Peary at the Pole
A hundred years after Maine’s own Robert Peary claimed to discover the North Pole, controversy continues to swirl around the com
- By: Andrew Vietze
April 6, 1909
Naval Commander Robert Peary is exhausted. Up ahead, across the shadowy ice at the top of the world, he can see what he believes to be his target. Over six feet tall, with red-brown hair and a big signature mustache, he takes a reading and finds himself at 89°57. That must be it, he says to himself, staring across a moonscape of frozen water. All he has to do is walk and he’ll realize his life-long goal — to be the first man to stand at 90°N. If only he can muster his feet, missing all but two toes from decades of travel in the arctic, to move in front of him.
“The accumulated weariness of all those days and nights of forced marches and insufficient sleep, constant peril and anxiety, seemed to roll across me all at once,” he wrote in his 1910 account of the journey. Rather than go stake his claim, Peary and his five-man crew built igloos and he climbed in for a “few hours of absolutely necessary sleep.”
When he wakes, he puts together a dog team and pushes off into the overcast toward the most northerly point on Earth. The entry for that day in his diary reads, in neat hand, with capitalization of the word like it was holy: “The Pole at last. The prize of three centuries. My dream and goal for twenty years. Mine at last!”
One hundred years later, and we’re still not sure if indeed it was. Like an arctic squall, controversy continues to swirl around Robert Peary, a naval engineer who grew up in Portland, went to Bowdoin College, and worked as a surveyor in Fryeburg. Critics called his claim to be the first at the pole a “hoax” and a “snow job.” Some say his African-American companion, Matthew Henson, strode to the site first. Others contend that nobody on the commander’s team ever made it anywhere near the pole.
Peary’s biggest challenge, though, came from Doctor Frederick A. Cook, who had been his staff surgeon on a previous expedition. Cook claimed he had reached the pole in April — of the year prior. The pair would duel in the press and, indeed, polarize the scientific community. They’d inspire congressional hearings, countless books and magazine pieces, and even a 1983 TV movie, starring Rod Steiger as Peary.
The story of Robert Peary is one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in the annals of exploration. Was he really first? Did he even get to the pole? Historians have been trying to answer these questions for a century without success. This past December, the state of Maine announced a grant that will allow Department of Conservation staff to digitize the papers Peary had stacked in the closet of his Eagle Island home. Will they find the truth in them?
Nearly everything in the circumstances which then surrounded us seemed too strange to be thoroughly realized,” Peary would write in his epic book, The North Pole, “but one of the strangest of those circumstances seemed to me to be the fact that, in a march of only a few hours, I had passed from the western to the eastern hemisphere and had verified my position at the summit of the world.”
The explorer had begun the journey to the top of the globe in Portland in the spring of 1908. There, he was fined for not having the proper papers in order for his ship, the Roosevelt. A three-masted, 184-foot, 1,500-ton steamer, she was built at McKay and Dix shipyard on Verona Island, near Bucksport, specifically to cut through arctic ice. When he designed her, Peary knew what he wanted. He’d made several previous voyages to the Arctic, and he’d found that his vessels could only get so far before they succumbed to the crushing ice. The Roosevelt was designed to ride up out of the ice-pack, with a hull almost three feet thick, heavy cross-bracing, and a pointed bow that allowed it to knife through even the toughest floes.
Peary estimated that the expedition would take him two years, and he was determined to be prepared. Dwindling supplies had forced him to turn around on too many occasions in the past. The ship was heavy with food and gear, carrying 16,000 pounds of flour, 1,000 pounds of coffee, 800 pounds of tea, 10,000 pounds of sugar, 7,000 pounds of bacon, 30,000 pounds of pemmican, 8,000 pounds of dried fish, 10,000 pounds of biscuit, 100 cases of condensed milk, and 1,000 pounds of tobacco.
On July 7, 1908 the real Roosevelt — President Theodore — came aboard the boat that bore his name in New York to wish the crew well. “He was very pleased to meet a man from Maine,” engineer Wardwell wrote in his diary, and he told them that hunting the North Pole “was good business” and that he wished he could accompany them.
