Celebrating the Centennial: Peary Packs for the Pole

Story posted July 01, 2008

Seven-thousand pounds of bacon, 10,000 pounds of biscuits and 30,000 pounds of the fat-and-protein concentrate known as pemmican. Not the usual provisions for a Fourth of July holiday weekend, but for Robert E. Peary and his crew of 23 determined to reach the North Pole, this was no ordinary jaunt.

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The SS Roosevelt reflected in the water as the ice at Cape Sheridan, Ellesmere Island, breaks up in the spring of 1909.

One hundred years ago, Peary and company were preparing for their July 6, 1908, departure from New York City aboard the S.S. Roosevelt.

What They Packed

Robert E. Peary, a member of the Bowdoin College Class of 1877, wrote about the supplies he amassed for the journey in his book The North Pole.

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Robert E. Peary greeting crowds in Sydney, Nova Scotia, upon his return from the North Pole.

Peary notes that the expedition carried:

  • 16,000 pounds of flour
  • 1,000 pounds of coffee
  • 800 pounds of tea
  • 10,000 pounds of sugar
  • 7,000 pounds of bacon
  • 10,000 pounds of biscuit
  • 100 cases of condensed milk
  • 30,000 pounds of pemmican
  • 1,000 pounds of tobacco
  • Approximately 300 tons of coal

In Northwest Greenland they picked up 246 dogs for use pulling the Peary-designed sledges across the Polar Sea.

In Labrador the Roosevelt took on 30,000 pounds of whale meat (dog food). Another vessel, the Erik, which was carrying some of the supplies for the expedition, took on another 25 tons of whale meat — a far cry from the hot dogs, hamburgers and beach blankets being packed up for the family trip to the beach.

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Known as the Hubbard Sledge, this is one of five sledges used by Peary's North Pole party. Designed by Peary, made by Henson, it was given to Thomas Hubbard (Class of 1857), one of Peary's major financial supporters.

Not unlike the search for just the right outdoor grill, Peary spent time before the expedition testing various camp stoves, as he tried to find the most efficient model.

Ultimately he didn't like any of them and designed his own.

It used six ounces of fuel and converted ice into boiling water in nine minutes, at which point it extinguished itself.

"It seemed a bit of Heaven to place the stiff, cold, frostbitten hands and horny fingers on the warm cylinder of the only nine-minute stove," noted Donald MacMillan, of the Bowdoin College Class of 1898, who accompanied Peary for most of the expedition.

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Matthew Henson standing on the SS Roosevelt wearing traditional Inughuit fur clothing. Henson was highly respected by all members of the expedition. He learned the Inughuit language, made most of the sledges used by the expedition and was an excellent dog sled driver.

"But it was the perfection of efficiency, and we had not come on the trip to keep warm."

Unfortunately, MacMillan himself had to stop participating in sledge work and return to the Roosevelt, which served as the base of operations, on March 14, 1909, because of frozen heels.

Twenty-six days later on April 6, 1909, nine months to the day after leaving Manhattan and having made the last leg of the expedition by sledge, Peary, Matthew Henson and four Inughuit — Ootah, Egingwah, Seegloo and Ooqueah — became the first men to reach the Pole, a claim that was disputed by skeptics, but upheld in 1989 by the Navigation Foundation.

Northward Blog

Peary wrote in his journal: "The Pole at last!!! The prize of three centuries, my dream and ambition for twenty-three years, Mine at last...."

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American flag and sledges at the North Pole in April 1909

Such journal entries by Peary, MacMillan and others on the expedition have been included in the Northward Blog, a historic blog that allows you to follow the daily activities of various expedition members.

The Northward Blog went live July 1, 2008, and will be updated daily during the next fifteen months, corresponding to the same dates in 1908.

It can be found on the home page of the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum and Arctic Studies Center at Bowdoin College.

Northward Blog entry for July 6 from George Wardwell, the Roosevelt's chief engineer:

S.S. Roosevelt left New York at 1. P.M. Thousands of people at 24 st pier to see her off. All steamers and factorys blowing whistles others firing guns and saluting with flags, lots of people went down to City Island and came back on the Navy tug. They were alongside all the way down. After they left we went out to adjust compasses and then went to Hemstead Bay for the night.

Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum

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Josephine and Marie Peary holding the flag that Robert E. Peary flew at the North Pole. Josephine, Peary's wife, made him the flag in 1898, and he carried it with him when he went north. Peary cut pieces from the flag and deposited the cut fragments in cairns he erected every time he broke a "farthest north" record. The diagonal piece was left at the North Pole. The flag and some of its recovered pieces are on display.

To celebrate the centennial of Arctic explorer Robert E. Peary's 1908-09 North Pole Expedition, the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum presents Northward Over the Great Ice: Robert E. Peary and the Quest for the North Pole.

The exhibition brings together nearly 300 rare objects and photographs, many never before publicly shown.

The artifacts are interpreted using archival voice recordings and film footage, as well as both published and unpublished first-hand accounts of the journey by members of Peary's team.

Northward Over the Great Ice reunites key objects from the expedition that, until now, have remained apart since they were first used in the Arctic.

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