Did Peary Reach the North Pole on April 6, 1909?
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.
Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.