Robert E. Peary was born May 6, 1856 in Cresson, Pennsylvania. He spent the formative years of his life in southern Maine with his mother, who raised him after his father's death.
Peary graduated from Portland High School and then attended Bowdoin College (Class of 1877). While at Bowdoin Peary parcticipated in many activities, including rowing for his class crew, organizing Ivy Day activities, and composing the class ode. He also took time to pursue other interests including taxidermy and the outdoors. He was a member of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, and was elected to the honorary fraternity Phi Beta Kappa.
After graduating as a civil engineer, Peary worked as the town surveyor in Fryeburg, Maine. In 1879 he moved to Washington D.C. to work for the Coast and Geodetic Survey and in 1881 joined the U.S. Navy Civil Engineers Corps. It was in this capacity that he began work on the Inter-Oceanic Ship Canal Project, charged with exploring the interior of Nicaragua. Although a canal was never built across Nicaragua, Peary's assignment proved crucial to his later career in the Arctic. It increased his appetite for exploration and while involved in this project, he hired Matthew Henson, the African American who would prove indispensable in Peary's Arctic work.
In the 1890's Peary made several trips to Greenland, twice accompanied by his wife Josephine. During those years he established the northern limit and insularity of Greenland and determined that the "American route" to the Pole, via Ellesmere Island, was much more viable than a Greenland route. He also recovered three large pieces of an iron meteorite from Cape York, Greenland, including one weighing 75 tons. (see Cape York Meteorite).
With the building of the Roosevelt in 1905, Peary was able to sail further into Arctic waters. Though he did not reach the Pole on the 1905-06 expedition, he did establish a new Farthest North. On July 6, 1908, under the guidance of Robert Bartlett, the Roosevelt returned North and in the spring of 1909, Peary, Henson Donald B. MacMillan, and others set out for the Pole by sledge. Peary organized his men into divisions to facilitate the journey. The last leg of the journey was made by Peary, Henson, and the Inuit men Egingwah, Seegloo, Ootah, and Ooqueah (Iggianguaq, Sigluk, Odaq, and Ukkujaaq, as they are spelt today). On April 6 1909, Peary realized his dream of many years. He wrote in his journal: "The Pole at last!!! The prize of three centuries, my dream and ambition for twenty-three years, Mine at last...."
In the following years Peary relived the adventure in his writings and speeches, defending himself against his critics, including Frederick Cook, whose competing claim to have reached the Pole in 1908 was announced just days before Peary returned in 1909. Peary retired from the Navy in 1911 and he lived his last years with Josephine and their two children in Washington, D.C., summering on his beloved Eagle Island on the Maine coast. He died on February 20, 1920 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
More Information and Links
Peary's publications include Northward Over the Great Ice (1998), Nearest the Pole (1907), The North Pole (1910) and Secrets of Polar Travel (1917). The North Pole has recently been reprinted by Cooper Square Press (2001). He also published a children's book, Snowland Folk (1904) with his daughter, Marie Ahnighito Peary. There are many biographies of Peary as well as books about the North Pole expedition in parcticular.
For information on the internet try:
An online exhibit at the National Archives on the emergence of Modern America includes a section on the search for the North Pole.
Verne Robinson maintains a site devoted to the 1908-09 expedition. There is also information on the expedition on a site dedicated to Matthew Henson, and at the Arlington Cemetery.
There are also numerous books about whether Peary made it to the North Pole. Two of the best known are The Noose of Laurels: Robert E. Peary and the Race for the North Pole by Wally Herbert (Atheneum, 1989) and Cook and Peary: The Polar Controversy, Resolved by Robert M. Bryce (Stackpole Books, 1997).