Celebrating the Centennial of Robert Peary's North Pole Expedition

Story posted March 24, 2009

On Monday, April 6, 2009, Bowdoin and the world will celebrate the centennial of Robert E. Peary's attainment of the North Pole.

One hundred years ago, after more than a month of sledging over moving sea ice covering the Arctic Ocean, 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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American flag and sledges at the North Pole in April 1909. Photograph by Robert E. Peary or Matthew Henson.

Nations had competed to get there, countless men had suffered trying to do so, some even died.

Peary and Henson had failed a number of times. However, by learning from his failures, fine-tuning his equipment and working with expert dog-sledge drivers, Peary and his team reached the Pole.

Celebrating the Centennial

To mark the 100th anniversary of Peary's historic expedition, the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum and Arctic Studies Center has planned a series of programs and exhibits.

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

On Friday, April 3, the museum will present Arctic Explorers in Motion.

This program features film of more than a dozen Arctic explorers in action, and Inuit working with Western explorers and involved in various pursuits.

The staff of the museum have located this footage in various archives and will provide commentary on the footage presented.

The film program is free and open to the public, but tickets are required.

Northward Over the Great Ice
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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.

The Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum has organized a reunion of objects that were at the Pole on April 6, 1909, reuniting them for the first time in a hundred years.

They include the American flag that flew at the Pole, Peary's undershirt with pockets for chronometers, his revolver and one of the five 14-foot-long sledges that reached the Pole.

For one month only, they will be joined by a page from Peary's North Pole diary, on loan from the National Archives and Records Administration.

On this famous page Peary recorded his sentiments at achieving his life's ambition. The journals of other crew members, on loan from various other archives and museums, will be on exhibit as well.

More about the exhibition, Northward Over the Great Ice: Robert E. Peary and the Quest for the North Pole.


On Saturday, April 4, a symposium, Peary's Quest for the Pole, will feature talks by outside scholars, museum staff members and students.

The symposium includes talks about Peary, his wife Josephine, Matthew Henson, and key assistants, including George Wardwell, the chief engineer of the ship, and Robert Bartlett, its captain.

The symposium is free and the public is welcome to come for all or part of the day. Registration is not required.

On Monday, April 6, the museum will be open all day, celebrating this historic day alongside others in far-flung regions who will be honoring members of the 1908-09 North Pole Expedition in early April as well.

There will be a graveside ceremony at Arlington Cemetery where Peary and Henson are buried, celebrations in New York, Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, as well as in Peary's hometown, Cresson, Pa., Newfoundland-Labrador and at the North Pole.

The Controversy Then

In 1989 the Navigation Foundation recognized that Peary was within five miles of the geographic North Pole on April 6, 1909.

But in his day, Peary was never able to completely savor his accomplishment, because Frederick Cook, another American explorer, claimed to have reached the North Pole a year earlier.

A controversy emerged over which, or if either man, had achieved this first.

In fact, from 1900 to 1913, more column inches in The New York Times were devoted to the North Pole than to any other story, in large part due to the Great Polar Controversy that played out in the press over competing claims to its attainment.

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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.

The controversy endures and flares up around the dates of major North Pole anniversaries.

The Controversy Now

In 2009, the North Pole is again very much in the news as a result of both increased access to its exploitable resources and shipping lanes, and the region's role as a bellwether for the impact of global climate change.

The international race to the Pole that helped drive Peary's expedition in 1909 is mirrored in contemporary politics as nations and corporations seek to tap the region's resources and lay claim to land and territorial waters.

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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.

Among those weighing in on these matters is Visiting Professor of Government and Legal Studies Olya Gayazova.

"The melting of the polar ice cap and high energy prices activated international interest in the Arctic, resulting in, among other things, often-misleading media headlines of Arctic 'cold' or 'gold rush,' says Gayazova.

In her class, Arctic Politics, and in lectures, Gayazova considers whether the images of the "wild frontier" are misleading and whether the lines of ownership in the Arctic are on the whole orderly.

She evaluates key areas of disagreement that pertain to land, sea and continental shelf boundaries, and whether there is sufficient political commitment on all sides of the Arctic Ocean to seek to resolve those disputes by negotiation and in accordance with international law.

"The questions of legality of Arctic claims are assessed in the context of geopolitical realities at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, as many of them relate to national security concerns."

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Men and dog teams pause on the ice during a hunting trip in the fall of 1908.

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