Did Peary Reach North Pole April 6, 1909?
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….