Peary, Robert Edwin, 1856-1920

Alternative names
Birth 1856-05-06
Death 1920-02-20

Biographical notes:

Robert Edwin Peary was born on 6 May 1856 in Cresson, Pennsylvania. He was educated at Portland High School and Bowdoin College, graduating in 1877. In 1881, he joined the U.S. Navy as a civil engineer, serving for several years in Nicaragua, where he was employed in conducting surveys for the Nicaragua Canal. Developing a keen interest in Arctic exploration, Peary led the U.S. Exploring Expedition in 1886, a private expedition to study the conditions of the little known Greenland ice cap from the vicinity of Disko Bugt and, if possible, to cross the ice cap to the east coast. His ice cap journey was one of the longest inland journeys in Greenland to that date and he reached a higher altitude, at a more northerly latitude, than any previous explorer.

In 1891, having secured a leave of absence from the Navy, Peary led the U.S. North Greenland Expedition, 1891-1892, organized to cross northern Greenland from Hvalsund on the west coast, with the objective of locating Greenland's unknown north-eastern coastline and possibly its northernmost extremity. Although Peary broke his leg in the first year, the expedition achieved a much longer crossing of Greenland than Frederick Nansen's first crossing in 1888, in addition to making the first step toward the exploration of Peary Land in northeast Greenland and conducting important ethnographical and scientific observations.

Peary returned to continue his exploration of the region in 1893 when he led the U.S. North Greenland Expedition, 1893-1895. His wife, Josephine, accompanied him on this expedition, giving birth to their daughter, Marie Ahnighito, in 1893. In two further expeditions to Greenland, in 1896 and 1897, Peary excavated and brought back to the United States the largest of the three 'Cape York' meteorites found on his U.S. North Greenland Expedition, 1893-1895, at Savigsivik, Melville Bay. An account of his Arctic experiences appeared in Northward over the Great Ice, published in 1898.

Granted another leave of absence from naval duty, Peary led the U.S. North Polar Expedition, 1898-1902, sponsored by Peary Arctic Club, with the main objective of reaching the North Pole from the north coast of Greenland. Although Peary failed to reach the Pole, he attained his farthest north, 84° 17 minutes 27 seconds, on 21 April 1902, and conducted important surveys of Ellesmere Land. He made his next attempt to reach the North Pole on the U.S. North Polar Expedition, 1905-1906. On 21 April 1906, Peary reached a record latitude of 87° 06 minutes North after various setbacks made attainment of the Pole impossible. Between June and July 1906, he explored and mapped the uncharted stretch of the north coast of Ellesmere Island between Yelverton Bay and Lands Lokk and sighted land to the northwest of Cape Stallworthy, Axel Heiberg Island, which he named 'Crocker Land'. The existence of which remained in dispute until it was finally disproved by Donald Baxter MacMillan on his expedition of 1913-1917. Peary's account of the expedition Nearest the Pole was published in 1907.

In 1908, Peary set out on his final quest for the North Pole on the U.S. North Polar Expedition, 1908-1909. Setting out from Ellesmere Island, accompanied by Matthew Henson and four Eskimos (Ootah, Egingwah, Seegloo and Ooqueah), Peary made his final assault on the Pole, which he claimed to have reached on 6 April 1909. On his return, he learned of the prior claim of Frederick Albert Cook, who had served as ship's surgeon on Peary's expedition of 1891-1892. During the ensuing controversy, Cook's claim was rejected as fraudulent by most commentators and Peary's priority was widely acknowledged, although his claim has frequently been questioned. He retired from the Navy with the rank of rear admiral in 1911, the year in which the U.S. Congress recognized his achievement by offering him its thanks. He died of pernicious anaemia on 20 February 1920 in Washington D.C.

From the guide to the Robert Peary collection, 1897-1909, (Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge)

Robert Edwin Peary, Sr., (b. May 6, 1856, Cresson, Pennsylvania-d. February 20, 1920, Washington, D.C.), American explorer and U.S. Navy admiral who claimed to have reached the geographic North Pole with his expedition on April 6, 1909.


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  • Civil service reform
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  • Explorers--Correspondence
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