She was finally ready and got under way with the hope of all New York seemingly with her. Huge crowds gathered along the East River to watch her make her way out to sea, giving her a send off “that for noise and well wishes has never been equalled on the East River waterfront,” according to the New York Times. Many of these well-wishers had helped the commander raise the necessary monies for the expedition, making donations as small as $10 and as much as $15,000.
Commander Peary wasn’t the only one captivated by the thought of reaching the North Pole. At the dawn of the twentieth century it was the pinnacle of exploration, one of the final frontiers left to be conquered. The rich of Europe had long hoped for a Northwest Passage to the silks and spices of the Far East, and many assumed they could just sail across the earth’s most northerly point. By the mid-nineteenth century, it was generally understood that the Arctic was a place of ice, but it was widely believed to be an actual continent with Greenland as a peninsula, rather than a floating mass. The race for the pole took on geopolitical significance.
“Countries were vying for it,” says Susan Kaplan, director of the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum at Bowdoin College. “There were theories at the time that there was land there with coal, a valuable resource, or that it was open and there were whales there, another valuable commodity.” Team after team — from England, Norway, Sweden, Russia — scurried north. They went by boat, and in 1897, by balloon. But they never got anywhere near the pole, which only added to their desire to do so.
Robert Peary felt this desire more keenly than anyone else. Born in Pennsylvania in 1856, he grew up in the Portland area, first in South Portland then on Munjoy Hill. In 1873, while still in high school, Peary went on a camping trip to an isle in Casco Bay. From there he could see the headlands of a neighboring island, and he was intrigued. He rowed over, walked around the seventeen-acre rock, and declared to himself that he would one day own it, picking out a spot for his house. For a couple of years after he graduated from Bowdoin, Peary lived with his mother in Fryeburg, where he worked as a surveyor and a taxidermist. He bought Eagle Island in 1877 with five hundred dollars of his first earnings.
Peary wouldn’t have much time to spend there. The year 1879 found the young engineer working as a draftsman for the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. Two years later, he enlisted in the navy and became a lieutenant in the Civil Engineering Corps. In 1884 he shipped out as second in command of an expedition looking for a canal through Nicaragua.
When he passed San Salvador, he described the island in his journal as looking as it did “almost four hundred years ago when it smiled a welcome to a man whose fame can be equaled only by him who shall one day stand with 360 degrees of longitude beneath his motionless feet and for whom the East and West shall have vanished — the discoverer of the North Pole.”
By the mid-nineteenth century the Brits had sent Sir John Franklin in search of the pole. He never returned. Meanwhile, American whaling ships were pushing ever farther north, and the English, eager to get to the pole first, sent another massive expedition to the end of the earth in 1875. They got to 83°20 before being pushed back.
Robert Peary would make his first voyage to the frozen north in 1886, sailing to Greenland on behalf of the navy, and it was there and then that the polar bug truly bit him. Peary realized that he wasn’t going to reach the pole the way everyone else had — boats weren’t the answer. He understood that the first order of business was to explore the boundaries of Greenland, and he returned to its frozen field in 1891, bringing with him his new bride, Josephine. This trek took the couple more than 1,300 miles around the tip of the great land mass. They discovered that it was not part of any continent but indeed the world’s largest island.
Peary returned to the north in 1893-1894 to continue his explorations of Greenland, where his wife gave birth to their first child, Marie Ahnighito (“the Snow Baby.”) He’d go back every few years and push ever upward, reaching 87°6 in 1902 — till then the farthest north any human had ever been. These expeditions to the end of the known world were fraught with risks, from cold, which regularly hit thirty below, to the shifting ice, which could chew through a ship. Engineer Wardwell described one close call in his journal: “Last night about 12:30 the ice began to come in and there was a very heavy pressure. We thought the ice was coming right over her, but it stopped about fifty feet from the ship and piled up fifty feet high.” On her maiden voyage, the Roosevelt’s engine room caught fire twice, her boilers quit, and the rudder snapped off.
