He was lionized as the first man to reach the North Pole on April 6, 1909, then later accused of “the biggest lie of the 20th century.” Still today, Robert E. Peary remains an enigmatic hero.
This Yankee Classic was originally published in April, 1989.
At high tide Eagle Island is 17 acres of rocks and trees thrusting boldly out of Maine’s Casco Bay, 12 miles northeast of Portland, two miles southwest of South Harpswell. You can take a boat right up to the state-built pier, tie up, and walk along the pier, across a grassy lawn, and up a flight of stone stairs to the summer home of Robert Edwin Peary, the man whose claim to have discovered the North Pole earned him undying fame and enduring controversy.
I went to Eagle Island last summer, as part of my own voyage of discovery. I was looking for the real Robert E. Peary. In the 80 years since April 6, 1909, when he wrote in his expedition journal — The Pole at last!!! The prize of 3 centuries, my dream & ambition for 28 years. Mine at last.– Peary has been split into two irreconcilable figures. One is the almost mythic hero, “The Man Who Refused to Fail,” as one admiring biographer called him, the personification of American enterprise, courage, resourcefulness, and endurance. The other has been reviled as a cold, cruel, dictatorial self-promoter who abandoned his friends, destroyed his enemies, and finally told the biggest lie of the 20th century.
I am not qualified to judge whether Peary actually discovered the North Pole. But somewhere in the gulf between these opposites, I was hoping to find a human being. My search would take me to Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, Peary’s alma mater, where a museum of the Arctic bears his name; to the home of his son and grandson, a house that is itself virtually a museum of Arctic exploration; to the National Archives in Washington, where thousands of documents and mementos of Peary’s life have only recently been opened to the examination of scholars; and finally to the National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, where the explorer and his wife, Josephine, lie beneath a monument shaped like a globe, with a bronze star marking the North Pole. But it began at Eagle Island.
Dave Chaney of Freeport, who takes care of Eagle Island, took me there in a small boat on a bright June day, before it was officially open to visitors. The Peary family gave the island and its structures to the State of Maine in 1967, when the cost of maintaining it grew too burdensome. “I would like to have met Peary, but I don’t think I would have wanted to work for him,” Chaney said over soup and sandwiches in the caretaker’s cottage. “He was too intense a personality, too much the commander. But I think he was a different person here than he was anywhere else. He didn’t have to play the hero. Here he could be the family man, he could play with his kids. You look around, and it seems like they just stepped out for a minute. You can feel the softer side of him. He’s more human.”
The Peary house is an unpretentious place, filled with books and comfortable, slightly shabby furniture — the sort of stuff you’d find in most summer places on the Maine coast. The only clue to the identity of its owner is its collection of mounted birds and animals. As a boy, Peary loved to tramp the woods and hills of Maine, and his interest in nature led him to become an expert taxidermist, officially certified as such by the state. In fact, after he graduated from Bowdoin in 1877, he lived in Fryeburg for a while, supporting himself more by mounting animals for hunters than by civil engineering, his chosen profession.
Peary first discovered Eagle Island when he was a high school student in Portland. Even then he felt the need to get away from crowds, and in the gull-cry and bayberry scent of the little island he found peace. He vowed to own it one day, and in 1879 he bought it for $500.
Peary didn’t start to build his house on Eagle Island until 25 years later, when his need for a place of refuge was even greater. In 1904 he put up a simple three-room cottage. Later, after returning from his last expedition, he expanded the house and added two round stone turrets on either side, one of which served as his personal library and retreat.
Peary is said to have designed the house to look like the superstructure of a ship, but when I saw it, my first thought was that it looked more like a fortress. Later I learned that Peary had sketched plans to replace the cottage with a genuine castle, with stone walls five feet thick and three tall stone towers. One of those sketches, in Peary’s handwriting, bears the legend, “Chateau d’If.”
It is a poignant clue to the explorer’s state of mind in the last years of his life, when he was preoccupied with defending his claim to the North Pole. The Chateau d’If was the island fortress in which Alexandre Dumas’s hero, the Count of Monte Cristo, was imprisoned on false charges and from which he escaped to wreak vengeance on his enemies.
But that was at the end of his life and his career as an explorer. To learn more about how he began, I had to follow his tracks to Washington, D.C., where he found work as a draftsman in the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey in 1879. There I found his letters, diaries, and personal papers collected at the National Archives.
