Peary, Robert Edwin (1856-1920), a United States naval officer and Arctic explorer. Peary generally has been credited with leading the first expedition to reach the North Pole. Peary claimed to have arrived at the Pole on April 6, 1909, accompanied by four Eskimos and Matthew Henson, a black, his longtime valet and companion. A few days earlier, Dr. Frederick Cook had declared that he had reached the North Pole on April 21, 1908. Peary called Cook's claim fraudulent. Both claimants, however, had their supporters. A bitter dispute raged for years before most authorities dismissed Cook's claim and gave Peary sole credit.
Because of the difficulty of verifying any claim to have reached the Pole, controversy has persisted over the years. Scholarly review of Peary's diaries and other records in the 1980's again raised questions: Did he reach the Pole? If not, did he think he did? Or did he know he had not reached it but claimed to have done so? In an attempt to resolve the controversy, the National Geographic Society commissioned the Navigation Foundation to investigate Peary's claim. In 1989 the foundation announced that its findings supported Peary.
Whether he reached the Pole or not, Peary did make substantial contributions in the field of polar exploration. Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson said that Peary's “great contribution to polar discovery lay in the fact that he introduced commonsense methods.” He gave painstaking attention to detail. He learned the hunting and fishing methods of the Eskimos and adopted their clothing and shelter. He also invented an improved stove and sledge.
This article presents the traditional account of Peary's discovery.
Peary was born in Cresson, Pennsylvania, and grew up in Maine. He received an engineering degree from Bowdoin College in 1877 and became a naval officer in 1881. Peary was assistant engineer of a Nicaraguan canal survey, 1884-85, and headed the project, 1887-88. Meanwhile he took a leave of absence in 1886 and went on his first Arctic expedition, to Greenland.
Peary was engaged in Arctic exploration from 1891 onward. On his expedition of 1893-95, he was accompanied by his wife, Josephine. She gave birth to a daughter, Marie, at Whale Sound, Greenland, the first white baby born that far north. In 1902 Peary attained 84º 17' north latitude, the farthest point north reached in the Western Hemisphere. On that expedition eight of his toes were amputated because of frostbite. For his seventh trip, 1905-06, Peary designed the Roosevelt, a superior ice-breaking vessel. He set a new record, reaching 87º 6' north latitude, 174 nautical miles (322 km) from the Pole.
At 52, Peary knew his next attempt to reach the Pole would probably be his last. On September 5, 1908, he arrived at Cape Sheridan in Grant Land (the northern part of Ellesmere Island) and established winter quarters there. He divided his party into several groups, each of which was to precede his own, breaking trail. On February 28 and March 1, 1909, the party—24 men, of whom 17 were Eskimos, and 133 dogs—left camp. They headed straight north for the Pole, 413 nautical miles (765 km) away.
For lack of supplies, the last trailbreaking group was sent south on April 1. That left Peary with his five companions. The Peary party made good time. On arrival, Peary spent 30 hours at the Pole, making observations. Through a hole in the ice he let down a plummet to 9,000 feet (2,743 m) without finding bottom.
Peary was exhausted and ill from a throat infection, but with better knowledge of the ice fields and a lighter load, the party returned in 16 days. The Rooseveltreached the Labrador coast in early September and relayed to Peary's sponsors, the Peary Arctic Club, the message: “Stars and Stripes nailed to the Pole. Peary.”
Peary wrote The North Pole(1910) andSecrets of Polar Travel(1917). He was retired as a rear admiral in 1911. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Peary Land, a peninsula of northern Greenland that he explored, is named for him.