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Did Peary Reach North Pole April 6, 1909?

Did Peary Reach North Pole April 6, 1909?
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Admiral Richard E. Peary reaches the North Pole April 6, 1909. Or does he?

Photo/Art by Library of Congress
Admiral Richard E. Peary reaches the North Pole April 6, 1909. Or does he?

This Yankee Classic is from April 1989:

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.

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.

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.

Tim Clark


Tim Clark


Tim Clark has been writing for Yankee Magazine and The Old Farmer's Almanac since 1975. Subjects of his many Yankee profiles have included filmmaker Ken Burns, historian Barbara Tuchman, pediatrician and political activist Dr. Benjamin Spock, and World War II General James Gavin. Tim left his job as Managing Editor in 1999 to teach English at ConVal High School in Peterborough, N.H. for 13 years, but since retiring from that demanding and rewarding profession in 2012, he has continued to contribute articles and book reviews. Tim lives in Dublin, N.H., two miles from the offices of Yankee Publishing, and serves as Town Moderator, a post previously occupied by Rob Sagendorph, the founder of Yankee Magazine.

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One Response to Did Peary Reach North Pole April 6, 1909?

  1. Katherine Carrigan April 9, 2009 at 7:57 am #

    From the age of 12, I summered on Chebeague Island, where I went to
    sailing camp, and later operated a sailing school. Many times I encircled Eagle Island,
    wishing to learn more about Admiral Peary’s adventures.

    Your fascinating story was most interesting, not that I wanted to dismantle the heroism
    we all felt about him, but to unveil the speculations that have followed his story.

    Well done. Thank you!

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