It is a trove of information, full of surprises, such as the moment I opened a yellowed envelope and a handful of crude paper dolls fluttered out. They were pictures of Eskimos, drawn by Eskimos, and preserved for some obscure ethnological study. Even with four days to study the papers, I did no more than sample them, skipping over reams of expedition data, trying to decipher notebooks and journals crammed with Peary’s back-slanted handwriting or the faint pencil scratches of his mother, Mary Wiley Peary, who took her only child, three-year-old Robert, back to her native Maine from Pennsylvania after her husband died in 1859.
Mrs. Peary doted on her son to a degree we find astonishing in our time. She never remarried. When he went to Bowdoin, she went with him and shared his rooms in Brunswick. She stayed behind in Maine when he went to work in Washington, but her letters, on tiny slips of paper, surely diluted any feelings of liberation he enjoyed in her absence.
My Son, one begins, I am beginning to think that the old adage “out-of sight-out of mind” holds good with you….
And: Perhaps it is not strange you should ‘forget’ that I did not know where to direct a letter to you….
Or: From my childhood I was not strong, less so since your birth….
She rarely ended her sentences with periods. It was as if her letters were installments of one unending message of filial unworthiness.
He wrote back to her, letters filled with frustration about the dull work and his yearning for excitement and fame. Here I am twenty-four years old and what have I done, what am I doing, or what am I in the way of doing? Nothing.
He dreamed of making his name on the Isthmus of Panama, where there was talk of digging an interocean canal. Peary was never a man content only to dream. He made meticulous plans to ensure that his dreams would come true. In 1881 he won appointment as a Civil Engineer in the Navy, and in 1884 he went to Central America, with a black manservant named Matthew Henson, to survey a possible canal route through Nicaragua.
A picture of Peary dressed for his Nicaraguan work hangs in the house on Eagle Island. It exactly matches the description, penned in those dreary Washington days, of the man he planned to be by the time he was 30 or 35: Tall, erect, broad-shouldered, full-chested, tough, wiry-limbed, clear-eyed, full-mustached, clear-browed complexion, a dead shot, a powerful, tireless swimmer, a first-class rider, a skillful boxer and fencer, perfectly at home in any company, yet always bearing with me an indefinable atmosphere of the wildness and freedom of the woods and mountains….
Upon his return from Nicaragua in 1888, Peary married Josephine Diebitsch, the lively daughter of a Washington scholar. His mother accompanied them on their honeymoon.
Her presence did not seem to dull the passion Peary felt for his new bride, nor hers for him. When Mother had been dispatched back to Maine and the newlyweds moved to New York City, where Civil Engineer Peary had landed a Navy Yard job, they were “the happiest people in the world,” as Jo wrote. “Bert puts the Canal aside, and devotes the whole time to me.”
Peary had indeed put the canal aside, but it was to concentrate on a new opportunity for fame. In 1886 he had wangled Navy leave (he was an expert wangler) to explore the Greenland ice cap. His brief foray into the uncharted interior, and the attention it won for him, whetted his appetite for more.
That was the beginning of Peary’s epic voyages north. In 1891-92 he returned to Greenland with the faithful Matt Henson, and they got all the way across the ice cap, establishing the fact that Greenland was an island and unlikely to provide a land bridge to the Pole. He went back in 1893 and stayed for two years, making another crossing with Henson and a young man named Hugh Lee, in which the three nearly starved to death. In 1896 and 1897 he returned to pick up three huge iron meteorites the Eskimos had told him about, which Jo later sold to the American Museum of Natural History for $40,000, money that would help pay the bills for all this exploring. The Navy never gave Peary any money for his trips, only leave, and that with reluctance after some political arm-twisting by Peary’s influential civilian friends and backers.
There was a four-year expedition beginning in 1898, in which Peary established a new “farthest North” for the Western Hemisphere, at the cost of eight of his toes, frozen in minus 64 degree weather. In 1905 another expedition, another “farthest North,” but the great prize eluded his grasp. When he ventured north on his eighth Arctic thrust in 1908, at the age of 52, he knew it would be his last chance.
These explorations not only cost him money and physical suffering, they put a terrible strain on his marriage. Jo accompanied him on the 1892 trip, wintering in Greenland with her husband and his men. In 1893 she returned to Greenland, pregnant, and gave birth there to Marie Anighito Peary, a child the Eskimos called “the snow baby” because of her white skin.
