Robert E. Peary was a charismatic man, with a strong desire to succeed in all his endeavors. Between 1886 and 1909 he made eight trips to the Arctic, altogether spending more than ten years there. Throughout his career he enlisted the support of his family and many others, from financial backers such as Morris K. Jessup and General Thomas Hubbard, to loyal expedition members such as Matthew Henson and Captain Robert A. Bartlett. He learned to rely on the skills of local Inughuit men and women, recognizing that in the far north their knowledge and technology was superior to anything available further south. He worked ceaselessly to improve his methods and his equipment, always keeping in mind both efficiency on the trail and the comfort and safety of his men. He was driven by a desire for fame and recognition, but also by a strong nationalistic impulse, and a love for life in the far north.
Peary's name has become synonymous with the North Pole, but there is much more to his story than that single contested achievement. The controversy over whether Peary was the first man to reach the North Pole, or indeed whether he actually made it to the Pole, has raged ever since he returned from the Arctic for the last time in September 1909. It is a problem that will never be solved. In the early twentieth century there could be no absolute proof that Peary, or anyone else, was at the North Pole. The shifting sea ice over the Pole prevents visitors from permanently marking their stop there and so claims rely on navigation records and witnesses, both of which are always open to question. The debate surrounding Peary's final achievement have overshadowed all other aspects of his remarkable accomplishments. In this exhibit, we present a broader portrait of this remarkable American hero.
The exhibit was made possible by a grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services. We are also grateful to Kane Lodge Foundation, Inc., the Edgard and Geraldine Feder Foundation, National Science Foundation Office of Polar Programs, the Friends of Bowdoin College Fund and John and Lyle Gibbons through two Gibbons Fellowships and a Gibbons Internship. Additional support was provided by the Arctic Museum's Charles Hildreth Endowment, and Russell and Janet Doubleday Endowment.