Robert Peary

Robert Peary was an American explorer who claimed to have been the first man to reach the North Pole. His claim is still disputed.

Robert Edwin Peary

Robert Edwin Peary

Born in Cresson, Pennsylvania on 6 May 1856, Robert Edwin Peary pursued a career in the US Navy from 1881 until his retirement in 1911. During this time he led several Arctic expeditions and claimed to be the first man to reach the North Pole in 1909.

Between 1886 and 1898 Peary explored the northern ice sheets of Greenland and made his first unsuccessful attempt at reaching the North Pole in 1893. On most of these expeditions Peary was accompanied by Matthew Henson and occasionally by his wife, Josephine. The contribution of Henson, a black American, to these expeditions was often ignored because of his colour, despite praise from Peary.

By 1902 Peary had lost eight toes to frostbite and his dream of reaching the North Pole seemed impossible. But he was given new hope by a suggestion of the Duke of Abruzzi, an Italian explorer, that any future attempts should start from Ellesmere Island to shorten the distance travelled across moving ice floes.

On Peary’s next attempt at the Pole he reached a record breaking 87º06’N, only 170 miles short of his target. Two years later, on 7 July 1908, Peary departed on his ship, the Roosevelt, for his final attempt. At last, Peary was successful when, on 6 April 1909, accompanied by Henson and four Inuit companions, he planted the American flag at the North Pole.

But Peary’s celebrations were cut short when he heard that Dr Frederick Cook, who had been a member of Peary’s 1891 expedition team, had claimed to have reached the North Pole almost a year earlier, on 21 April 1908. By December 1909, however, Cook’s claim had been discredited following investigations into his expedition records by the University of Copenhagen. Peary had won.

When he died in 1920, Robert Peary was recognised by most of his contemporaries as the first man to reach the North Pole. After his death questions were raised about his navigational records and photographs. Despite claims by National Geographic in 1990, after studying his records, that he had reached the North Pole, the question of Peary’s achievement is still debated over 100 years after the event.

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