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Adm. Peary achieves his dream: to the Pole - and back

Fryeburg remembers former resident Adm. Robert Peary - Part 2

Robert E. Peary aboard “The Roosevelt,” in 1905, a ship built in Maine specifically for his Arctic expedition.
March 11, 2010
Driven by his hunger for fame, fortune and lasting achievement, buttressed by his confidence in his outdoor survival skills, Peary yearned to explore arctic areas no other man had ever seen. Most intensely, he yearned to be the first man to reach the North Pole.

Attainment of the Pole (90º North) had been the goal of explorers for four centuries. By the time Peary began seeking it, a fierce race was on between himself and several other explorers hot on the trail of the same objective. The North Pole was one of the last undiscovered areas left on earth. Whoever got there first was sure to win a place in history.

Knowing this, Peary was impatient to get started. In 1886, he took a six-month leave from the Navy, borrowed $500 from his mother, and set out for the Greenland icecap. On this first trip, he penetrated deeper onto the icecap and at a higher elevation than anyone had previously succeeded in doing. Nonetheless, he was disappointed at not doing more.

On his return to the United States, Peary was assigned to another stint in Nicaragua, then went back to Washington, D.C., where, in 1888, he married Josephine Diebitsche.

But the arctic still beckoned.

Successive trips followed (on three of which Mrs. Peary accompanied her husband) to determine whether there might be access to the North Pole via Greenland. But by 1896 Peary had conclusively proved a hitherto unknown fact: Greenland was an island, not part of an arctic continent.

In 1898, after obtaining a grudging five-year leave of absence from the Navy, Peary launched his first determined attempt to reach the North Pole across the ocean ice. "Four lost years," as he called them, ensued, more productive of frustration and disaster than of results, but during them Peary gained valuable experience in polar sea travel.

Returning to the States in 1902, Peary gained the support of President Theodore Roosevelt, who agreed with him that the Pole must be secured for the U.S. Thereafter, obtaining leave from the Navy ceased to be a problem for Peary.

Despite a leg broken in 1891, the loss of seven toes to frostbite in 1898, near starvation on several occasions and other severe hardships, Perry organized two further trips.

In 1905, he sailed in the "Roosevelt," a ship built in Maine by Maine workmen, of Maine timber, and designed by a Maine man (himself).

Because the "Roosevelt" was so powerfully built, it could travel farther north through ice-clogged seas than any prior ship, thus reducing the distance Peary had to travel by huskie-drawn sledges over the solidly frozen Arctic Ocean.

Parking his ship at Cape Sheridan on Ellesmere Island, he proceeded over the polar sea ice, but failed to reach the Pole because of violent weather and dwindling supplies. Nonetheless, he attained 87º6' North, the farthest North of anyone to date.

In 1908, with years of polar experience behind him, he again departed on the "Roosevelt," on a second journey that almost duplicated the first — except that this time he kept his support parties and supplies closer to him and ran into no violent storms.

The rough, treacherous surface of the polar ocean smoothed out somewhat as he approached the Pole, which he finally attained on April 6, 1909, accompanied by his faithful companion, Matthew Henson.

The drama of Peary's achievement was immediately followed by the drama in the press that swirled around his name and that of rival claimant, Dr. Frederick A. Cook, who said that he had reached the Pole on April 21, 1908 — nearly a full year before Peary.

On the evening of the day that Peary wired the Associated Press, "Have nailed the Stars and Striped to the Pole. Peary," his rival was being feted in Copenhagen as the first man to reach their common goal. Word of Peary's achievement was handed in during the course of the Tivoli celebration, to the astonishment of guests.

Thereafter, the controversy as to which of the two men had actually first attained the Pole assumed enormous proportions, degenerated into vilification, and continued for years. In an age when no radio or television evidence existed to substantiate either of their claims, only his word and records supported each man's contention that he was the true discoverer.

The controversy continues to this day. Cook's claims have been largely discredited, but he still has supporters. As for Peary, the issue now debated is not so much whether he did in fact travel the last remaining distance to the Pole, but whether he may have ended up some miles wide of it, due to questionable navigational practices.

In a 1988 National Geographic magazine article entitled "Did He Reach the Pole?," and a 1989 book, "The Noose of Laurels," polar explorer Wally Herbert, who led the first surface crossing of the Arctic Ocean via the Pole in 1968-69, contends that Peary's navigational procedures were faulty and that he missed 90º North by some miles.

However, in a 1990 National Geographic magazine article, "New Evidence Places Peary at the Pole," retired Rear-Admiral Thomas D. Davies, president of the Navigation Foundation, exonerates Peary's navigational practices and, on behalf of the foundation, concludes that Peary did in fact realize his lifelong goal of attaining the Pole.

"Robert Peary & Matthew Henson At the North Pole," published in March, 1996, by Lt. Col. William E. Molett, a retired U.S. Air Force Master Navigator, disagrees with the Navigation Foundation's conclusions as to Peary's exact navigational methods but supports its belief that Peary reached the Pole as claimed.

Whatever the exact truth about Peary's navigational practices, his achievement is incontestable. His remarkable courage, energy, dedication and persistence in the face of the most daunting and hazardous conditions extended the bounds of human knowledge and the boundaries of geography.

Meanwhile, the question remains whether Matthew Henson, Peary's African-American associate, might actually have attained the Pole before Peary did. In a contemporary newspaper interview, Henson explained that Peary had sent him ahead as a scout, and that "I was in the lead that had overshot the mark by a couple of miles. We went back...and I could see that my footprints were the first on the spot" - where, Henson said, he then planted the American flag. (Henson's claim enraged Peary, who, true to the racial prejudices of his day, viewed his black companion as little better than a servant).

Whether he actually stood at 90º North may never be known. What is known is that he achieved the goal he had set for himself, won the fame he coveted in his lifetime, and earned a prominent place in the annals of Arctic exploration.

What is also known and was recognized by his family and friends is the pivotal link that Fryeburg played in Peary's life history.

This was acknowledged in 1930, 10 years after Peary's death, when the stones which, years before, Peary had laid out to mark his true North-South meridian were permanently replaced with marble posts and a plaque, in a ceremony attended by members of the Peary family and others.

After the ceremony, family and friends climbed Jockey Cap, remembering how Peary in his youth had loved the place, with its 360º view of surrounding mountains, and how he had once drawn a surveyor's profile of the range, exact in every detail.

Thus was born the idea of a monument to Peary that would translate his sketched mountain profile into the circular bronze range finder that today still tops a round granite pedestal at the summit of Jockey Cap.

The monument was unveiled on Aug. 17, 1938, in another ceremony attended by Peary's family and friends. The day was Fryeburg Academy Alumni day, chosen to represent the close connection between Peary and the town of Fryeburg — where he had spent perhaps the two most relaxed years of his turbulent existence — and where he drew the plan that changed his life.

As his daughter later wrote, "Who knows how things might have turned out if he had not had the leisure (then) to make such a meticulous and accurate drawing?"

Martin Lord Osman
Littleton Chmber
Varney Smith
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