Admiral Robert E. Peary’s crew, pictured here in the vicinity of the North Pole, included Inuits Ooqeah, Ootah, Egingwah, and Seeglo and fellow American Matthew Henson. NGS photo by Robert E Peary
One hundred years ago today, April 6, 1909, a team of explorers led by Admiral Robert Edwin Peary became the first people to document a visit to the geographic North Pole.
Their claim to be the first to stand on top of the world has become controversial over the ensuing century.
Peary may have miscalculated and been a great distance off the mark, according to one theory. The honor of being first at the pole might more properly belong to the American explorer and physician Frederick A. Cook, who claimed to have reached the pole on April 21, 1908, the year before.
Peary had made a number of attempts to reach the pole prior to his 1908-1909 expedition. On May 8, 1900, he passed the farthest point north ever reached by previous explorers.
Drifting pack ice repeatedly blocked his way on subsequent expeditions. A new record for farthest north was achieved in 1906, for which U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt awarded Peary the National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Medal. Robert E. Peary at Cape Sheridan, Ellesmere Island, Northwest Territories, Canada, in 1909. NGS photo by Robert E. Peary
Then in August, 1908, on an expedition sponsored by the National Geographic Society, Peary boarded his three-masted steamship schooner, the Roosevelt, with 22 Inuit men, 17 Inuit women, 10 children, 246 dogs, 70 tons (64 metric tons) of whale meat from Labrador, the meat and blubber of 50 walruses, hunting equipment, and tons of coal.
In February 1909, the explorers left their ship anchored at Ellesmere Island’s Cape Sheridan, with the Inuit men and 130 dogs working to lay a trail and supplies along the route to the pole, National Geographic News reported in a 2003 story.
On April 6, 1909, after a month of trekking with the dogs, Peary wrote in his journal: “The Pole at last!!! The prize of 3 centuries, my dream and ambition for 23 years. Mine at last.”
Sled dogs cover the deck of the Roosevelt, the ship used by Robert Peary on his 1908-1909 expedition. NGS photo by Robert E. Peary
(The 2003 NG News story was about African-American Matthew A. Henson, who accompanied Peary on a number of expeditions, and stood with Peary and four Inuits at the North Pole on April 6, 1909. In 2000, the National Geographic Society posthumously awarded Matthew Henson its highest honor–the Hubbard Medal.)
A descendant of Peary planned to fly to the North Pole today to stand on the same spot where his great-grandfather, Admiral Robert Peary, stood 100 years ago when he and his team believed they were the first to reach the North Pole, according to a news release by Polar Explorers, an outfitter that guides amateur and experienced adventurers to the North and South Poles.
Stafford will read from a family copy of Peary’s historic journal entry that begins “The Pole at last!” and calculate the exact position of the North Pole using one of Peary’s own sextants, carefully brought to the North Pole by sled, the release said. “Then an account of this day will be placed in a time capsule and buried within the ice.”
Robert E. Peary’s Inuit guide searches the horizon for land on the 1908-1909 expedition to the North Pole.
NGS photo by Robert E. Peary
But while some members of his family choose to believe that Peary was the first person at the pole, his claim was doubted by experts almost from the outset.
In an effort to end the controversy, National Geographic commissioned Wally Herbert, a British polar explorer, to make a detailed investigation of all the claims. In September 1988, Herbert published an article in National Geographic magazine that argued that through a combination of navigational mistakes Peary probably missed the pole by as much as 30 to 60 miles.
Whatever the truth is, there can be no doubting that the expedition a century ago was an extraordinary test of courage and determination. Since then people have trekked to the pole in almost every conceivable way to make it more of a challenge. A submarine has sailed to it under the ice.
Today, for Peary’s great-grandchild, it is but a flight away.
A century from now, if global warming scenarios play out as predicted and all the polar ice disappears, getting to the North Pole might involve no more than a cruise on a luxury liner, on a floating hotel with swimming pool, disco, and casino.