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Robert Edwin PearyRobert E. Peary

leader of the first "land" expedition to the North Pole

Robert Edwin Peary was born in Cresson, Pennsylvania, on May 6, 1856. He graduated from Bowdoin College in1877, served as a draftsman for the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey in Washington, D.C., from 1879 to 1881, and became a civil engineer in the United States Navy, with the rank of Lieutenant, in 1881. From 1884 to 1885 and from 1887 to 1888, Peary worked on surveys for a canal across Nicaragua. He served as assistant engineer during the first period, and chief engineer during the second.

Peary's first foray into the Arctic came in 1886, when he made a trip into the interior of Greenland. This experience interested him in undertaking further expeditions to explore the uncharted Arctic regions, and upon his return to the United States he began courting the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences for its support in sponsoring such explorations. In 1891 the Academy put him charge of a polar expedition. Setting out from Inglefield Gulf on the northwest coast of Greenland in the spring of 1892, Peary accompanied Norwegian explorer Eivind Astrup to the northeast coast, thereby proving that Greenland is an island. During this expedition Peary discovered and named Independence Bay on the northern coast of Greenland, on July 4, 1892. He also studied the Cape York Eskimos, the most northerly people in the world. Other expeditions between 1893 and 1897 also resulted in important scientific discoveries about the nature of the polar regions. In 1898, Peary published Northward over the Great Ice, an account of his work and discoveries to that time.

In 1897, Peary was granted a five-year leave of absence from the Navy to continue his exploration of the Arctic. The following year, he set out in the Windward on a voyage that he hoped would result in discovery of the North Pole. He was gone for four years, but did not succeed in his main purpose. His party surveyed the northern coast of Greenland and reached a latitude of 84 17' 27", about 390 miles south of the North Pole, the farthest north that anyone had then gone in the Western Hemisphere. The expedition also reached Greenland's northernmost point, which Peary named Cape Morris Jessup, in honor of the president of the American Museum of Natural History. Most importantly, however, Peary gained an intimate knowledge of Eskimo survival skills that would serve him well in his future expeditions and established advance placements of supply depots in developing the so-called Peary System of Arctic travel.

Promoted to Commander upon his return to the United States, Peary began making preparations for another expedition almost immediately. On July 16, 1905, he and his party set sail from New York City aboard the Roosevelt, a ship he had had especially built for the purpose, with two years' supplies on board. The Roosevelt wintered on the north coast of Ellesmere Island, and on February 21, 1906, the party set out across the ice fields of the Arctic Ocean. The expedition reached latitude 87 6', establishing a new "farthest north" record, but was forced to turn back about 200 miles from the pole because of melting ice and bad weather. Peary's book Nearest the Pole (1907) tells of this journey.

In 1908, Peary again set out in the Roosevelt for the North Pole. After wintering at Ellesmere Island, Peary's expedition set out across the ice from Cape Columbia on March 1, 1909. The party moved in sections, one in front of another, and one after another of the group turned back as supplies diminished. Only four Eskimos and Peary's chief assistant, Matthew A. Henson, were with Peary when, on April 6, 1909, the North Pole was reached. The group spent 30 hours at the pole, taking soundings that proved that the sea around the North Pole is not a shallow body of water as had been believed, before setting out on the return trip. The party, with the exception of one drowned, returned safely to the Roosevelt, which left her winter quarters on July 18 and reached civilization on September 5. [Pictures from Peary's Expedition]

Peary announced his achievement to the world on September 6, 1909. However, another American explorer, Frederick A. Cook, had announced, just a week before Peary's return, that he had reached the pole in April 1908, a full year before Peary. Cook's claim was proven to be false upon examination by experts, however, and Peary was eventually given credit for being the first to reach the North Pole. (For the record, Matthew Henson was actually the first to reach the pole, as he preceded Peary on the final trek.) Peary's account of his trip was published under the title The North Pole: Its Discovery in 1909 in 1910.

In 1911, the year Peary retired from the Navy, the Congress of the United States finally recognized his discovery as unimpeachable, and he was given the rank of Rear Admiral. That same year he was a delegate to the International Polar Commission in Rome. In 1917, during World War I, Peary was appointed chairman of the National Aerial Patrol Commission. He died in Washington, D.C., on February 20, 1920, and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

The American Experience: Alone on the Ice
Arlington National Cemetery

Matthew A. Henson
World War I

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The Robinson Library >> Geography >> Arctic and Antarctic Regions

This page was last updated on 02/19/2017.