Peary, Josephine (1863–1955)

views updated

Peary, Josephine (1863–1955)

American author and Arctic explorer who accompanied her husband Robert E. Peary on two hazardous expeditions to the far North (1891 and 1893). Name variations: Jo Peary; Josephine Diebitsch Peary. Born Josephine Diebitsch in Washington, D.C., on May 22, 1863; died in Portland, Maine, on December 19, 1955; daughter of Herman Henry Diebitsch and Magdalena Augusta (Schmid) Diebitsch; married Robert Edwin Peary (an Arctic explorer), in 1888; children: Marie Ahnighito Peary Stafford (b. 1893); Francine (d. 1899 in infancy); Robert Peary, Jr. (b. 1903).

Arctic explorer Josephine Peary was born in Washington, D.C., in 1863 to parents who had emigrated from Germany; her long life began when Abraham Lincoln was president and ended in the first decade of the Atomic Age. The first Caucasian woman to live in the world's high Arctic regions, Josephine played a significant role in advancing the career of her husband, Arctic explorer Robert E. Peary, whom she accompanied on exhibitions and for whom she would raise funds to effect his rescue in 1895. In total, Josephine would spend three winters and eight summers in the high Arctic region.

In 1882, Josephine, known as Jo, met Robert Edwin Peary, a civil engineer in the U.S. Navy, at a Washington dance. Their courtship was slowed by his long trips to Greenland and Nicaragua in the next years. Married in Washington in 1888, the couple lived first in New York City and then in Philadelphia, where Robert was assigned to the naval shipyard.

With a longstanding, overpowering desire to discover the North Pole, by 1891 Robert had obtained financial support from Philadelphia's Academy of Natural Sciences to organize an expedition to North Greenland. He then stunned the nation by announcing that Jo Peary would accompany him. The harsh Arctic region was considered totally inappropriate for a Caucasian woman, making the plans for Jo's participation the subject of much discussion and controversy. Other members of the expedition included Robert's African-American servant Matthew Henson, Frederick Cook, and Louisville's John McKee Verhoeff, who was the trip's most generous cash contributor. The journey began on a less than perfect note when Robert broke his leg during the voyage north; he had to be carried ashore upon their arrival in July 1891 at McCormick Bay, North Greenland.

The explorers quickly built their new home, Red Cliff House. The work of unpacking supplies and nursing her injured husband so exhausted Jo that she slept through the departure of the ship that had brought them to their bleak new home. Soon, however, as one of the group of seven explorers, she set fox traps, investigated nearby cliffs, and carried her Colt .38 revolver while traveling as a member of hunting parties in search of deer, seal, and walrus meat. Inside Red Cliff House, the Pearys' room measured 7.5'×12', with the remaining room shared by the other five explorers. The seven Americans had as neighbors a local Inuit family, and in December 1891 they shared Christmas dinner with them. Jo paid the Inuit women to make Arctic clothing for the group, work which she supervised. She also cooked and often took short exploratory trips in the area. By mid-January 1892, the light had started to return, and she noted in her journal: "I take advantage of it by indulging in long snow-shoe tramps. I can now walk for hours without tiring … and feel more comfortable than I have felt while shopping in Philadelphia or New York on a winter's day." In April 1892, she and Robert made a sledge journey in Inglefield Gulf to visit some Inuit settlements and discovered several new glaciers and mountain peaks on their way. Jo's prim Victorian upbringing had not prepared her for the alien odors and standards of hygiene customary for the Inuit, and she could not follow the Inuit custom of stripping naked while indoors.

In May 1892, Robert and three others began a journey across the Greenland ice cap. Remaining behind at Red Cliff House were Jo, Henson and Verhoeff. While Robert was confident about the undertaking, Jo had been told by the Inuit that her husband was fated to die on the ice cap, and she had grave misgivings about the journey. As days went by, she grew despondent, and both she and Henson had frequent personality clashes with Verhoeff. In excellent physical condition, and as the expedition's most generous financial donor, Verhoeff was bitter about having been excluded from the trek. Later, after Jo and Robert were reunited, they mapped Inglefield Gulf together. In their absence, Verhoeff mysteriously vanished on a lone trek to Mc-Cormick Bay. The Pearys sent out extensive search parties, but only a cache of mineral specimens and footprints leading along a glacier face were ever discovered. Verhoeff's body was never found. His family, aware of the tensions between him and the Pearys, became convinced that he had met with foul play or lost his life as a result of Robert Peary's neglect. His disappearance remains an unsolved mystery.

Having written a book about her adventures entitled My Arctic Journal (1893), in July 1893 Jo was pregnant when she returned to Greenland on her second expedition to the far North. Many newspaper editorials were highly critical of Peary's decision to deliver her child in the high Arctic. Arriving in Greenland, the Peary expedition discovered that Red Cliff House had been destroyed by fire, but they quickly built a new home, Anniversary Lodge, on the old site. In September 1893, Jo gave birth to a healthy daughter, Marie Ahnighito, who would soon be known throughout the world as the "Snow Baby" (Ahnighito was the name of an Eskimo woman who made Marie's first suit of fur). The infant had been born farther north than had any white child previously.

In 1894, the Peary expedition ran into danger. Robert failed to cross the ice cap, and rapidly diminishing food supplies forced most of the expedition members to abandon the expedition. With neither a physician nor a nurse available, Jo reluctantly returned home with her infant daughter, convinced that Robert would soon be able to follow them. As it turned out, this was not the case. There had been no plan to send a ship in 1895 to retrieve Robert. In fact, the expedition's sponsors had decided that it would be reasonable for him to sail his small cutter 700 miles down the Greenland coast to the safety of permanent Danish settlements.

