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 on Robert Edwin Peary

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).