Expedition of 1898–1902

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"Expedition of 1898–1902"

Book excerpt

By: Robert E. Peary

Date: 1907

Source: Peary, Robert E. "Expedition of 1898–1902." Nearest the Pole. New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1907.

About the Author: Robert E. Peary was born in Pennsylvania, but moved with his mother to southern Maine after the death of his father. He attended Bowdoin College and earned a degree in civil engineering. Peary then joined the U.S. Naval Civil Engineer Corps in 1881 and began work on an unrealized canal project in Nicaragua. The project, however, led to his interest in exploring Greenland. In the 1890s, he took several trips to Greenland in preparation for his expeditions to the North Pole. He reached the North Pole on April 6, 1909, on his third expedition.


Peary was born on May 6, 1856 in Cresson, Pennsylvania. After graduating from college, he worked as a town surveyor for Fryeburg, Maine. In 1881, Peary joined the U.S. Navy Civil Engineers Corps. He began work on an Inter-Oceanic Ship Canal Project in Central America and was tasked to explore the interior of Nicaragua. During this time, he was introduced to a fellow civil engineer, Matthew Henson, who would later become his assistant during his exploration of Greenland and his expeditions to the North Pole. He was also introduced to the exploration of Greenland in search for a northern passage by British explorers.

By 1886, Peary made his first expedition into Greenland and asserted that Greenland was an island and that the North Pole lay beyond Greenland, not within it. On this expedition, Peary also succeeded in reaching further inland and establishing a new northern limit. Supply shortages forced his team to return prematurely. He made several trips to explore Greenland during the 1890s and determined that the "American route" to the North Pole by way of Ellesmere Island was more viable than a route previously followed through Greenland. During these expeditions of Greenland, Peary also discovered three large pieces of meteorites. One 34-ton (31-metric-ton) meteorite was called Ahnighito and is now housed at the Hayden Planetarium in New York's American Museum of Natural History. Peary's explorations during the 1890s prepared him for his expeditions to the North Pole in several ways.

In 1897, Peary obtained a leave of absence from the U.S. Navy in order to organize and lead an expedition to the North Pole. After a year of preparation, he set out in 1898 but was forced to return in 1902 after losing three toes to frostbite. In 1905, Peary made his second attempt to reach the North Pole. This expedition began from the ship Roosevelt, which allowed Peary to sail further into Arctic waters, but was also unsuccessful due to supply shortages. However, he did reach the farthest point north and made it within 175 miles (282 kilometers) of the North Pole.

On March 1, 1909, Peary, accompanied by twenty-three men, 133 dogs, and nineteen sleds, set out from Ellesmere Island. Previous expeditions had led Peary to the conclusion that traveling in late winter when the ice was firmer would reap greater success. In addition, Peary planned the expedition to be completed in stages. Groups of men would advance and lay supplies and then retreat. On April 6, 1909, six men reached the North Pole: Peary, his assistant, Matthew Hensar and four Inuit—Oatah, Egingwah, Seegloo, and Ookeah.

When Peary returned to the United States, he was faced with controversy. Fellow explorer Frederick Cook claimed that he had reached the pole a year before. Cook, who once accompanied Peary on an expedition of Greenland, made his claim days prior to Peary's announcement. In 1911, a Congressional investigation discovered that two of the Inuit who accompanied Cook claimed that his photographic evidence was a fake. However, even with the official declaration of being first to reach the North Pole, controversy remained. Many questioned whether Peary could actually reach the pole in the time frame documented. Subsequent recreations of his expedition have proved that the trek was possible.


… June 28th, a sufficient number of dogs had recovered from the effect of their work to enable me to make up two teams, and Henson was sent with these, four of the natives and a dory, to make his way to Etah and communicate with the summer ship immediately on her arrival, so that her time would not be wasted even should the Windward be late in getting out of the ice.

June 29th, I started with two sledges and three natives to complete my survey of Princess Marie and Buchanan bays, and make a reconnaissance to the westward from the head of the former. My feet, which I had been favouring since my return from Conger, were now in fair condition, only a very small place on the right one remaining unhealed. Travelling and working at night, and sleeping during the day, I advanced to Princess Marie Bay, crossed the narrow neck of Bache Peninsula, and camped on the morning of July 4th near the head of the northern arm of Buchanan Bay. Hardly was the tent set up when a bear was seen out in the bay, and we immediately went in pursuit, and in a short time had him killed. He proved to be a fine large specimen.

While after the bear, I noticed a herd of musk-oxen a few miles up the valley, and after the bear had been brought into camp and skinned, and we had snatched a few hours' sleep, we went after the musk-oxen. Eight of these were secured, including two fine bulls and two live calves, the latter following us back to camp of their own accord. The next three days were occupied in getting the beef to camp. I then crossed to the southern arm of Buchanan Bay, securing another musk-ox. Returning to Princess Marie Bay, I camped on the morning of the 14th at the glacier, which fills the head of Sawyer Bay.