And, of course, there were the denizens of the north. Peary’s wife, Josephine, wrote about the day angry walruses, some the size of automobiles, descended upon the ship. “There were at least 250 around us at one time and it seemed as if it would be impossible to keep the animals from attacking us; but by steady firing we managed to hold them at oar’s length . . . I thought it about an even chance whether I would be shot or drowned.”
Robert Peary took lessons home from each of these journeys, refining his plans. He borrowed Inuit sled designs and reworked them. He invented a new kind of alcohol stove. And he brought along snowshoes made by Mellie Dunham in Norway, Maine, which allowed him to better traverse deep sections of snow.
After leaving New York on what he declared would be his last journey in 1908, Peary sailed for a month, landing on the northwest shore of Greenland. There he took on several families of Inuits and 246 dogs. They spent the winter at Cape Sheridan and the commander made plans down to the smallest detail, building sledges and gathering caribou, polar bear, and musk ox meat. The Inuit woman sewed fur coats.
Come March, he was ready for the final push. His team consisted of seventeen Inuits, his longtime companion Matthew Henson, ship’s captain Robert Bartlett, and four other men, along with nineteen sledges and 133 dogs. They got within 135 nautical miles of their goal, at which point Peary decided to continue on with just four Inuits and Henson. On April 6, he made his claim.
The world wouldn’t hear about the discovery until September 5 — it took quite some time for the explorer to get back to “civilization” — when he sent a brief telegram to the Associated Press: “Stars and Stripes nailed to the North Pole, Peary.”
Reporters, however, were not impressed. Just days prior, Dr. Frederick Cook claimed that he had been to the pole the previous April, and he was being feted by the Danes, giving speeches and accepting huzzahs.
Peary was stunned. Instead of returning to worldwide acclaim, he found himself walking right into a scandal. On September 8, Peary came out and said his rival was lying, telling the New York Herald, “Cook has simply handed the public a gold brick. He’s not been at the pole April 21, 1908, or any other time.”
The sophisticated PR machine behind Peary’s effort, sponsored in part by National Geographic, quickly went to work to discredit Cook. They interviewed members of Peary’s team, who said that Inuit hunters who had traveled with Cook told them they were never out of sight of land, which meant that he couldn’t have made it to the pole. They talked to the fellow that accompanied Cook on his climb of Mount McKinley, who said he’d never made it to the top of that peak, and was a self-aggrandizer and a liar. And a pair of men came forward who swore in an affidavit that Cook hired them to craft a set of artificial astronomical observations that would have put him at the pole.
Cook was shamed and his claim largely debunked. He ended up going to jail for a Ponzi scheme. Peary emerged as the more credible of the two, but even so, his findings were heavily scrutinized. He hesitated for two months before allowing a National Geographic committee to examine his diary. This is where a great many of Peary’s detractors pick up the bait, among them, Robert Bryce, a scholar from Maryland who wrote the exhaustive, thousand-page Cook & Peary: The Polar Controversy Resolved, published in 1997.
Bryce spent eight years studying the two explorers, going through the papers at Eagle Island, Bowdoin College, and the Library of Congress. He thinks neither man reached the pole, and that Peary spent those months copying a new diary that supported his claim.
“Nobody can spend hundreds of hours reading Peary’s papers and not believe this was a man who was dishonest to the core,” Bryce says. “He made things up, and you can tell this was a man trying to figure out how he could most plausibly lie.”
Several details bothered Bryce. One was that the diary had no field marks — absent were the grease and dirt stains you’d expect on a book that had been dragged halfway across the earth. Another was that his handwriting was so neat, despite the fact that he would have been wearing mittens when he wrote it. “On a trip where temperatures were many
degrees below zero, even in a shelter, you’d have to wear mittens.”
Bryce says there are “many examples in Peary’s papers of suppression of material, many passages missing, and pages torn out.” The most glaring of these is in the diary of his 1906 trek when he supposedly ventured farther north than any human had before. “His modus operandi was pretty straightforward,” says Bryce. “He kept the smallest receipt for a thermos bottle, and yet he didn’t keep the original pages on which he recorded his
reaction to breaking a world record?”
