Robert Peary (1856-1920)

Robert Peary

1856 On the 6th of May, Cresson, Pennsylvania, USA, Robert Peary was born. He was an American polar explorer, considered the first man who reached North Pole. Being the most obsessed of all arctic explorers, Peary led his small team to an amazing “race to the pole” which lasted only four days and that made them the first man who arrived on the world’s top. He was only two years old when his father died, letting little Robert to be grown up only by his mother. A childhood full of mischief and adventures followed and Robert felt better within the nature, in opened spaces.

1881 Being 24, Peary enrolled in the Military Navy of USA as a supervisor and accepted a job in Nicaragua for a fosse project. Here, in boring Nicaragua, he found a book about arctic land and got excited thinking to polar explorations.

1885 He became obsessed of the idea to reach North Pole and of arctic explorations.

1886 While he was in a furlough he left to his first expedition to Greenland in order to cross its largest part. Even if this attempt failed – in fact, Peary travelled less than 150 km before being forced to come back – this experience confirmed his increasing obsession for arctic lands and for the fame of achievement. Within a letter he sent to his mother while he was to Greenland, Peary wrote: “I must be famous”! He wanted to reach the wanted fame regarding arctic land, he wished to be the first man who reaches the North Pole.

This obsession implied also a dark issue: finding out that Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen had successfully crossed Greenland in 1888, Peary got very angry and started to speak about Nansen’s “betrayal” and about the way he “had intercepted” his plans, although Nansen had planned the expedition long time before Peary had just heard about Greenland. Fergus Fleming, in the extraordinary chronic of North Pole’s conquest, “Ninety Degrees South”, describes Peary as “the most decided, maybe the most successful and probably the most unpleasant man of polar explorations’ annals” and it is hard, if we read the stories about Peary’s relationships with people of his exploring teams to contradict this verdict. Even if, undoubtedly, Peary was as disagreeable as possible, his tenacity cannot be denied. 

1891 The second expedition to Greenland took place; Peary and Henson reached the Northern shore of Greenland. Peary refused to go back home after breaking one leg insisting to be pulled on a board on the ice. In this expedition he was together with Dr. Frederick Cook (who sustained he had reached the first the North Pole, in 1908, ideas that gave birth to long term and ferocious controversy; nowadays there is also an organization called Frederick Cook Society which wants to demonstrate the fact that their hero had reached the North Pole the first) and Mathew Henson, Peary’s African-American assistant, a man who got to less space within arctic explorations’ annals because of his colour.

The expedition reached the Northern Coast of Greenland (but not the northernmost point of the island, as Peary wrongly thought at that moment) and so it proved that Greenland is really an island. Peary would return with the huge meteorites, full of iron, sacred for Inuits, and also with six Inuits.

1887-1906 During this time, Peary organized many expeditions to the arctic area spending one with another six of the nine years in the polar lands.

1906 Peary reached 87 degrees and 6 minutes North latitude, about 240 km far of his final target, North Pole.

1907 The work named “Closest to the Pole” was published, in which Peary describes this expedition. American audience who was already imbued of newspapers’ titles such as “Peary has failed again”, had lost the interests regarding arctic lands; so, this book was not very well sold. For Peary, more horrifying was the fact that it was harder and harder for him to find necessary funds for his next expedition, even if he had held many speeches in many places in the country. At that moment, Peary’s perspectives to reach North Pole were enough gloomy. Ironically, Cook’s announcement as he was in Greenland and was going to leave towards the Pole, agitated the audience again and the needed funds started to come, even from Senator Morris Jesup’s widow, an ardet supporter of Peary, and that is why he called a Northern Cape in Greenland like this woman.

1908 On the 6th of July, Peary went again to Greenland, on the board of Roosvelt ship, a vessel built according to his specifications and called like the American president of that time who personally came to the harbour to wish him farewell. The ship landed  to Etah port in Greenland then the expedition rapidly sailed until Sheridan Cape, on Ellesmere Island, then they moved by sledge to Columbia’s Cape, a trip of about 125 km. From here, Peary started his last “rush to the Pole”. Four days and 170 km later, according to Peary’s notes, he and his small team were to the northernmost point of the planet: 90 degrees North. He had won the race.

1911 He retired from Navy as vice-admiral.

1920 On the 20th of February Robert Peary died at Washington, USA. He said one day: “Fate and the entire hell are against me, but I will succeed”.[1]




1 - Robert Peary (1856-1920),

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