During the following six days I ascended the glacier, crossed the ice cap to its western side, and from elevations of from 4,000 to 4,700 feet, looked down upon the snow-free western side of Ellesmere Land, and out into an ice-free fiord, extending some fifty miles to the northwest. The season here was at least a month earlier than on the east side, and the general appearance of the country reminded me of the Whale Sound region of Greenland. Clear weather for part of one day enabled me to take a series of angles, then fog and rain and snow settled down upon us. Through this I steered by compass back to and down the glacier, camping on the 21st in my camp of the 15th.

The return from here to the ship was somewhat arduous, owing to the rotten condition of the one-year ice, and the deep pools and canals of water on the surface of the old floes. These presented the alternative of making endless detours or wading through water often waist deep. During seven days our clothing, tent, sleeping-gear and food were constantly saturated. The Windward was reached on the 28th of July.

In spite of the discomforts and hardships of this trip, incident to the lateness of the season, I felt repaid by its results. In addition to completing the notes requisite for a chart of the Princess-Marie-Buchanan-Bay region, I had been fortunate in crossing the Ellesmere Land ice-cap, and looking upon the western coast. The game secured during this trip comprised 1 polar bear, 7 musk-oxen, 3 oogsook, and 14 seals.

When I returned to the Windward she was round in the eastern side of Franklin Pierce Bay. A party had left two days before with dogs, sledge and boat, in an attempt to meet me and supply provisions. Three days were occupied in communicating with them and getting them and their outfit on board. The Windward then moved back to her winter berth at Cape D'Urville, took the dogs on board, and on the morning of Wednesday, August 2d, got under way.

During the next five days we advanced some twelve miles, when a southerly wind jammed the ice and drifted us north, abreast of the starting point. Early Tuesday morning, the 8th, we got another start, and the ice gradually slackening, we kept under way, reached open water a little south of Cape Albert, and arrived at Cape Sabine at 10 p.m.

At Cape Sabine I landed a cache and then steamed over to Etah, arriving at 5 a.m. of the 9th. Here we found mail and learned that the Diana returned, and I had the great pleasure of taking Secretary Bridgman, commanding the Club's Expedition, by the hand.

The year had been one of hard and continuous work for the entire party. In that time I obtained the material for an authentic map of the Buchanan-Bay-Bache-Peninsula-Princess-Marie-Bay region; crossed the Ellesmere Land ice-cap to the west side of that land, established a continuous line of caches from Cape Sabine to Fort Conger, containing some fourteen tons of supplies; rescued the original records and private papers of the Greely Expedition; fitted Fort Conger as a base for future work, and familiarized myself and party with the entire region as far north as Cape Beechey.

With the exception of the supplies at Cape D'Urville, all the provisions, together with the current supplies and dog-food (the latter an excessive item), had been transported by sledge.

Finally, discouraging as was the accident to my feet, I was satisfied, since my effort to reach the northwest coast of Greenland from Fort Conger in May, proved that the season was one of extremely unfavourable ice conditions north of Cape Beechey, and I doubt, even if the accident had not occurred, whether I should have found it advisable on reaching Cape Hecla to attempt the last stage of the journey.

My decision not to attempt to winter at Fort Conger was arrived at after careful consideration. Two things controlled this decision: First, the uncertainty of carrying dogs through the winter, and, second, the comparative facility with which the distance from Etah to Fort Conger can be covered with light sledges.

After the rendezvous with the Diana I went on board the latter ship, and visited all the native settlements, gathering skins and material for clothing and sledge equipment, and recruiting my dog-teams.

The Windward was sent walrus-hunting during my absence. The Diana also assisted in this work. August 25th the Windward sailed for home, followed on the 28th by the Diana, after landing me with my party, equipment, and additional supplies at Etah.

The Diana seemed to have gathered in and taken with her all the fine weather, leaving us a sequence of clouds, wind, fog, and snow, which continued with scarcely a break for weeks.

After her departure the work before me presented itself as follows: To protect the provisions, construct our winter quarters, then begin building sledges, and grinding walrus meat for dog pemmican for the spring campaign.

During the first month a number of walrus were killed from our boats off the mouth of the fiord; then the usual Arctic winter settled down upon us, its monotony varied only by the visits of the natives, occasional deer-hunts, and a December sledge journey to the Eskimo settlements in Whale Sound as far as Kangerdlooksoah. In this nine days' trip some 240 miles were covered in six marches, the first and the last marches being of 60 to 70 miles. I returned to Etah just in time to escape a severe snowstorm, which stopped communication between Etah and the other Eskimo settlements completely, until I sent a party with snowshoes and a specially constructed sledge, carrying no load, and manned by double teams of dogs, to break the trail.

