Did Peary Reach North Pole April 6, 1909?
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.