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The American Experience

Robert Peary: To the Top of the World WIDTH=Robert Peary

Exploring the Greenland ice cap in 1886, Robert Peary, on leave from his duties with the U.S. Navy, came to the conclusion that the North Pole lay beyond, and was not part of, Greenland. Peary had further decided that he would be the first man to reach the North Pole, the top of the world.

After graduating from Bowdoin College in Maine in 1877, Robert Peary went to work as a local surveyor, then taking a position with the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. In 1881 he entered the U.S. Navy Corps of Civil Engineers as a lieutenant. It was while working on a canal project in steamy Nicaragua that Peary was first entranced by Arctic dreams. He was able to arrange it so that he could pursue his Arctic explorations while he was on leave from the Navy. While shopping for supplies for one of his polar adventures, Peary was introduced to an African American named Matthew Henson, then U.S. Navy civil engineer. Henson knew a good deal about travel, having gone to sea as a cabin boy at the age of 12. Peary was so impressed with Henson skills and knowledge that he made him part of his Nicaraguan surveying crew. Eventually, Henson would come to be Peary's most trusted associate and would accompany him to the North Pole.

Peary's preparation for his run at the North Pole involved much observation of Eskimo ways. Henson was especially skilled at endearing himself to the Eskimos, and passed the wisdom of their ways to Peary. Due to the Eskimo influence on their planning, Peary and Henson made sure they learned all they could about dog sleds, furs, and igloos. Peary discovered that Canada's Ellesmere Island would be the best stepping-off point for his trek to the Pole, and not Greenland as had been previously believed. He also surmised that he would have greater success traveling in late winter, when the ice was firmer, than in summer. Peary and his entourage of 23 men, 133 dogs, and 19 sleds set off from Ellesmere Island on March 1, 1909.

As the men traveled farther and farther north, they lightened their loads and reduced the size of their party. By the time April 6, 1909, rolled around, only six men, Peary, Henson, and four Eskimos -- Oatah, Egingwah, Seegloo, and Ookeah -- were left to witness the planting of the American flag on the North Pole. Peary's elation over his accomplishment was short lived, however. Upon his return to civilization he was informed that another American, Frederick Cook was claiming to have reached the North Pole a whole year earlier than him. Cook was no stranger to Peary; he had served as physician on one of his earlier Arctic expeditions. Cook held firm to his claim until two Eskimos who had accompanied him on his trek revealed his so-called photographic evidence to be a fake. Cook's team was said to have taken the photo many miles short of the Pole. A 1911 Congressional inquiry into the matter resulted in Peary's being declared the first man to reach the Pole. Cook's reputation was ruined and he was eventually stained by another scandal involving an oil-well swindle in 1923. Though eventually pardoned for the offense, Cook ended up serving seven years in prison.

Robert Peary was made prematurely old by his total of 12 years in the Arctic and his battle to disprove Cook's claims. Having made substantial contributions to the world's understanding of the Arctic circle and Eskimo culture, Peary died in 1920 at the age of 63. His trusted associate Matthew Henson would go on to live a long life. Though his role in assisting Peary in reaching the North Pole was often diminished by those who held his race against him, Henson eventually earned due credit. Late in his life he was made a member of the exclusive Explorer's Club, and in 1988 his simple grave in New York City was moved to a place of honor in Arlington National Cemetery -- right beside that of Robert Peary.




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