North Pole Bound: Robert E. Peary's Christmas Feast

Story posted December 22, 2008

One hundred years ago, Robert E. Peary, a member of the Class of 1877, was a little more than halfway to his goal of reaching the North Pole. Peary and his crew of 23 left New York City aboard the S.S. Roosevelt on July 6, 1908, and reached Cape Sheridan, on the northeast coast of Ellesmere Island in September of that year.

The ship was frozen into the ice and preparations for dog sledging over the frozen Polar Sea to the North Pole began. Peary would reach that destination on April 6, 1909.

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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.

As people learned to work and travel comfortably in -20 degree temperatures, the crew anxiously anticipated their Christmas on the Roosevelt — and the holiday meal that had been part of the planning all those months ago.

From journals kept by Peary, Donald MacMillan, of the Class of 1898 and a member of one of the sledging teams, and Roosevelt chief engineer George Wardwell, we learn that the crew feasted on musk ox roast and candied cake, and enjoyed such activities as finger pulling and tug-of-war.

From Donald MacMillan's December 25, 1908, journal entry:

A dark Christmas morn, overcast but very warm, then down to 21. Have made out the programme for the day.

"Christmas Day"

2 o'clock - 50 yard dash on the ice: First heat Eskimo children, 2nd heat Eskimo women, 3rd heat Eskimo men, 4th heat "Kabloonahs", Tug of War, Men aft vs. Men for'ard

3 o'clock - Distributing of food to Inuits

4 o'clock - Dinner

5 o'clock - Throwing dice for prizes

8 o'clock - In forecastle forward: Finger pulling, Back pulling, Head pulling, Boxing, Grand concert on Graphaphone by Steward Percy, Flash light pictures by Prof. George Borup

Cheers, Goodnight

A fine dinner, musk ox, plum pudding, candy decorated cake. We each received candy and nuts from Mrs. Peary. Our first Christmas in the Arctic has been a most enjoyable one - plenty of everything - of good feeling and of good cheer far more important than an abundance of good food. We are all happy.

From George Wardwell's December 25, 1908, journal entry:

Mrs. Peary put on board candy and shelled nuts for us all, and everybody but me had a Christmas box to open. From their friends, filled with cakes and candy. We had a good dinner of musk ox roast, rice soup, canned English plum duff, brandy sauce, frosted cake, with plenty of candy on top, gave the Eskimos all an extra feed today also, each a can of salmon and those with children two cans, lots of brisket and Coffee. They had a big feed the day the sun started to come back so they think they are having lots of fun.

Northward Blog

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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 is updated daily, corresponding to the dates of the 1908-1909 expedition.

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

Visit the blog here.

Packing for the Pole

Peary wrote about the supplies he amassed for the journey in his book The North Pole, in which he notes that the expedition carried:

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

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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