Peary and the Pole: A Hundred Year Old Controversy and Reunion

Story posted April 02, 2009

A Hundred Year Old Controversy and Reunion
Susan A. Kaplan, Director
The Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum and Arctic Studies Center

One hundred years ago, after more than a month of sledging over moving sea ice covering the Arctic Ocean, Robert E. Peary, of the Class of 1877, Matthew Henson and four Inughuit men stood at the northernmost place on earth, the North Pole.

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

They reached that spot on April 6, 1909.

Peary wrote that his dream had been realized. He also noted how ordinary a place it was; nothing differentiated the North Pole from the rest of the ice-covered Polar Sea.

Yet one century later people continue to be drawn to the Pole, walking, skiing, snow-shoeing, sledging, sailing, snowmobiling and flying to 90° North latitude. They go because it is there, as a test of their inner strength, out of scientific curiosity, for nationalistic reasons, to raise funds and awareness of various causes, and just for fun.

A Controversy is Born

The lure of the North Pole is matched only by a fascination with determining who reached that remote spot first.

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American flag and sledges at the North Pole in April 1909. Photograph by Robert E. Peary or Matthew Henson.

Peary returned home from his expedition to a storm of controversy; just days before he announced his achievement, Frederick Cook, another American, claimed he had been to the Pole one year earlier.

Both men were questioned and throughout the world people wondered, was Peary's party the first to reach the Pole? Was Cook's? Had they both failed? The media had a field day.

There were no independent observers to confirm the explorers' locations and neither Cook nor Peary could leave a permanent record that would endure on the shifting sea ice.

Since 1909 people continue to try to prove that one of these men succeeded, while others dedicate considerable efforts to proving that the men failed, or worse yet faked their achievement.

At every major anniversary, proponents for each claimant have brought up the same issues about sledging speeds, advance preparation, navigation techniques, and the quality of journal entries.

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Building a snow house on the sea ice during the North Pole Expedition in 1909.

The personalities and motivations of the lead explorers have been thoroughly scrutinized, as have the testimonies of their Inughuit companions.

After one hundred years with no resolution, it should be clear that the world will never know, definitely, which team, if either first reached the North Pole.

A Reunion Of Objects

One hundred years on, none of the men involved in Peary's historic expedition are alive to add their voices to the debate, but the diaries and journals many of the American team members kept provide insights into what they thought, how they solved problems and their relationships to one another.

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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.

Some of the objects they used survive as well. Together, they tell fascinating stories about a group of talented, resourceful and courageous people.

Several of these accounts and objects are brought together for a historic reunion at the Arctic Museum.

Here, the American flag Peary flew at the Pole, the undershirt he wore with pockets for his chronometers, the revolver he carried and one of the five 14-foot-long wooden sledges he used to reach the Pole are gathered together for the first time in 100 years.

For just one month (March 26 to April 24, 2009) they are joined by a page from Peary's North Pole diary and the journals of members of the sledging parties.

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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.

These objects are displayed within an exhibit, Northward Over the Great Ice, that examines Peary's ingenuity, the debt he owed the Inughuit and the contributions of people who supported him in the north and at home.

By reading Peary's papers, as well as the journals and correspondence of his men, and examining their equipment and photographs, one develops admiration for these people.

Peary was inventive, designing everything from an alcohol stove that turned ice to boiling water in nine minutes and extinguished itself, to the SS Roosevelt, a strong auxiliary steamer designed to ram through pack ice.

The ship's chief engineer George Wardwell was an unflappable man whose activities ranged from repairing the ship's boilers to grinding a new lens for a camera.

Matthew Henson, Peary's chief assistant, spoke Inuktitut fluently and was recognized as a superb dog sledge driver.

Teams of Inughuit and Westerners worked together negotiating the shifting sea ice, overcoming huge language barriers and cultural differences.

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The Roosevelt was an auxiliary steamer and the first vessel designed to engage rather than avoid the dangerous Davis Strait pack ice. She was built in the McKay and Dix Shipyard on Verona Island, near Bucksport, Maine. This model was made by Richard DeVynck.

The Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum and Arctic Studies Center invites the public to view the exhibit and scrutinize the objects and documents and if they wish, decide for themselves whether they think Peary and his party reached the northernmost place on earth.

The Museum has posted daily entries from crew members' journals to an historic blog, giving the public additional access to eyewitness accounts as they appeared exactly one hundred years ago to the day.

Visit the Northward blog here.

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