During my absence some of my natives had crossed to Mr. Stein's place at Sabine, and January 9th I began the season's work by starting a few sledge-loads of dog-food for Cape Sabine, for use of my teams in the spring journey. From this time on, as the open water in Smith Sound permitted, more dog-food was sent to Sabine, and as the light gradually increased some of my Eskimos were kept constantly at Sonntag Bay, some twenty miles to the South, on the lookout for walrus.

My programme for the spring work was to move three divisions of sledges north as far as Conger, the first to be in charge of Henson; while I brought up the rear with the third.

From Fort Conger I should send back a number of Eskimos; retain some at Conger; and with others proceed north via Hecla or the north point of Greenland, as circumstances might determine.

I wanted to start the first division on the 15th of February, the second a week later, and leave with the third March 1st; but a severe storm, breaking up the ice between Etah and Littleton Island, delayed the departure of the first division of seven sledges until the 19th.

The second division of six sledges started on the 26th, and March 4th I left with the rear division of nine sledges. Three marches carried us to Cape Sabine, along the curving northern edge of the north water. Here a northerly gale, with heavy drift, detained me for two days. Three more marches in a temperature of 40° F brought me to the house at Cape D'Urville. Records here informed me that the first division had been detained here a week by stormy weather, and the second division had left but two days before my arrival. I had scarcely arrived when two of Henson's Eskimos came in from Richardson Bay, where one of them had severely injured his leg by falling under a sledge. One day was spent at D'Urville drying our clothing, and on the 13th I got away on the trail of the other divisions with seven sledges, the injured man going to Sabine with the supporting party.

I hoped to reach Cape Louis Napoleon on this march, but the going was too heavy, and I was obliged to camp in Dobbin Bay, about five miles short of the cape. The next day I hoped on starting to reach Cape Fraser, but was again disappointed, a severe windstorm compelling me to halt a little south of Hayes Point, and hurriedly build snow igloos in the midst of a blinding drift. All that night and the next day, and the next night, the storm continued. An early start was made on the 16th, and in calm but very thick weather. We pushed on to Cape Fraser. Here we encountered the wind and drift full in our faces, and violent, making our progress from here to Cape Norton Shaw along the ice-foot very trying.

The going from here across Scoresby and Richardson bays was not worse than the year before; and from Cape Wilkes to Cape Lawrence the same as we had always found it. These two marches were made in clear but bitterly windy weather.

Another severe southerly gale held us prisoners at Cape Lawrence for a day. The 20th was an equally cruel day, with wind still savage in its strength, but the question of food for my dogs gave me no choice but to try to advance. At the end of four hours we were forced to burrow into a snow-bank for shelter, where we remained till the next morning.

In three more marches we reached Cape Leopold von Buch. Two more days of good weather brought us to a point a few miles north of Cape Defosse. Here we were stopped by another furious gale with drifting snow, which prisoned us for two nights and a day.

The wind was still bitter in our faces when we again got under way the morning of the 27th, the ice-foot became worse and worse up to Cape Cracroft, where we were forced down into the narrow tidal joint, at the base of the ice-foot; this path was a very narrow and tortuous one, frequently interrupted, and was extremely trying one men and sledges. Cape Lieber was reached on this march. At this camp the wind blew savagely all night, and in the morning I waited for it to moderate before attempting to cross Lady Franklin Bay. While thus waiting the returning Eskimos of the first and second divisions came in. They brought the very welcome news of the killing of 21 musk-oxen close to Conger. They also reported the wind out in the bay as less severe than at the Cape.

I immediately got under way and reached Conger just before midnight of the 28th—24 days from Etah—during six of which I was held up by storms.

The first division had arrived four days and the second two days earlier. During this journey there had been the usual annoying delays of broken sledges, and I had lost numbers of dogs.

The process of breaking in the tendons and muscles of my feet to their new relations, and the callousing of the amputation scars, in this, first serious demand upon them, had been disagreeable, but was, I believed, final and complete. I felt that I had no reason to complain.


Peary's expeditions accomplished more than reaching the North Pole. Peary made detailed scientific observations of Greenland's geography, tides, and flora and fauna that prepared him for his final expedition to the Pole. Peary also discovered three meteorites, including one of the world's largest. In addition, Peary also made friends with the indigenous people and observed their techniques to endure the harsh temperatures. Previous British explorers held the indigenous peoples in lower standards, inhibiting the explorers' ability to learn from the natives. Peary's ability to learn from them allowed him to make necessary changes to equipment in order to survive the harsh weather.



"Robert Peary." American Science Leaders (January 1, 2001).

Web sites

Arlington National Cemetery. "Robert Edwin Peary: Rear Admiral, United States Navy." 〈http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/roberted.htm〉 (accessed February 25, 2006).

PBS.org. "American Experience. Robert Peary: To the Top of the World." 〈http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/ice/sfeature/peary.html〉 (accessed February 25, 2006).