Robert Edwin Peary stood shakily as his steamer pushed farther north than any ship ever had under its own power.
His discomfort resulted in part from “an enormous squadron of floating icebergs,” but also from his incomplete feet. He lost eight toes to frostbite years before, and although doctors said his exploring days were over Peary refused to stop until he’d accomplished his life’s goal of reaching the North Pole.
He persevered through repeated failures. Indeed, days before one Eskimo hunter greeted Peary with the warm words: “You are like the sun. You always come back.” Only, Peary knew this time he would not be returning. He intended to reach the North Pole or perhaps die trying.
The 1908-09 North Pole expedition marked Peary’s seventh trip above the Arctic Circle within the preceding 22 years. He’d lived in that frigid climate for nearly half that time, exploring thousands of miles of ice-covered land and water, and becoming the most experienced Arctic traveler who had ever lived. He paid a heavy price, however.
Though only 52-years-old, his face appeared much older, bearing deep lines and a weathered look. His red hair had started turning gray. He walked by shuffling his feet—the result of his lost toes. Still, in trying to become the first person to reach the North Pole, Peary would not have traded his hard-earned experience for anything. It allowed him the knowledge to handpick the 49 best Inuit natives, and 246 of their hardiest dogs. They, along with the 19 Americans he brought with him, would serve as Peary’s most important asset in an undertaking that was bold in conception and staggering in logistics.
Listing just some of the supplies: 300 tons of coal, 70 tons of whale meat, 50 walrus carcasses, 5 tons of sugar, 8 tons of flour and 15 tons of pemmican (a high-energy food made of fat, spices, and dried-meat). All this was necessary for what Peary called his “last and supreme effort,” his final attempt to gain, “the last great geographical prize, the North Pole.” Born in Cresson, Pennsylvania, in 1856,
Robert Edwin Peary grew up in Maine, where his family moved while he was a young boy. He graduated from Bowdoin College. In 1881, he accepted an officer’s commission in the Navy’s Civil Engineer Corps. Along with steady employment he’d keep until retirement, the job came with one enormous perk: long stretches of paid leave during which he could go exploring.
Peary arranged these “vacations” through great determination and lucky timing. In the last decades of the 1800s, America was overflowing with energy, eager to prove itself on the world stage. Peary presented his discoveries as great American accomplishments, adroitly using patriotism to convince his superiors for time off. The Arctic became Peary’s passion. He first explored Greenland, where he became only the second man to go overland across that country’s barren, inland ice cap.
He mapped much of Greenland’s northern coast and proved it to be an island. Beginning on this first trip, Robert Peary revolutionized Arctic travel by adopting Eskimo practices. Previous white explorers refused to consider that any native, anywhere in the world, could offer anything useful. They dismissed native knowledge, if not native culture altogether. (Peary himself suffered from this mindset somewhat, referring to all natives as “my Eskimos” and often not bothering to learn specific tribe names.) Peary, however, accepted the superiority of some native customs.
He learned the importance of living off the land whenever possible, hunting polar bears, walruses, musk-oxen and hares to supplement his food supply. He adopted Eskimo clothes. No western material matched the warmth provided by deerskin parkas, bearskin pants and sealskin boots. He abandoned tents, and their bulky weight that slowed down travel, in favor of igloos, which were warmer and more wind resistant.
Finally, Peary embraced dog power. Previous explorers used their own men to pull sledges. This exhausted the men, which contributed to several fatalities in earlier polar expeditions. Peary selected Canadian Inuit dogs from tribes along Greenland’s west coast. As he gained knowledge, he specifically targeted dogs from the Smith Sound area—widely considered the best of any in the region.
Not that Peary understood dogs immediately. On his first sledding expedition, Peary received a serious bite on his hand when tackling a recalcitrant dog. Nonetheless, he gained an immediate and lasting respect. “They are sturdy, magnificent animals,” Peary wrote.
Indeed, Canadian Inuit dogs weighed about 70 pounds, and could pull 100 pounds over twenty miles with little difficulty. “There may be larger dogs than these, there may be handsomer dogs; but I doubt it,” Peary continued. “Other dogs may work as well or travel as fast and far when fully fed; but there is no dog in the world that can work so long in the lowest temperatures on practically nothing to eat.” The explorer learned his way with dogs and sleds though he never became particularly skilled with either.
