Robert Edwin Peary

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Robert Edwin Peary

1856-1920

American Explorer and Naval Officer

Robert Edwin Peary spent a good portion of his life in the Arctic regions of the world. He made several trips through the mostly uninhabited and unknown expanses of the Arctic, including a number of attempts to reach the North Pole. The 52-year-old Peary claimed that he and five others had finally reached the elusive pole on April 6, 1909. His assertion has been disputed over the years, but Peary is generally recognized as the man who led the first expedition to the North Pole.

Peary was born on May 5, 1856, in Cresson, Pennsylvania. He lost his father when he was three years old, and his mother took her only child back to Cape Elizabeth, Maine, where the family had lived before moving to Pennsylvania. Following his education at Portland High School, Peary attended Bowdoin College and gained an education in civil engineering. After his graduation, he spent four years as a county surveyor and cartographic draftsman before joining the U.S. Navy in 1881. Nearly four years into his service, he went to Nicaragua to survey a canal route through that Central American country.

Historians believe he became interested in the Arctic either by reading about adventures there in his youth or upon his return from Nicaragua. Either way, Peary was clearly fascinated with the far northern reaches of the Earth. In the summer of 1886, he took six-months' leave from the Navy and obtained passage on a steam whaler that brought him to Godhavn in western Greenland. In the next few months, he hoped to learn about extreme-weather survival techniques along with the varied perils of the far north. He began his first Arctic expedition with a young man, Danish Lieutenant Christian Maigaard, who was stationed at Godhavn. Peary and Maigaard spent more than three weeks hiking across the wilderness in miserably cold and windy conditions before they had to turn back just 125 miles (201 km) into their journey for lack of adequate supplies.

Back in the Navy, Peary made another trip to Nicaragua in 1887 to help with the canal survey. Before leaving for Nicaragua, however, he met a salesman at a clothing store and asked him to become his personal valet. The salesman, Matthew A. Henson (1866-1955), accompanied Peary to Nicaragua and on his many future trips to the Arctic. When Peary completed his duties as engineer-in-chief in Nicaragua, he returned to the United States and married Josephine Diebetsch.

All the while, his fascination with the Arctic never wavered. His desire to return to the far north became more intense when he learned of the successful crossing of Greenland's ice cap by Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930). He sought out and eventually received sufficient financial backing from various scientific and geographical societies to pursue his dream. With 18-months' leave from the Navy, Peary set out for Greenland on June 6, 1891, with his wife, Henson, Dr. Frederick Albert Cook (1865-1940) (a man who would later race Peary to the Pole), and three others. The group landed in Greenland, set up a semi-permanent camp and waited out the long Arctic winter. In May, Peary went on, eventually making a month-long journey to the northeastern Atlantic shore and later to the Arctic Ocean shoreline. Peary's 1,300-mi (2,092-km) round-trip proved that Greenland was indeed an island. This successful trip also gave Peary a long line of financial backers who would assist with his next expeditions.

From 1893-1906, Peary made several attempts to reach the North Pole. During this time, he changed his tactics: instead of making the entire trip over land, he traveled by boat as far north as possible. Both water and land travel posed difficulties. Moving ice packs often threatened the boat's progress, while blizzards could cause lengthy delays on land and freezing temperatures could wreak havoc on the team members. During one of these attempts, Peary's feet froze and he lost seven or eight of his toes.

Peary made his final attempt to reach the pole during an expedition that began on July 6, 1908. This time the ship Theodore Roosevelt carried the explorers deep into the far north. He soon learned that Dr. Cook had embarked on a similar attempt four months earlier. The race was on. Peary's land team, consisting of two dozen men and 133 dogs, struck out in February. On March 31, Peary sent part of his team back to the Roosevelt, and proceeded with Henson and four Inuits. On April 6, 1909, Peary took a photograph of the other five members of the team at the point he deemed the North Pole. Within days of Peary's public announcement of his success, Cook reported that he had reached the Pole first. Peary received overwhelming support of his claim, however, and he has been roundly credited with the honor.

Barely a decade after his historic trip to the Pole—and his last—Peary died on February 20, 1920, in Washington, D.C.

LESLIE A. MERTZ

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Robert Edwin Peary

The American explorer Robert Edwin Peary (1856-1920) is famous for his discovery of the North Pole; he was one of the last and greatest of the dog team-and-sledge polar explorers.

Robert Peary was born in Cresson, Pa., on May 6, 1856, but he lived in Maine after the death of his father in 1859. Entering Bowdoin College in 1873, Peary studied civil engineering. An outstanding student of strong, independent judgment, he graduated in 1877.

After working as a county surveyor in Maine and a draftsman in Washington, D.C., Peary passed the civil engineering examinations of the U.S. Navy and was commissioned in 1881. In 1884-1885 he worked on the ship canal survey in Nicaragua, but while there his interest was attracted to the Arctic. He made a brief reconnaissance trip to the Disko Bay area of Greenland in 1886, but his professional duties returned him to Nicaragua for 2 more years. Then, from 1888 to 1891, while engaged in naval engineering along the Eastern seaboard, he prepared for more Arctic work.

In June 1891 Peary, his young wife, and five others, including Matthew Henson, Peary's assistant in all his subsequent Arctic expeditions, and Frederick A. Cook, the party's surgeon and ethnologist, left New York for Greenland. Before returning home in 1892, Peary made a 1,300-mile trek to northeastern Greenland, discovering new land and indicating the insularity of Greenland. Popularly acclaimed for these achievements, Peary was able to organize and finance another Greenland expedition, which began in 1893 and lasted until 1895. This time he attempted additional explorations, but severe weather and illness prevented success. He returned home with two of the three huge meteorites he had discovered (the third was recovered after trips in 1896 and 1897) and with revised plans on polar travel.

Peary's next Arctic journey, from 1898 until 1902, represented his first serious effort to reach the North Pole. He labored and suffered mightily in organizing and conducting this expedition, but he failed to get close to his objective. A major reason for this was the fact that he had eight toes amputated in 1899, although he continued in the field and reached 84°17′N in 1902 before being forced back.

Now realizing the need to reach higher latitudes by ship before embarking with sledges, Peary raised sufficient money to have a ship, the Roosevelt, constructed, and he set out in July 1905 on his seventh expedition. Reaching the north coast of Grant Land and wintering there, Peary and his support party set out with sledges in March 1906. After several weeks of arduous travel over broken ice, the party, weak and exhausted, reached 87°16′N but was forced to turn back with its goal less than 175 miles away.

In July 1908 Peary embarked on what he knew would be his last polar attempt. Accompanied by able assistants and well-equipped, well-trained Eskimos, Peary led a party of 24 men, 19 sledges, and 133 dogs northward from Cape Columbia. His plan called for various support parties to break the trail and carry additional supplies for the main party of six, which alone would cover the last few miles to the pole. On April 1, near the 88th parallel, the final support party turned back, and Peary, Henson, and four Eskimos went on, reaching 90°N on April 6, 1909.

Peary returned to announce his discovery, only to learn that 5 days previously Cook had proclaimed a 1908 visit to the pole. Peary, always austere and direct in manner, minced no words in challenging the authenticity of Cook's claims. In the bitter controversy that followed, the general public often sided with Cook, whose unheralded expedition had dramatic appeal over the carefully planned and officially sponsored labors of Peary. In succeeding years, however, Peary's claims were validated and recognized by Congress and the major geographic societies of the world, whereas Cook's claims, always dubious, did not receive official sanction and suffered from the exposure of additional Cook frauds.

Peary spent his final years as a champion of aviation and the need for greater military preparedness. He died in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 20, 1920.

Further Reading

Peary's own books are Northward over the "Great Ice" (1898); Nearest the Pole (1907); The North Pole (1910); and Secrets of Polar Travel (1917). The best biographies of Peary are William Herbert Hobbs, Peary (1936), and John Edward Weems, Peary: The Explorer and the Man (1967). See also Donald B. MacMillan, How Peary Reached the Pole: The Personal Story of His Assistant (1934). The considerable literature on the Peary-Cook controversy is capably reviewed in John Edward Weems, Race to the Pole (1960). □

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Robert Edwin Peary

1856-1920

American explorer of the Arctic credited with leading the first successful expedition to the North Pole. Peary, along with assistant Matthew Henson, explored much of the Arctic and mapped routes to the North Pole from Greenland and the Northwest Territories of Canada. It was believed that in 1909 he reached the pole with Henson and four Eskimo assistants. In the 1980s, however, Peary's route was examined, and, due to possible navigational errors, it is now uncertain if his 1909 trek actually attained the North Pole.

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Peary, Robert Edwin (1856–1920) US Arctic explorer. He made several expeditions to Greenland (1886–92), and in 1893 led the first of five expeditions towards the North Pole. He claimed to have reached the Pole in April 1909.