Robert Edwin Peary (May 6, 1856 - February 20, 1920) was an American explorer who is usually credited as the first person, on April 6, 1909, to reach the Geographic North Pole.
Peary had previously made several expeditions to the Arctic. Unlike many previous explorers, Peary studied Inuit survival techniques, learned to drive a dog sled, build igloos, and dress in practical furs in the native fashion. Peary also relied on the Inuit as hunters and dog-drivers on his expeditions, and pioneered the use of the system (which he called the "Peary system") of using support teams and supply caches for Arctic travel.
For his final assault on the North Pole, Peary set off from New York City with 23 men on July 6, 1908 and wintered near Cape Sheridan on Ellesmere Island. From there they departed for the pole on March 1, 1909. The last support party turned back on April 1, 1909 in latitude 87°47' north. On the final stage of the journey to the North Pole only five of his men, Matthew Henson, Oatah, Egingwah, Seegloo, and Ookeah, remained. In his diary for the 7th April (but actually written up much later when preparing his journals for publication), Peary wrote "The Pole at last!!! The prize of 3 centuries, my dream and ambition for 23 years. Mine at last ..".
Peary's claim to have reached the North Pole has always been subject to doubt, for a number of reasons. He had no sooner returned from the Arctic before he learned that Frederick Cook was also claiming to have reached the pole the previous year; while Cook was almost certainly guilty of fraud and never went anywhere near the pole, the same questions and doubts concerning lack of evidence that applied to Cook applied equally to Peary. The party that accompanied Peary on the final stage of the journey included no one who was trained in navigation and could independently confirm his own navigational work, which appeared to be particularly sloppy as he approached the pole. The distances and speeds Peary claimed to have achieved once the last support party turned back border on the incredible, almost three times that which he had accomplished up to that point. Peary's account of a beeline journey to the pole and back -- the only thing that might have allowed him to travel at such a speed -- is contradicted by Henson's account of tortured detours to avoid pressure ridges and open leads. A 1996 analysis of a newly-discovered copy of Peary's record indicates that Peary was almost certainly 20 nautical miles (37 km) short of the Pole.
Some polar historians believe that Peary honestly thought he had reached the pole. Others have suggested that he was guilty of deliberately exaggerating his accomplishments. Still others have suggested that any hint that Peary did not reach the pole must be the work of pro-Cook conspirators who are simply out to discredit Peary. The controversy will probably never be settled.
Peary was also the author of several books, the most famous being Northward over the Great Ice (1898) and Nearest the Pole (1907). The movie Glory & Honor by Kevin Hooks (2000) chronicles his journey to the pole.
In his book Ninety Degrees North, polar historian and author Fergus Fleming describes Peary as "undoubtedly the most driven, possibly the most successful and probably the most unpleasant man in the annals of polar exploration."
He was a graduate of Bowdoin College, Maine. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Matthew Henson was reinterred nearby on April 6, 1988.
- Fergus Fleming (2002). Ninety Degrees North: The Quest for the North Pole. Granta Books. ISBN 1862075352.