On his rush to the pole, Peary claims to have put in seventy-mile days. Bryce thinks it was highly unlikely that this man who had only two toes and had difficulties with balance could make his way across a very uneven terrain in the time he say he did. Peary’s account of high speeds was also contradicted by Matthew Henson’s description of many detours around pressure ridges.
According to Bryce, Peary was a man obsessed with his goal and unwilling to publicly give up. He didn’t want to admit defeat, especially to those who had bankrolled him. “He was more afraid of failure than death.”
And he certainly didn’t want to come in second. “I’m not sure he would have claimed it if Cook hadn’t claimed it,” says Bryce. Based on his studies, the Maryland scholar doesn’t think either ever had a chance, given the technology of the time. “Peary could have gone up there until he was eight hundred, and he would never have reached the North Pole. No one still has ever reached the North Pole on a dogsled unresupplied.”
Susan Kaplan, director of the Peary Museum at Bowdoin, says that, whether or not he ever stepped on 90°N, Peary made commendable strides for Arctic exploration. “One of the questions is ‘How close is close enough?’ ” she says, pointing out a 1989 study commissioned by the National Geographic Society, in which the Navigation Foundation analyzed all of Peary’s data and concluded that he came within five miles of the pole. Kaplan says that’s good enough for her: “I think he was within five miles, and I think he proved the North Pole was not sitting on land.”
In 1951 Peary’s friend Matthew Henson — who, tellingly, never spoke again with Peary after the latter’s discovery of the pole — claimed he’d actually been the first one there. Henson told reporters that he’d walked in the lead of the party: “I was the first man that ever stepped feet on the pole.”
Was he? Was Peary? Who really knows? The first person to indisputably reach the pole was Ralph S. Plaisted, an insurance salesman from Minnesota, who did so by snowmobile in April of 1968.
Peary died in 1920, having achieved many of his greatest desires, from buying Eagle Island to his polar trip and the international fame it eventually brought. Congress gave him a formal thanks, geographical societies from around the world awarded him medals of honor. He was buried, a rear admiral, at Arlington National Cemetery.
The journals of Peary and his men have been paged through by scholars in search of a definitive answer. According to the historian Tom Desjardin for the Bureau of Parks and Lands, they’re unlikely to find much evidence in the material he has been digitizing since receiving a grant from the Davis Family Foundation and Stephen and Tabitha King.
“As far as one or two letters that are big ‘a-has,’ not yet,” he says. “So far we’re only through two boxes out of about forty. But I don’t suspect there is. It would probably be someplace else.” Most of Peary’s data went to other sources, like the Library of Congress, and Desjardin says what’s in this collection are mementos, clippings, and photographs that will help give a better picture of Peary but probably won’t solve the controversy.
“I find it fascinating that one hundred years later it’s still going,” says Susan Kaplan. Nations were jostling then to claim the pole, and today, they’re doing the same, interested in rights to oil drilling. “The problem is you can plant a flag and take a photograph, but back in 1909 what other proof would you have?” asks Kaplan. “You can’t send a helicopter or jet to confirm you were there.”
Donald MacMillan, the Bowdoin professor who accompanied Peary on his fateful expedition — up until the end, when he had to remain on the Roosevelt due to frozen feet — came to his friend’s defense in the book How Peary Reached the Pole, which McGill-Queen’s University Press has just republished.
“The North Pole is a needle point,” he wrote, “roughly in the middle of a great mass of moving ice. Today it may be a point on the surface of a pool of water, tomorrow the top of a small iceberg, a pin-point on a pressure ridge, a point in the snow.” Such a shifting target would be hard to nail for certain even with the most sophisticated tools. “No portable instrument is sufficiently accurate, nor is any man skillful enough, to locate a
needle point by an observation of the sun, moon, and stars.
“Peary was near enough.”
If You Go
The Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum, Hubbard Hall, Bowdoin College, 9500 College Station, Brunswick. Open Tuesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday 2 to 5 p.m. Free. 207-725-3416. www.bowdoin.edu/arctic-museum
- By: Andrew Vietze