|Rear Admiral Robert Peary|
Peary in naval uniform circa 1911
|Born||Robert Edwin Peary|
May 6, 1856
|Died||February 20, 1920 (aged 63)|
|Alma mater||Bowdoin College|
|Known for||Geographic North Pole|
|Spouse(s)||Josephine Diebitsch Peary|
|Children||Marie Ahnighito Peary|
Robert Edwin Peary Jr.
Kali Peary (by Aleqasina)
|Awards||Cullum Geographical Medal(1896)|
Charles P. Daly Medal (1902)
Hubbard Medal (1906)
Robert Edwin Peary Sr. (May 6, 1856 – February 20, 1920) was an American explorer who claimed to have reached the geographic North Pole with his expedition on April 6, 1909. Peary's claim was widely credited for most of the 20th century, rather than the competing claim by Frederick Cook, who said he got there a year earlier. Both claims were widely debated in newspapers until 1913.
Based on an evaluation of Peary's records, British polar explorer Wally Herbert concluded in a 1989 book that Peary did not reach the pole, although he may have been as close as 60 miles (97 km). His conclusions have been widely accepted but are in turn disputed by other authorities. Altogether Peary made eight Arctic trips, his last two solely for the purpose of trying to reach the North Pole.
Robert Edwin Peary was born on May 6, 1856, in Cresson, Pennsylvania, to Charles N. and Mary P. Peary. After his father died in 1859, Peary's mother took the boy with her and settled in Portland, Maine. After growing up in Portland, Peary attended Bowdoin College, some 36 miles (58 km) to the north. He was a member of the Delta Kappa Epsilon and Phi Beta Kappa fraternities while at college. He graduated in 1877 with a civil engineering degree.
After college, Peary worked as a draftsman making technical drawings in Washington, DC, at the US Coast and Geodetic Survey office. He joined the United States Navy and on October 26, 1881, was commissioned as a civil engineer, with the relative rank of lieutenant. From 1884 to 1885 he was assistant engineer on the surveys for the Nicaragua Canal, and later became the engineer in charge. As reflected in a diary entry he made in 1885, during his time in the Navy, he resolved to be the first man to reach the North Pole.
In April 1886 he wrote a paper for the National Academy of Sciences proposing two methods for crossing Greenland's ice cap. One was to start from the west coast and trek about 400 miles (640 km) to the east coast. The second, more difficult path was to start from Whale Sound at the top of the known portion of Baffin Bay and travel north to determine whether Greenland was an island or if it extended all the way across the Arctic (1,300 miles). Peary was promoted to the rank of lieutenant commander on January 5, 1901, and to commander on April 6, 1902.
Peary made his first expedition to the Arctic in 1886, intending to cross Greenland by dog sled, taking the first of his own suggested paths. He was given six months' leave from the Navy, and he received $500 from his mother to book passage north and buy supplies. He sailed on a whaler to Greenland, arriving in Godhavn on June 6, 1886. Peary wanted to make a solo trek but a young Danish official named Christian Maigaard convinced him he would die if he went out alone. Maigaard and Peary set off together and traveled nearly 100 miles (160 km) due east before turning back because they were short on food. This was the second-farthest penetration of Greenland's ice sheet at that date. Peary returned home knowing more of what was required for long-distance ice trekking.
Back in Washington attending with the US Navy, Peary was ordered in November 1887 to survey likely routes for a proposed Nicaragua Canal. To complete his tropical outfit he needed a sun hat, so he went to a men's clothing store. There he met 21-year-old Matthew Henson, a black man working as a sales clerk. Learning that Henson had six years of seagoing experience as a cabin boy, Peary immediately hired him as a personal valet.
On assignment in the jungles of Nicaragua, Peary told Henson of his dream of Arctic exploration. Henson accompanied Peary on every one of his subsequent Arctic expeditions, becoming his field assistant and "first man," a critical member of his team.
On August 11, 1888, Peary married Josephine Diebitsch, a business school valedictorian who thought the modern woman should be more than just a mother. Diebitsch had started working at the Smithsonian Institution when she was 19–20 years old, replacing her father after he became ill and filling his position as linguist. She resigned from the Smithsonian in 1886 upon becoming engaged to Peary.
The newlyweds honeymooned in Atlantic City, New Jersey, then moved to Philadelphia because Peary was assigned there. Peary's mother accompanied them on their honeymoon and she moved into their Philadelphia apartment, but not without friction between the two women. Josephine told Peary that his mother should return to live in Maine.
They had two children together, Marie Ahnighito and Robert Peary, Jr. Due to his life as an explorer, Peary was frequently gone for years at a time. In their first twenty-three years of his marriage, he spent only three with his wife and family. He missed the birth of his son and his early death.
While in the Arctic years later, Peary had a long-term relationship with an Inuit woman, Aleqasina (who is estimated to have been 14 when they began). She bore him at least two children, including a son Kali, identified in the late 1980s when he was an octogenarian.
Second Greenland expedition
In 1891 Peary returned to Greenland, taking the second, more difficult route that he had laid out in 1886: traveling farther north to find out whether Greenland was a much larger landmass extending to the North Pole. He was financed by several groups, including the American Geographic Society, the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, and the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences. Members of this expedition included Peary's aide Henson, Dr. Frederick A. Cook, who served as the group's surgeon; and the expedition's ethnologist, Norwegian skier Eivind Astrup; bird expert and marksman Langdon Gibson, and John M. Verhoeff, who was a weatherman and mineralogist. Peary also took his wife along as dietitian, though she had no formal training. Newspaper reports criticized Peary for bringing his wife.
On June 6, 1891, the party left Brooklyn, New York, in the seal hunting ship SS Kite. In July, as Kite was ramming through sheets of surface ice, the ship's iron tiller suddenly spun around and broke Peary's lower leg; both bones snapped between the knee and ankle. Peary was unloaded with the rest of the supplies at a camp they called Red Cliff, and a dwelling was built for his recuperation during the next six months. Josephine stayed with Peary. Gibson, Cook, Verhoeff and Astrup hunted game by boat, and became familiar with the area and with the Inuit people.
Unlike most previous explorers, Peary had studied Inuit survival techniques; he built igloos during the expedition and dressed in practical furs in the native fashion. He adopted these practices both for heat preservation (furs) and to dispense with the extra weight of tents and sleeping bags when on the march by building igloos instead. Peary also relied on the Inuit as hunters and dog-drivers on his expeditions. He pioneered the system (which he called the "Peary system") of using support teams and establishing supply caches for Arctic travel. The Inuit were curious about the American party and came to visit Red Cliff. Josephine was bothered by the Inuit people's smell (they did not bathe), of their flea infestations and of their food. However, she studied the people and kept a journal of her experiences. In September 1891, Peary's men took dog sled teams and pushed inland onto the ice sheet, to lay caches of supplies. They did not go farther than 30 miles (50 km) from Red Cliff.
Peary's leg mended in February 1892. By April, he made some short trips with Josephine and an Inuit dog sled driver to native villages to purchase supplies. On May 3, 1892, Peary finally set out on the intended trek with Henson, Gibson, Cook and Astrup. At about the 150-mile (240 km) mark, Peary continued on with Astrup. The two found the 1,000-metre (3,300 ft) high view from Navy Cliff to be revealing: they saw Independence Fjord and concluded that Greenland was an island. The men trekked back to Red Cliff and got there on August 6, having traveled a total of 1,250 miles (2,010 km).