But for most of those years between their marriage and Peary’s final homecoming in 1909, husband and wife were separated. Even when the explorer was not in the Arctic, he was on a grueling treadmill of public lectures, which raised money for expenses. At one point he gave 165 lectures in 103 days, netting $20,000.
Jo, whose childhood nickname was “Peppy,” lost a lot of her pep as the children came — a second daughter, Francine, who died in infancy while Peary was in the Arctic in 1899, and a son, Robert, Jr., in 1903 — and, as children do, caught the measles and scarlet fever, or cried incessantly, or needed new clothes. Jo’s letters to her husband began to exhibit the same peevish tone as his mother’s, as both women realized that their places in Bert Peary’s heart would always be secondary.
Had I known how matters stood when we were first married things might be very different now. But I do not feel equal to the separation from you again…(1893)
It is useless for me to say take care of yourself for my sake because that has lost its effect long ago but for the sake of the thing you love best in this world. success and glory, you ought to be careful…(1898)
Surely God will not take (Marie) from me too. She is all I have left to live for. I mean the only one to whom it makes any real difference…(March 1900, after Francine’s death)
You will wish yourself back with your sleek fat Eskimo woman after you have seen me… (April 1900)
When she wrote that last message, Jo was apparently unaware of her husband’s relationship with the Eskimo woman Alakasingwah, who was to bear him two sons. When she learned of it later that year, from Alakasingwah herself, it must have been a stunning blow. It is interesting that in her letters to Peary up to 1900, she generally saluted him as “My darling” or “My husband.” Afterwards, she adopted a cooler, oddly nostalgic tone: “My dear Old Man” (1902), “My dear Bert” (1904), “My dear old sweetheart” (1904).
As for Peary, he was capable of writing passionate love letters, and did, but there is a distracted quality to much of his correspondence with Jo that she was quick to notice. In 1905, for example, he wrote:
Am very sorry I can be with you only in spirit on your birthday, but you will be in my thoughts, you and the years during which you have doubled the joy and value of life for me,’ and I wish you many happy returns, for your sake, for my sake, for the children’s sake. My birthday present I shall deliver in person when I give you your birthday dinner….
The last line is followed by a penciled note — Never did — in Jo’s hand.
Still, she seems to have come to terms with this infuriating husband of hers, and where passion might have died, a deeper form of companionable love emerged. When she heard of his final triumph in 1909, she wrote to him:
At last you have what you value most in this life; now will you give a thought to those who love you better than life?
And he, in his own way, reciprocated. In a 1908 letter from Greenland, describing familiar places they had stayed together when she accompanied him on his early expeditions, he added this wistful note: We have been great chums dear ….
Edward Stafford, Peary’s grandson, who lives in Chester, Maryland, and is a retired naval officer with several books to his credit, was chiefly responsible for persuading his family to open the Peary archives to researchers. Peary himself, Jo, and Stafford’s mother, Marie Peary Stafford, had refused all requests for 75 years. “The explanation I always got was that Granddad was so embittered by the Cook controversy, by all the terrible things that were said about him, that he was afraid his enemies would be able to find something in there, further ammunition to use against him,” Stafford explained. “So they remained under lock and key, in a safe someplace. When my mother died, I came across them and turned them over to the National Archives.”
The Cook controversy involved Dr., Frederick Cook, who three days before Peary sent his famous telegraph message — “Stars and Stripes nailed to the Pole” — announced that he had reached the Pole on April 21, 1908, nearly a full year before Peary’s claim. When he heard of the competing claim, Peary intemperately told reporters not to believe Cook (who had served as physician on one of Peary’s early Greenland expeditions). The charges led to countercharges by Cook’s backers that Peary had not really gone to the Pole. The battle was fought out in newspapers and lecture halls across the nation, as well as in the U.S. Congress, where Cook supporters grilled Peary when he sought promotion to Rear Admiral. Although most authorities now discount Cook’s claims — he was found to have faked an earlier claim to have climbed Mt. McKinley and never produced any convincing documentation of his Polar exploit — the genial doctor from New York, who died in 1940 after spending some years in jail for mail fraud, still has believers.