In fact, Peary rarely drove a team. He preferred to walk in front of his expedition, selecting its path. Peary harnessed his dogs around the chest and shoulders, using traces made of walrus hide stitched together by Eskimo women. He drove his teams in a fan-shaped pattern, rather than in pairs. On later trips, when his feet became crippled with pain, he sometimes rode prostrate in a sled. Peary tried to prevent anyone from knowing this, however, because it was considered effete.
Peary lost eight toes during his 1898-99 Greenland expedition. After traveling through temperatures as low as 69-degrees below zero, Peary took off his boots and several frostbitten toes snapped off instantly. The party doctor amputated what remained of the deadened toes. With only the pinkie-toe remaining on each foot, Peary later underwent surgery to even things out and soften the stumps.
Another persistent problem Peary contracted around this time was a polar form of scurvy similar to anemia. Eskimos avoided this by eating raw meat from fresh kills. Peary disdained this practice, considering it repulsive. In at least one case, Peary improved upon Eskimo wisdom by building a bigger, heavier sled.
Peary eschewed the 9-foot long Eskimo models in favor of ones 12 or 13-feet in length. Made of willow, each sledge could carry 500-pounds. Because of their increased size, this load could be spread out more evenly, which lowered the center of gravity and resulted in fewer overturns. They also proved sturdier than native models. While his instinct with sleds proved correct, it resulted as much from personal bias as from keen intellect. Peary never quite shook his culture’s dominant attitude of white superiority. He borrowed whatever seemed useful, but disregarded much of Eskimo life.
For instance, he never bothered to perfect their language, halting his education after acquiring only a rudimentary vocabulary. This prejudice did not; however, prevent Peary from reportedly fathering two children with a native Greenlander named Allakasingwah. These children arrived near the same time of the two he sired with his American wife, Josephine. Josephine accompanied Peary on several polar expeditions, becoming the first white woman to winter in the Arctic. Josephine resented her rival, but Robert never apologized.
Perhaps Peary was just following an idea he concocted in 1885, after his first trip to Greenland. He wrote: “If colonization is to succeed in the polar region let white men take with them native wives, then from this union may spring a race combining the hardiness of the mothers with the intelligence of the fathers. Such a race would surely reach the Pole if their fathers did not succeed in doing it.” Peary suffered from several such personality flaws.
He treated all other white explorers as interlopers in his own personal polar playground. He controlled his Eskimo helpers with a style described as: “the iron hand ungloved.” Also, he hungered for acclaim. In an 1887 letter to his mother, Peary wrote: “My last trip brought my name to the world; my next will give me standing in the world. Remember, mother, I must have fame.”
No wonder Arctic historian Fergus Fleming described Peary as: “undoubtedly the most driven, possibly the most successful and probably the most unpleasant man in the annals of polar exploration.” After several excursions northward onto the polar ice cap, Peary formulated a brilliant strategy for his 1905-06 North Pole expedition. First, he designed a boat, the Roosevelt, to carry him to a winter base on the northern tip of Ellesmere Island.
The Roosevelt—named after President Teddy who helped Peary secure more paid leave—worked as essentially the world’s first icebreaker. It also had a specialized hull, 30-inches thick reinforced with a steel casing, that escaped freezing ice by squeezing out above it. Resting atop the ice, the ship provided a safe winter base until spring temperatures thawed it free again. Thanks to the Roosevelt, Peary started his 1906 North Pole expedition 300 miles farther north than previous trips.
This started him only 450 miles from his target. Peary bet on his second great invention to cover those remaining miles. Disagreeing with the long-held belief that only a small party with less need for supplies and a faster speed could reach the Pole, Peary developed a strategy that involved over 30 men, a similar number of sleds, and over 100 dogs.
Dividing this force into six groups, five units worked solely to make travel easier for the sixth. These supporting divisions took turns blazing a trail, building igloos, and setting up supply depots. Expending all their energy in this effort, these five groups would drop out one-by-one and the sixth, rested and ready, would slingshot past them to the pole. Humbly enough, the explorer named this: “the Peary system.” Unfortunately, this 1906 expedition encountered all possible pitfalls and perils associated with Arctic exploration. Temperatures regularly dropped to 50-below.
Constant high winds heightened the cold, and impeded progress. The ice proved uneven and unwelcoming. The Arctic Ocean icecap is not static, but rather moves constantly in great upheaval. Tides, currents, and winds press and pull the ice in different directions. As Peary explained, it is far from being “a gigantic skating pond with a level floor over which the dogs drag us merrily.” Pressure ridges and leads presented the two greatest troubles. Pressure ridges formed when two sheets of ice slammed into one another. This formed crests sometimes over 50-feet high. Men overcame ridges by lifting sleds and supplies up and over. Learning quickly, dogs used this time to nap. Leads were, as Peary wrote, the Arctic explorer’s “ever-present nightmare.”
