Polar Pathways: Robert E. Peary's Arctic Expeditions

About Robert E. Peary

Robert E. Peary Robert E. Peary was born May 6, 1856 in Cresson, Pennsylvania. He spent the formative years of his life in southern Maine with his mother, who raised him after his father's death.

Peary graduated from Portland High School and then attended Bowdoin College (Class of 1877). While at Bowdoin, Peary participated in many activities, including rowing for his class crew, organizing Ivy Day activities, and composing the class ode. He also took time to pursue other interests including taxidermy and the outdoors. He was a member of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, and was elected to the honorary fraternity Phi Beta Kappa.

After graduating as a civil engineer, Peary worked as the town surveyor in Fryeburg, Maine. In 1879 he moved to Washington D.C. to work for the Coast and Geodetic Survey and in 1881 joined the U.S. Navy Civil Engineers Corps. It was in this capacity that he began work on the Inter-Oceanic Ship Canal Project, charged with exploring the interior of Nicaragua. Although a canal was never built across Nicaragua, Peary's assignment proved crucial to his later career in the Arctic. It increased his appetite for exploration and while involved in this project, he hired Matthew Henson, the African American who would prove indispensable in Peary's Arctic work.

In the 1890's Peary made several trips to Greenland, twice accompanied by his wife Josephine. With the building of the Roosevelt in 1905, Peary was able to sail into the far reaches of the Arctic waters. Though he did not reach the Pole on the 1905-06 expedition, he did establish a new Farthest North. On July 6, 1908, under the guidance of Robert Bartlett, the Roosevelt returned North and in the spring of 1909, Peary, Henson Donald B. MacMillan, and others set out for the Pole by sledge. Peary organized his men into divisions to facilitate the journey. Peary, Henson, and the Inuit men Egingwah, Seegloo, Ootah, and Ooqueah (Iggianguaq, Sigluk, Odaq, and Ukkujaaq, as they are spelt today) made the last leg of the journey. On April 6 1909, Peary realized his dream of many years. He wrote in his journal: "The Pole at last! The prize of three centuries, my dream and ambition for twenty-three years, Mine at last...."

In the following years Peary relived the adventure in his writings and speeches, defending himself against his critics, including Frederick Cook, whose competing claim to have reached the Pole in 1908 was announced just days before Peary returned in 1909. Peary retired from the Navy in 1911 and he lived his last years with Josephine and their two children in Washington, D.C., summering on his beloved Eagle Island on the Maine coast. He died on February 20, 1920 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

"Robert E. Peary." The Peary-Macmillan Arctic Museum. Bowdoin College. July 2007 http://bowdoin.edu/arctic-museum/biographies/html/peary.shtml

"Robert E. Peary when he began his arctic work", photographer unknown
Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum Collections

Bowdoin College