In fact, it was a 1984 “docudrama” on CBS-TV, starring Richard Chamberlain as a heroic Cook and Rod Steiger as a snarling, brutal Peary, that led to the unsealing of the Peary papers. “After that ridiculous, slanted documentary, I went down [to Washington] and read the diaries myself,” Ed Stafford said. “They looked so valid and so authentic to me, I figured, ‘Why are we keeping them closed? Is there some secret we’re trying to hide? Let’s get them out in the open; let’s have them examined by someone who knows what he’s doing. Let’s get rid of this goddam Cook controversy. It’s been going on long enough.’
“Well,” he sighed, “I was successful at least in ending the Cook controversy. But I seem to have opened another whole barrel of snakes.”
Last September National Geographic published a story about Peary entitled: “Did He Reach the Pole?” The answer, according to author Wally Herbert, can never be known for sure. But based on certain circumstantial evidence he says he found in the Peary papers — blank pages in the expedition diary, Peary’s “astonishingly slack navigation,” a sudden increase in recorded speed after the last witness capable of taking navigational sights had departed, the explorer’s peculiar reticence upon arriving at the spot (he told Henson “I don’t suppose we could swear we were exactly at the Pole”) — Herbert decided that “Peary failed to provide conclusive evidence that he had reached the North Pole” and may have missed it by as much as 60 miles.
Peary critics — especially Dennis Rawlins, an astronomer-historian who lives just a few miles away from Stafford, in Baltimore — have been making the same objections for years. But the National Geographic article caused a sensation for two reasons. One was that it had been the National Geographic Society that originally upheld Peary’s claim, after a cursory examination of his records back in 1910. The other was that Wally Herbert, unlike most earlier skeptics, was no “armchair explorer,” but a veteran of 13 years of polar experience. In fact, if Peary was not the first man to reach the North Pole by foot and dogsled over the ice, it was Wally Herbert himself, who arrived there at the head of a British expedition on April 6, 1969, 60 years to the day after Peary said he made it.
Herbert’s conclusions troubled even Ed Stafford, who has published many articles defending his grandfather’s record. “Wally makes a good case,” he admitted. “He has me about half convinced that when the admiral made that second set of observations [on April 7, the day after his arrival at the spot he believed to be 90 degrees North] … it looks as though he was dissatisfied with how close he was. Maybe Wally’s right. Maybe at that point he had to decide for himself, in his own conscience, if he were close enough to say he was there. And it took him a long time to make that decision. He was a very honest guy. His statement to Matt Henson indicates that he wasn’t as close as he would have liked to have been.”
When I asked Stafford if he regretted pushing to unseal the Peary records, he was quiet for a long moment.
“I guess I do,” he finally said. ”I’m torn between my loyalty to my grandfather, which has been a central part of my life since I was born, and my mature status as a naval historian. I’m torn between having my grandfather’s accomplishments doubted and having the truth on the record, no matter what it is. So it’s a hard call. If I had to do it over again, I might not.”
Robert Peary, Jr., says he isn’t sorry the papers were opened. “It would have happened sooner or later,” he pointed out. “And whenever it happened, somebody would be ready to pounce. No, I don’t feel any remorse about that. Unfortunately, as has been pointed out, there is nothing there that gives absolute proof. These observations could be faked, they could be juggled. It doesn’t mean anything. You have to interpret them by the man who wrote them. And as far as I’m concerned, my father was impeccable.”
The son of the explorer sat in the parlor of his Victorian house in Maine, surrounded by mementos of his father’s career. Six-foot-long narwhal horns leaned casually against a wall near a pair of walrus tusks, and chunks of rock from Cape Columbia, Peary’s jumping-off point for the dash across the Arctic Sea ice, lay on a side table. The explorer’s pianola, along with its original paper music rolls (an eclectic collection, ranging from Gounod’s “Faust” to Peary’s personal favorite, the “Smoky Mokes Cakewalk”) sat in one corner.
Bob, as he chooses to be called, was not quite five years old in July of 1908, when his father sailed away on the specially constructed exploration ship Theodore Roosevelt. “Come back soon, Dad,” the little boy said, a heart-tugging detail that was widely reported at the time and shows up in most of the explorer’s biographies.
“I don’t remember much about the departure,” Bob says now. “The ship’s mascot was a cat, and I was much more interested in that.”