Leads resulted when the icecap ripped open, creating an expanse of open water. They opened anywhere, anytime, without warning. One night, a lead cut Peary’s camp into two different parties. Another lead swallowed up an entire team of dogs (they were rescued though). Humans could do nothing about leads except wait for the water to freeze, or for wind and currents to return both sides together. Early in this 1906 expedition, a gigantic lead stopped all progress. Peary and his men waited an entire week before it closed. They went only a short distance before a gale roared up and again made travel impossible. Another week passed before tolerable conditions returned.
After taking a positional reading, Peary found to his astonishment that shifting ice had moved him 70 miles to the east. Cut off from supply caches and support teams both in front and behind, Peary knew the Pole was lost. His party survived by eating their dogs. While no person died during the 1906 debacle, only 41 of the original 121 dogs returned. Feeling old and decrepit, Peary feared that he’d forever lost his opportunity. Peary said: “It seemed to me then that the story of my life was told and that the word failure was stamped across it.” This melancholy lasted only a short while, however. When Peary heard others were trying for the North Pole, he gathered money for a new attempt. Peary required help from wealthy patrons because each trip cost several million dollars in today’s money.
A new Peary expedition left New York on July 6, 1908. Peary followed the same strategy as before, organizing 24 men, 19 sleds and 133 dogs into six divisions. Each dog received a daily ration of one pound of pemmican. Men enjoyed that, plus biscuits, condensed milk, and tea. Staying true to the “Peary system,” the lead group left Ellesmere on February 28, 1909, and the last group departed on March 1st. The first day got off to an inauspicious start when Matthew Henson, Peary’s closest companion, stopped because his sled broke. Henson described the repair: “Undo the lashings, unload the load, get out the brace and bit and bore new holes, taking plenty of time, for, in such cold, there is danger of the steel bit breaking. Then, with ungloved hands, thread the sealskin thongs through the hole. The fingers freeze.
Stop work, hand under your armpit, and when you feel it burning you know it has thawed out. Then start to work again.” More bad luck hit the second day when Peary noticed “a dark ominous cloud” ahead. Such clouds formed over leads because evaporating water quickly condensed in frigid air creating, “a fog so dense that at times it looks as black as the smoke of a prairie fire.” Luckily, that lead shifted closer together overnight. Peary guided his team across using ice chunks as stepping-stones. “Imagine crossing a river on a succession of giant shingles, all afloat and moving,”
Peary wrote, and then you could, “form an idea of the uncertain surface over which we crossed.” Days later, a monstrous lead blocked their progress. A quarter of a mile wide, stretching beyond sight in either direction, this “Big Lead,” as the men called it, stymied them for seven days. Peary said of this “intolerable inaction” that: “Altogether, I think that more of mental wear and tear was crowded into those days than into all the rest of the fifteen months we were absent from civilization.” Finally, on March 11, a thin layer of ice covered the lead and Peary guided a risky crossing. The young ice held, but leads continued to be a problem throughout. Henson almost drowned in one, and Peary himself took some unwelcome swims, as did most of the dogs.
On April 1, when 133 miles from the North Pole, the last support group turned back leaving Peary to make one final dash. He handpicked five men to accompany him. His faithful companion, Matthew Henson, came, as did the four best Eskimo sled drivers: Ootah, Egingwah, Seegloo, and Ooqueah. Peary also selected the five sturdiest sleds and the 40 healthiest dogs. This exceptional crew began averaging over 20 miles a day. Having the end in sight helped. Peary wrote that even the dogs “caught the high spirits of the party. Some of them even tossed their heads and barked and yelped as they traveled.” Finally, on April 6, 1909, Peary reached his target. He wrote in his journal: “The Pole at last! The prize of three centuries. My dream and goal for twenty years. Mine at last!” He then planted the Stars and Stripes into the ice and claimed the North Pole for the United States.
The men did not stay long to savor their discovery. Needing to return over hundreds of miles of ice made more dangerous by the springtime thaw, they left on April 7. They made excellent time. With a trail already blazed, igloos waiting for them along the way, and compliant weather, they reached base camp on April 23. Peary returned to America a hero. He retired in 1911 after Congress awarded him a Rear Admiral’s pension in gratitude of his discoveries. He spent most of his remaining years on Eagle Island, off the coast of Maine.
