Robert Edwin Peary
an American explorer

1856 - 1920

Robert Edwin Peary, an American explorer, was one of the greatest Arctic travelers of all time. He became famous as the discoverer of the North Pole. However, some authorities have questioned whether Peary ever reached the pole.

In 1886, Peary traveled into the interior of Greenland. This experience interested him in undertaking further expeditions to explore the uncharted Arctic regions. In 1891, the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences put him in charge of an expedition to northern Greenland. On this trip, Peary proved that Greenland is an island. Other trips between 1893 and 1897 resulted in important scientific discoveries about the polar regions. Peary published an account of these trips in 1898 in Northward over the Great Ice.

In 1898, Peary set out in his ship Windward to discover the North Pole. He was gone four years but did not reach the pole. His party surveyed the northern coast of Greenland and reached a latitude of 84° 17' 27", about 390 miles south of the pole. This was the farthest north that anyone had then gone in the American Arctic.

In 1905, Peary tried again to reach the North Pole. He sailed in the Roosevelt, a ship designed to sail among floes (masses of moving ice). His party left the ship on the north coast of Ellesmere Island and pushed northward on sledges over the ice fields of the Arctic Ocean. The party reached latitude 87° 6', about 200 miles from the pole, a new "farthest north" record. But hardships forced the party to turn back. Peary's book Nearest the Pole (1907) tells of this journey.

In 1908, Peary again set out over the ice from Ellesmere Island, in a third attempt to reach the North Pole. On April 6, 1909, accompanied by four Eskimos and his chief assistant, Matthew Henson, Peary reached what he claimed was latitude 89° 57', 3 miles from the pole. But he was too tired to go farther. He slept for a few hours and then pushed on. Two of the Eskimos went with him, but Henson did not. Peary and the Eskimos crisscrossed the area. In this way, they tried to make sure that Peary passed as near as possible to the exact point of the pole. Peary claimed that he reached the pole on April 6. He took soundings proving that the sea near the North Pole is not a shallow body of water, as scientists had believed.

The news of Peary's discovery was not received enthusiastically. 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 year before Peary. But the U.S. Congress investigated Cook's claims and finally gave Peary credit for the discovery. Peary wrote an account of his trip in The North Pole (1910).

In 1988, the National Geographic Society asked Wally Herbert, a British polar explorer, to reexamine the journal Peary had kept during the third expedition. The society had helped support Peary's polar expeditions. Herbert found that the journal lacked entries for the days Peary said he had spent near the pole. Herbert also claimed that the journal contained evidence that Peary may have made navigational errors. According to Herbert, for example, Peary failed to adjust his route for a westward drift of the ice on which Peary was traveling. Also, Herbert noted that the expedition's chronometer, a special clock used in calculating location, had been 10 minutes fast. Herbert concluded that these and other problems may have taken Peary off course 30 to 60 miles to the west.

In 1989, however, a new study sponsored by the National Geographic Society concluded that Peary's final camp was probably no farther than 5 miles from the pole. The study was carried out by the Navigation Foundation, a professional navigation society based in the United States. The foundation examined photographs taken at the Peary camp and determined that the angle of the sun was nearly the same as it would have been at the pole at the time that Peary said the photographs were taken. The foundation also found that Peary's ocean-depth measurements agreed with modern measurements taken along the route that Peary claimed he followed. In addition, the study concluded that the westward drift of ice noted by Herbert had later been offset by an eastward drift.

Peary was born in Cresson, Pa., and graduated from Bowdoin College. From 1879 to 1881, he was a draftsman for the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey in Washington, D.C. He then became a civil engineer in the U.S. Navy. Peary retired from the Navy in 1911 with the rank of rear admiral.

Contributor: Barry M. Gough, D.Lit., Prof. of History, Wilfrid Laurier Univ.


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