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Did Peary Reach the North Pole on April 6, 1909?

Last September National Geographic published a story about Peary entitled: “Did He Reach the Pole?” The answer, according to author Wally Herbert, can never be known for sure. But based on certain circumstantial evidence he says he found in the Peary papers — blank pages in the expedition diary, Peary’s “astonishingly slack navigation,” a sudden increase in recorded speed after the last witness capable of taking navigational sights had departed, the explorer’s peculiar reticence upon arriving at the spot (he told Henson “I don’t suppose we could swear we were exactly at the Pole”) — Herbert decided that “Peary failed to provide conclusive evidence that he had reached the North Pole” and may have missed it by as much as 60 miles.

Peary critics — especially Dennis Rawlins, an astronomer-historian who lives just a few miles away from Stafford, in Baltimore — have been making the same objections for years. But the National Geographic article caused a sensation for two reasons. One was that it had been the National Geographic Society that originally upheld Peary’s claim, after a cursory examination of his records back in 1910. The other was that Wally Herbert, unlike most earlier skeptics, was no “armchair explorer,” but a veteran of 13 years of polar experience. In fact, if Peary was not the first man to reach the North Pole by foot and dogsled over the ice, it was Wally Herbert himself, who arrived there at the head of a British expedition on April 6, 1969, 60 years to the day after Peary said he made it.

Herbert’s conclusions troubled even Ed Stafford, who has published many articles defending his grandfather’s record. “Wally makes a good case,” he admitted. “He has me about half convinced that when the admiral made that second set of observations [on April 7, the day after his arrival at the spot he believed to be 90 degrees North] … it looks as though he was dissatisfied with how close he was. Maybe Wally’s right. Maybe at that point he had to decide for himself, in his own conscience, if he were close enough to say he was there. And it took him a long time to make that decision. He was a very honest guy. His statement to Matt Henson indicates that he wasn’t as close as he would have liked to have been.”

When I asked Stafford if he regretted pushing to unseal the Peary records, he was quiet for a long moment.

“I guess I do,” he finally said. ”I’m torn between my loyalty to my grandfather, which has been a central part of my life since I was born, and my mature status as a naval historian. I’m torn between having my grandfather’s accomplishments doubted and having the truth on the record, no matter what it is. So it’s a hard call. If I had to do it over again, I might not.”

Robert Peary, Jr., says he isn’t sorry the papers were opened. “It would have happened sooner or later,” he pointed out. “And whenever it happened, somebody would be ready to pounce. No, I don’t feel any remorse about that. Unfortunately, as has been pointed out, there is nothing there that gives absolute proof. These observations could be faked, they could be juggled. It doesn’t mean anything. You have to interpret them by the man who wrote them. And as far as I’m concerned, my father was impeccable.”

The son of the explorer sat in the parlor of his Victorian house in Maine, surrounded by mementos of his father’s career. Six-foot-long narwhal horns leaned casually against a wall near a pair of walrus tusks, and chunks of rock from Cape Columbia, Peary’s jumping-off point for the dash across the Arctic Sea ice, lay on a side table. The explorer’s pianola, along with its original paper music rolls (an eclectic collection, ranging from Gounod’s “Faust” to Peary’s personal favorite, the “Smoky Mokes Cakewalk”) sat in one corner.

Bob, as he chooses to be called, was not quite five years old in July of 1908, when his father sailed away on the specially constructed exploration ship Theodore Roosevelt. “Come back soon, Dad,” the little boy said, a heart-tugging detail that was widely reported at the time and shows up in most of the explorer’s biographies.

“I don’t remember much about the departure,” Bob says now. “The ship’s mascot was a cat, and I was much more interested in that.”

He’s not much interested in the Peary Cook controversy, or any other controversy, and has steadfastly refused to be drawn into it. Partly that’s because few know he is still alive — “Sometimes I wonder myself,” he chuckled — but mostly it is because he has made his own life, outside of his father’s giant shadow.

“I don’t recall that it had any influence on me,” he says of his father’s fame. “I just took it as it came. I didn’t capitalize on it. I didn’t denigrate it.” Like his father, he was a civil engineer. Unlike his father, he has stayed close to home and his wife Inez, and his own son, Robert Peary III. “I never was one to push out in public,” says Bob. “I live a quiet life. I have a loving wife and a happy home, and I don’t know how anybody can be more successful than that.”

The Pearys have many anecdotes that show a gentle, loving side to the great explorer — how he helped young Bob build a pier at Eagle Island and patiently sewed live roses onto a white dress that Jo was to wear to a White House reception. “He was a rare combination of a doer and a dreamer,” Bob said.

I asked him what was the most important lesson his father taught him, and he answered: “Straight, strong, and honest! He used to din that into me. Morally straight, physically strong, and honest!”

Dr. Susan Kaplan, director of the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum at Bowdoin, is sick to death of answering questions about who reached the Pole first. “We say, ‘We don’t know, and we don’t think we’ll ever know.’ But we try to use that interest to educate people about the Arctic. There is so much at stake, there are stories just as fascinating, full of ethical dilemmas. Take the question of whether Inuit hunters should be allowed to kill bowhead whales. There you have the survival of an endangered species versus the survival of an endangered culture. If someone wants to become famous by conquering something today, I wish he’d conquer that one.”

But she knows that interest in Peary, Cook, and the North Pole is not likely to wane. “It has elements of heroic mythology, of allegory in it — Cook as the young upstart who was victimized by the Establishment, and Peary as the rigid militarist. This notion of him as a sort of recluse his public persona, has become the man. And I think that’s very unfair to him.

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.
Updated Thursday, April 2nd, 2009

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One Response to Did Peary Reach the North Pole on 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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