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
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.