Robert Edwin Peary (May 6, 1856 February 20, 1920?) was an American Arctic explorer born at Cresson, Pennsylvania, on the 6th of May 1856. He graduated at Bowdoin College in 1877, and in 1881 became a civil engineer in the U.S. navy with the rank of lieutenant. In 1884 he was appointed assistant-engineer in connexion with the surveys for the Nicaragua Ship Canal, and in 1887-1888 he was in charge of these surveys. In 1886 he obtained leave of absence for a summer excursion to Disco Bay on the west coast of Greenland. From this point he made a journey of nearly a hundred miles into the interior, and the experience impressed him with the practicability of using this so-called inland ice-cap as a highway for exploration.
In 1891 he organized an expedition under the auspices of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. The party of seven included Lieut. Peary's wife, the first white woman to accompany an Arctic expedition. After wintering in Inglefield Gulf on the north-west coast of Greenland, in the following spring Lieut. Peary, with a young Norwegian, Eivind Astrup, crossed the inland ice-cap along its northern limit to the north-east of Greenland and back. The practical geographical result of this journey was to establish the insularity of Greenland. Valuable work was also performed by the expedition in the close study which was made of the isolated tribe of the Cape York or Smith Sound Eskimos, the most northerly people in the world.
Lieut. Peary was able to fit out another Arctic expedition in 1893, and was again accompanied by Mrs Peary, who gave birth to a daughter at the winter quarters in Inglefield Gulf. The expedition returned in the season of 1894, leaving Peary with his colored servant Henson and Mr Hugh G. Lee to renew the attempt to cross the inland ice in the next year. This they succeeded in doing, but without being able to carry the work of exploration any farther on the opposite side of Greenland. During a summer excursion to Melville Bay in 1894, Peary discovered three large meteorites, which supplied the Eskimos with the material for their iron implements, as reported by Sir John Ross in 1818, and on his return in 1895 he brought the two smaller ones with him. The remaining meteorite was brought to New York in 1897.
In 1898 Lieut. Peary published Northward over the Great Ice, a record of all his expeditions up to that time, and in the same year he started on another expedition to the Arctic regions. In this and subsequent expeditions he received financial aid from Mr Morris Jesup and the Peary Arctic Club. The greatest forethought was bestowed upon the organization of the expedition, a four years program being laid down at the outset and a system of relief expeditions provided for. A distinctive feature was the utilization of a company of Eskimos. Although unsuccessful as regards the North Pole, the expedition achieved the accurate survey (1900) of the northern limit of the Greenland continent and the demonstration that beyond it lay a Polar ocean.
In 1902 Peary with Henson and an Eskimo advanced as far north as lat. 84° 17' 27", the highest point then reached in the western hemisphere. Lieut. Peary had now been promoted to the rank of Commander, and on his return he was elected president of the American Geographical Society. In November 1903 he went to England on a naval commission to inquire into the system of naval barracks in Great Britain, and was presented with the Livingstone Gold Medal of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. Coinmander Peary then began preparations for another expedition by the construction of a special ship, named the "Roosevelt," the first ever built in the United States for the purpose of Arctic exploration. He sailed from New York on the 16th of July 1905, having two years' supplies on board.
The "Roosevelt" wintered on the north coast of Grant Land, and on the 21st of February a start was made with sledges. The party experienced serious delay owing to open Water between 84° and 85°, and farther north the ice was opened up during a six days' gale, which cut off communications and destroyed the depots which had been established. A steady easterly drift was experienced. But on the 21st of April, 1906, 87° 6' was reached-the "farthest north" attained by man-by which time Peary and his companions were suffering severe privations, and had to make the return journey in the face of great difficulties. They reached the north coast of Greenland and subsequently rejoined the ship, from which, after a week's rest, Peary made a sledge journey along the north coast of Grant Land.
Returning home, the expedition reached Hebron, Labrador, on the 13th of October, the "Roosevelt" having been nearly wrecked en route. In 1907 the narrative of this journey, Nearest the Pole, was published. In 1908 Peary started in the "Roosevelt" on the journey which was to bring him his final success. He left Etah on the 18th of August, wintered in Grant Land, and set forward over the ice from Cape Columbia on the 1st of March 1909. A party of six started with him, and moved in sections, one in front of another. They were gradually sent back as supplies diminished.
At the end of the month Captain Bartlett was the only white man left with Peary, and he turned back in 87° 48' N., the highest latitude than ever reached. Peary, with his negro servant and four Eskimos, pushed on, and on the 6th of April 1909 reached the North Pole. They remained some thirty hours, took observations, and on sounding, a few miles from the pole, found no bottom at 1500 fathoms The party, with the exception of one drowned, returned safely to the "Roosevelt," which left her winter quarters on the 18th of July and reached Indian Harbour on the 5th of September Peary's The North Pole: Its Discovery in 1909 was published in 1910.
Just before the news came of Peary's success another American explorer, Dr F. A. Cook (b. 1865), returning from Greenland to Europe on a Danish ship, claimed that he had reached the North Pole on the 21st of April 1908. He had accompanied an expedition northward in 1907, prepared to attempt to reach the Pole if opportunity offered, and according to his own story had done so, leaving his party and taking only some Eskimos, early in 1908.
Nothing had been heard of him since March of that year, and it was supposed that he had perished. Cook's claim to have forestalled Peary was at first credited in various circles, and he was given a rapturous reception at Copenhagen, but scientific opinion in England and America was more reserved, and eventually, after a prolonged dispute, a special committee of the university of Copenhagen, to whom his documents were submitted, declared that they contained no proof that he had reached the Pole. By that time most other people had come to an adverse conclusion and the sensation was over.
A narrative of the expedition written by Mrs Peary, and containing an account of the "Great White journey across Greenland," by her husband, was published under the title of My Arctic Journal.
1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume 21. pg 30-31.
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