He’s not much interested in the Peary Cook controversy, or any other controversy, and has steadfastly refused to be drawn into it. Partly that’s because few know he is still alive — “Sometimes I wonder myself,” he chuckled — but mostly it is because he has made his own life, outside of his father’s giant shadow.
“I don’t recall that it had any influence on me,” he says of his father’s fame. “I just took it as it came. I didn’t capitalize on it. I didn’t denigrate it.” Like his father, he was a civil engineer. Unlike his father, he has stayed close to home and his wife Inez, and his own son, Robert Peary III. “I never was one to push out in public,” says Bob. “I live a quiet life. I have a loving wife and a happy home, and I don’t know how anybody can be more successful than that.”
The Pearys have many anecdotes that show a gentle, loving side to the great explorer — how he helped young Bob build a pier at Eagle Island and patiently sewed live roses onto a white dress that Jo was to wear to a White House reception. “He was a rare combination of a doer and a dreamer,” Bob said.
I asked him what was the most important lesson his father taught him, and he answered: “Straight, strong, and honest! He used to din that into me. Morally straight, physically strong, and honest!”
Dr. Susan Kaplan, director of the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum at Bowdoin, is sick to death of answering questions about who reached the Pole first. “We say, ‘We don’t know, and we don’t think we’ll ever know.’ But we try to use that interest to educate people about the Arctic. There is so much at stake, there are stories just as fascinating, full of ethical dilemmas. Take the question of whether Inuit hunters should be allowed to kill bowhead whales. There you have the survival of an endangered species versus the survival of an endangered culture. If someone wants to become famous by conquering something today, I wish he’d conquer that one.”
But she knows that interest in Peary, Cook, and the North Pole is not likely to wane. “It has elements of heroic mythology, of allegory in it — Cook as the young upstart who was victimized by the Establishment, and Peary as the rigid militarist. This notion of him as a sort of recluse his public persona, has become the man. And I think that’s very unfair to him.
“There’s so much literature, people get very involved in trying to solve this mystery,” she said with a sigh. “They think if they just study it long enough, they’ll find the truth.”
I, too, hoped that if I just studied it long enough, I would find some sort of truth. But the search for the real Peary turned out to be like the search for the North Pole — a journey over shifting ice, with many obstacles and detours, and an uncertain ending.
I never found the human being I was looking for. What I found instead was a hero, and heroes are not permitted to be human. That is their tragedy.
Peary, for all his brilliant accomplishments — and even his harshest critics acknowledge that he was the greatest Arctic explorer America ever had or ever will produce — was a prisoner of history, which, fairly or unfairly, offers no laurels to the second-best. Peary understood that fact to the center of his soul.
He was also a prisoner of his time, in which national pride was riding on the race to the Pole. Under the urging of President Theodore Roosevelt, for whom Peary represented the ultimate in American manhood, the Navy ordered Peary to make attainment of the Pole his main object. “Nothing short will suffice.”
Finally he was a prisoner of his own will the most implacable jailer of all. From his boyhood, he burned for fame. Raised by a domineering mother, he was driven to achieve, to excel, to prevail. To answer the terrible questions inside. “I must be the peer or superior of those about me to be comfortable,” he wrote as a young man, “not that I care to show my superiority, simply to know it myself.”
My search ended in Arlington, Virginia, on a hot day in September. The Peary Memorial was unveiled there on April 6, 1922, two years after the explorer died of pernicious anemia. President and Mrs. Harding were present, along with the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Alexander Graham Bell from the National Geographic Society, and a host of other dignitaries. Josephine, Marie, and Bob were guests of honor. Somewhere in the crowd was Matthew Henson, the black trailblazer who had accompanied Peary from Nicaragua to the North Pole.
Jo died in 1955 and was buried beside her husband. Henson died the same year and was buried in New York City. But last April he was reinterred at Arlington with his own monument next to Peary’s and a little in front of it, as if he was still breaking trail for his commander and friend.
I looked at the two monuments for a while. Peary’s great gray globe is wearing smooth, and the bronze star at the North Pole has lost its luster. Henson’s is new and shiny, the bas-relief of his face sharply cut. He hasn’t been a hero very long.
“Northward Over the Great Ice” exhibit through 2011, commemorating the centennial of Robert E. Peary’s North Pole expedition, at the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum, Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine. Read crew members’ journal entries.