He died on February 20, 1920, from the lasting effects of anemia, that polar blood disease he’d contracted years before.
Matthew HensonIt’s possible that Robert Peary would never have reached the North Pole without the help of his African-American assistant Matthew Henson. The two met at a Washington D.C. hat shop when Henson was 21-years-old and Peary ten years his senior. Peary hired him then and there, and the two became inseparable.
Eskimos liked Henson, considering him a brother because of their similar skin colors. They called him “Mahri-Pahluk,” which meant “Matthew the Kind One.” He nurtured this relationship by speaking their language fluently. Because of this, Peary (who never became skilled in the native tongue) relied upon Henson to handle many of his Eskimo affairs, including hiring, firing and negotiating. Beside this task, Henson oversaw the building of the expedition’s igloos.
He also, in the words of Peary, could handle a sledge better than “any other man living, except some of the best of the Eskimo hunters themselves.” Henson died in 1955 at 89-years-old, but supporters believed it wrong that he should be separated in death from his friend and mentor. So, in 1988, Henson was reinterred near Admiral Peary in Arlington National Cemetary.
Did Peary Reach the North Pole First—If At All? Before the discovery of the North Pole, adventurers followed a creed of gentlemanly behavior based upon a Victorian sensibility. Nearly any discovery was taken upon the word of the man claiming it. Scientific proof was, of course, preferred, but not absolutely necessary. This all changed after Peary returned in 1909. Ever since, explorers have been required to show verifiable proof.
This change resulted because just five days before Peary announced he had discovered the North Pole another American claimed the same thing. Dr. Frederick Cook, a former friend and employee of Peary’s, stated he discovered it a year earlier, on April 21, 1908. He took so long sending a telegraph because he, and his two Eskimo companions, had not made it back to civilization during their return and were forced to endure another winter isolated from outside contact. Understanding the threat this posed to his legacy and earning potential, Peary immediately started to attack. He found Cook’s two companions and procured statements from them testifying the doctor had not gone anywhere near the North Pole.
Despite these affidavits, public sentiment initially favored Cook. He certainly possessed the correct pedigree. He had explored the Arctic with Peary and the Antarctic with Roald Amundson. He achieved worldwide fame for being the first man to climb Mount McKinley in 1906. Of course, it helped that the New York Herald championed his cause in daily headlines. (Having paid Cook $25,000 for his story, they had a stake in his vindication.
The New York Times, however, backed Peary for similar reasons. The bitter fight between Cook and Peary, the Herald and Times, commanded worldwide attention.)Both men drew serious questions from skeptics. Cook failed to provide any scientific proof of his journey. Inexplicably, he’d left his scientific instruments and journal back in Greenland, and they were never found. Cook refused to supply any documentation to any American review board.
He did allow access to the University of Copenhagen, but they decided that Cook’s claim was unproven at best. This crippling verdict came at the same time that Edward Barrill, Cook’s companion on the McKinley ascent, revealed that Cook lied about reaching the summit. Peary, meanwhile, gave his journals, readings, instruments and supporting affidavits to the National Geographic Society (containing several pro-Peary members but still highly respected), which subsequently affirmed his accomplishment.
Public opinion has favored Peary ever since, albeit with lingering questions. Nobody with Peary possessed the skills to independently verify the North Pole readings, so the proof still depends upon Peary’s honesty. Also, Peary’s claims to have traveled more than 20 miles a day on the final leg of his journey, and at least that fast throughout the return, drew serious doubts. The debate rages still today. The Frederick A. Cook Society—funded by a large bequest from his granddaughter—promotes pro-Cook articles and books.
Despite this, very few today believe he reached the North Pole. His photographs atop Mount McKinley, for instance, have been completely discredited. His reputation suffered even more when he was convicted for stock fraud in 1923 and spent five years in federal prison. Conversely, nearly all of Peary’s detractors still admit he got close to the Pole.
Many people have retraced Peary’s path on dogsleds and matched or beat his time, proving his record speed to be possible. Also, modern photographic analysis leads many to think that Peary’s pictures show sun positions and shadows only possible at the North Pole. Certainly, Peary’s irascible personality prevented many from wanting to honor him, but that perhaps provides the best summary of this controversy.
One contemporary, a supporter of the doctor who later changed his opinion in favor of the Admiral, said: “Cook was a liar and a gentleman. Peary was neither.”