Convinced that her husband's life would be at risk if he did this, Jo made clear her opposition to such a dangerous journey and set about raising the $10,000 needed to charter a relief vessel. She quickly amassed a fund of about $7,000 but became alarmed when contributions began to dwindle. The remaining funding, however, was supplied by the National Geographic Society and Morris Jesup, the wealthy president of the Peary Arctic Club. Robert arrived on the relief ship with two meteorites which he had discovered in Greenland.

Both Pearys returned in 1897 to bring back another meteorite Robert had found earlier. Weighing 100 tons, it was the largest known meteorite in the world, and there were considerable difficulties getting it on board ship. Years later, the American Museum of Natural History would purchase it from Jo Peary for the then handsome sum of $40,000, and it still impresses visitors to that Manhattan museum.

In 1898, Robert was granted a five-year leave of absence from the Navy in order to carry out an expedition to the North Pole. Once again pregnant, Jo chose to remain at home with daughter Marie. To contribute to the expedition, she sewed a large American flag for him to use in marking new discoveries (it is now on display at the headquarters of the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C.). While he was gone, she gave birth to a daughter, Francine, who died in 1899 at the age of six months. Meanwhile, on expedition Robert lost most of his toes to frostbite. Nonetheless, he remained in the Arctic, determined to be the first person to reach the North Pole. In March 1900, Jo returned to Greenland with Marie. Soon after arriving, she made three disquieting discoveries. One was that he had not returned to Greenland but was rather in northernmost Canada, more than 200 miles away. Another, even more upsetting to Jo, was that her husband had a second family; a young Inuit woman, Alaqasina , had become his lover and given birth to two sons. Lastly, the ice had now entrapped Jo's ship for the winter.

Throughout these difficult months, little Marie relished the opportunity to play in the land of her birth. (She would later write two books concerning her childhood: The Red Caboose with Peary in the Arctic [1932] and The Snowbaby's Own Story [1934].) When Robert returned to the ship, he and Jo were reconciled. Despite his physical impairments, he refused to return to the United States for medical treatment. Jo and Marie made the journey home but returned again to Greenland in 1902. This time, Jo was able to persuade Robert to come home to recuperate. In 1903, she gave birth to their third and last child, Robert, Jr.

Jo Peary was at the family home on Eagle Island, Maine, when she received word from her husband that he had finally reached his lifelong goal, the North Pole. In 1910, she and their children accompanied him on a triumphal tour of Europe. In 1911, he was awarded a medal by the U.S. Congress as well as a retirement pension. The Pearys divided their time between their homes in Maine and Washington, D.C., raising their two children. Robert Peary died in 1920 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Even before his death, Robert's claims of reaching the North Pole and discovering various other Arctic regions were being critically examined. With the passage of time, most polar scholars have come to doubt his claims. For all his flaws, he was in many ways the embodiment of a traditional, stubbornly heroic figure, and Jo helped him in the pursuit of his goals by working to secure vitally needed public support for his expeditions. It is quite possible that without her vigorous intervention on his behalf in 1895, Robert might have lost his life. As his widow, she remained loyal to her husband's memory, choosing to avoid comment on the many bitter controversies that swirled around his legacy as an explorer.

After her husband's death, she never returned to Greenland. Jo Peary lived in Maine to an advanced age and, on May 6, 1955, was awarded a special gold medal by the National Geographic Society in recognition of her contributions to Robert E. Peary's expeditions to North Greenland and the Arctic regions of Canada. She died soon after, in Portland, Maine, on December 19, 1955.


Bergmann, Linda S. "Women Against a Background of White: The Representation of Self and Nature in Women's Arctic Narratives," in American Studies. Vol. 34, no. 2. Fall 1993, pp. 53–68.

Heckathorn, Ted. "Peary, Josephine Diebitsch," in John A. Garraty et al., eds., American National Biography. Vol. 17. NY: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 215–217.

Herbert, Wally. The Noose of Laurels: Robert E. Peary and the Race to the North Pole. NY: Doubleday, 1989.

Keeney, Arthur H. and Virginia T. Keeney. "From Louisville to the North Pole: Did Peary Leave Verhoeff to Die?," in Filson Club History Quarterly. Vol. 70, no. 2, 1996, pp. 130–142.

Peary, Josephine Diebitsch. Children of the Arctic. NY: F.A. Stokes, 1903.

——. My Arctic Journal. NY: Contemporary, 1893.

——. The Snow Baby: A True Story with True Pictures. 5th ed. NY: F.A. Stokes, 1901.

Peary, Robert E. Northward over the Great Ice. 2 vols. NY: F.A. Stokes, 1898.

Stafford, Marie Ahnighito Peary. The Red Caboose with Peary in the Arctic. NY: William Morrow, 1932.

——. The Snowbaby's Own Story. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, 1934.

Stafford, Marie Peary. "The Peary Flag Comes to Rest," in National Geographic Magazine. Vol. 106, no. 4. October 1954, pp. 519–532.

Tamplin, Ronald, ed. Famous Love Letters: Messages of Intimacy and Passion. Pleasantville, NY: Reader's Digest, 1995.

Weems, John Edward. Peary: The Explorer and the Man. Los Angeles, CA: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1988.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia