rudderless, with damaged propeller, and shattered stern post, …a scrap of double reefed foresail keeping her up to the wind, riding the huge waves like a seagull till they are tired out.
Robert Peary, Secrets of Polar Travel. New York: The Century Co., 1917. p28-31.
Peary’s team failed to reach the pole in an initial 1905 voyage, and he returned to New York with an ice-damaged ship. Significant repairs to the ship postponed another attempt until 1908. It was on this latter trip that Peary reported success. On April 6, 1909, after months of travel and preparation, Peary reached what he believed to be the North Pole, accompanied by Matthew Henson and four Inuit companions. Henson recalled the discovery of the North Pole after nineteen years of Arctic exploration in an interview at the time of his 1936 retirement from the U.S. Customs House:
“When the compass started to go crazy,” he recalled, “I sat down to wait for Mr. Peary. He arrived about forty-five minutes later, and we prepared to wait for the dawn to check our exact positions… The next morning when [the] positions had been verified, Peary said: “Matt, we’ve reached the North Pole at last.”
“Matt Henson.” Theodore Poston, interviewer; New York City, 1939. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division
After time spent taking notes regarding their location, the team began the arduous return trip. When Peary notified the world that the North Pole had been attained, he was immediately embroiled in a controversy that continues to this day.
Shortly before Peary made his announcement, Dr.Frederick A. Cook (a companion on one of his earlier journeys in 1891) claimed that he himself had reached the pole on April 21, 1908. At the time, the National Geographic Society examined the records of both men and concluded that Peary and Henson had reached the pole first. Dr. Cook was subsequently involved in other controversies and his claim was further discredited.
Peary’s achievement was hailed worldwide; he was given medals and a pension by the U.S. Congress and feted at dinners. Proper recognition for Henson was long-delayed. President Taft appointed him as a customs clerk in 1913, but it was not until 1944 that he received the Congressional medal that was awarded to all other members of Peary’s expedition.
This was not the end of the story, however. In 1989, after years of increasing public skepticism, the National Geographic Society reexamined the records made by Peary and Henson and concluded that their calculations were incorrect—leaving them short of the pole. Nevertheless, Peary’s achievement remains substantial in the development of Arctic exploration methods and in his knowledge of the region.
- See Topics in Chronicling America – The Race to the North Pole, to find historic newspaper articles about the competing polar expeditions and the resulting controversy. Search across all of Chronicling America to read additional articles about adventure and discovery.
- Search Today in History for features on discovery and adventure such as the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.