The Pole at last!!! The prize of three centuries, my dream and ambition for 23 years, Mine at last....
- Robert Peary, 1909
Robert Peary can easily be categorized as one of America's most courageous explorers of all time. Peary and loyal assistant, Mathew Henson, set a standard for numerous other adventurous pioneers to push the boundaries of world exploration. On April 6, 1909, Peary and crew became the first men in history to reach the North Pole.
In the beginning
Robert Edwin Peary was born in Cresson, Pennsylvania, on May 6, 1856. He was an only child. Robert's father passed away shortly after the family had moved to southern Maine, which left only his mother to rear him.
After graduating from Portland High School in 1877, Peary pursued civil engineering at Bowdoin College in Brunswick. While at college, Robert rowed for his class crew, became a member of both Delta Kappa Epsilon and Phi Beta Kappa fraternities, dabbled in taxidermy, and researched various outdoor survival techniques. After graduating from college, Robert surveyed the little town of Fryeburg as its new civil engineer.
Work as a Fryeburg public servant was a respectable career, but Peary missed that "spark" that small town life could not offer. In 1879, he moved to Washington, D.C., to take a job working for the Coast and Geodetic Survey. In 1881, he endeavored to find that missing spark of adventure by becoming a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Civil Engineers Corps.
Peary's first assignment in the Navy was to work on the Inter-Oceanic Ship Canal Project. Those orders would eventually prove successful in exploring Nicaragua's interior, but the plans for building a canal across that country were never realized.
Prior to departing for Nicaragua, Peary met an African-American store clerk in Washington, D.C., by the name of Mathew Henson. Peary and Henson found that they shared the same passion for exploration, which landed Henson a job on the expedition in Nicaragua. The two pioneers established a loyal friendship that would undergird their enthusiasm for perilous and uncharted expeditions. Mathew Henson accompanied Peary on every expedition from then on.
In 1886, Peary and Henson conducted their first expedition to the interior of Greenland. On the trek to the middle reaches of that frigid land, Henson did his homework. He interacted with the native Inuit people, while learning about dog sledding, hunting, fur clothing, and building an ice shelter. Although Peary tended to ignore those native arts at first, he eventually recognized their importance and began to master the art of native living.
In 1888, Peary married the daughter of a linguist, Josephine Diebitch, at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. By June 1891, Josephine set sail for northern Greenland with Peary and his small expeditionary crew aboard the Kite.
While wintering in McCormick Bay (halfway between the Artic Circle and the North Pole), Josephine expressed her fondness for the expedition by beginning a daily diary, which she later had published as My Arctic Journal. Diebitch's book portrays the crew's struggles and advances during Arctic conditions in a kind of "beautiful light," contrary to cynical newspaper critics who depicted northern lands as dark and desolate. Diebitch made two trips two McCormick Bay with Peary and his crew.
Peary made numerous trips to Greenland throughout the 1890s. His exploration during that decade revealed that Greenland was actually an island, and established that the best route from America to the North Pole was by way of Ellesmere Island, instead of navigating through Greenland waters. Furthermore, Peary became credited with discovering three huge chunks of iron meteorite while visiting Cape York, Greenland.
Reaching for the pole
In 1898, Peary and crew set sail aboard the Winward for a four-year expedition to reach the North Pole. Although the crew had traveled farther north than anyone had ever been, they turned back 390 miles short of reaching the farthest northern reaches possible.
With a Peary-Henson die-hard attitude, the crew made another attempt for the pole in 1905 aboard the Roosevelt. Although the newly built Roosevelt was constructed to withstand masses of shifting ice, the crew fell 200 miles short of reaching their destination.
Victory in the North
Although Peary's numerous expeditions set small milestones in Arctic exploration, it just was not enough for a man who had dedicated 26 years of his life towards reaching one goal, the Pole. On July 6, 1908, Peary and his crew of 23 set sail over ice from Canada's Ellesmere Island aboard the Roosevelt for a land that has no east or west.
In the spring of 1909, Peary, Henson, Robert Bartlett, Donald B. MacMillan, and 19 other men left the ship to attempt the remaining journey with 133 dogs and 19 sleds. Peary, Henson, and four Inuit men, Oatah, Egingwah, Seegloo, and Ookeah, eventually became the only six men still heading north as they attempted their last leg of the journey.
On April 6, 1909, after losing a total of eight toes in a dozen years of Arctic conditions, Robert Peary finally made peace with God by placing the American flag at the Earth's northernmost point.
Peary's return home
American explorer Frederick Cook, who had served as the ship doctor on one of Peary's earlier Arctic journeys, claimed to have reached the North Pole a year prior to Peary. The claim initially stripped Peary of his glory, until two Inuit men, who had been on Cook's expedition, revealed that the photographic evidence was not actually far enough north. In fact, Cook was about 100 miles short of Peary's final destination.
Following a Congressional inquiry in 1911, Peary once again was declared the first man to reach the North Pole, while the fraudulent Cook ended up serving seven years in prison for other lies involving a 1923 oil-well swindle.
Shortly after the inquiry, Peary retired from the Navy (1911) with the rank of rear admiral, when he went on to spend most of his time writing three books about his explorations.
Paying the price
The punishing climate of the Arctic had turned Peary into an old man prematurely. In 1920, after giving the world an important look into Inuit culture and the possibilities of travel in extremis, Robert Peary passed away at the age of 63 in Washington, D.C. Peary's right-hand man, Mathew Henson, went on to a long and prosperous life despite the hardships of racism.
It was not until Henson's later years that he became recognized as a true American explorer and researcher, when he was accepted as a member of the prestigious Explorer's Club. In 1988, Henson's remains were moved from New York City to a plot adjacent to Robert and Josephine at the Arlington National Cemetery.