Changing Planet

Peary and the North Pole 100 Years Ago Today


Admiral Robert E. Peary’s crew, pictured here in the vicinity of the North Pole, included Inuits Ooqeah, Ootah, Egingwah, and Seeglo and fellow American Matthew Henson.

NGS photo by Robert E Peary

One hundred years ago today, April 6, 1909, a team of explorers led by Admiral Robert Edwin Peary became the first people to document a visit to the geographic North Pole.

Their claim to be the first to stand on top of the world has become controversial over the ensuing century.

Peary may have miscalculated and been a great distance off the mark, according to one theory. The honor of being first at the pole might more properly belong to the American explorer and physician Frederick A. Cook, who claimed to have reached the pole on April 21, 1908, the year before.


Peary had made a number of attempts to reach the pole prior to his 1908-1909 expedition. On May 8, 1900, he passed the farthest point north ever reached by previous explorers.

Drifting pack ice repeatedly blocked his way on subsequent expeditions. A new record for farthest north was achieved in 1906, for which U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt awarded Peary the National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Medal.

Robert E. Peary at Cape Sheridan, Ellesmere Island, Northwest Territories, Canada, in 1909.

NGS photo by Robert E. Peary

Then in August, 1908, on an expedition sponsored by the National Geographic Society, Peary boarded his three-masted steamship schooner, the Roosevelt, with 22 Inuit men, 17 Inuit women, 10 children, 246 dogs, 70 tons (64 metric tons) of whale meat from Labrador, the meat and blubber of 50 walruses, hunting equipment, and tons of coal.

In February 1909, the explorers left their ship anchored at Ellesmere Island’s Cape Sheridan, with the Inuit men and 130 dogs working to lay a trail and supplies along the route to the pole, National Geographic News reported in a 2003 story.

On April 6, 1909, after a month of trekking with the dogs, Peary wrote in his journal: “The Pole at last!!! The prize of 3 centuries, my dream and ambition for 23 years. Mine at last.”


Sled dogs cover the deck of the Roosevelt, the ship used by Robert Peary on his 1908-1909 expedition.

NGS photo by Robert E. Peary

(The 2003 NG News story was about African-American Matthew A. Henson, who accompanied Peary on a number of expeditions, and stood with Peary and four Inuits at the North Pole on April 6, 1909. In 2000, the National Geographic Society posthumously awarded Matthew Henson its highest honor–the Hubbard Medal.)

A descendant of Peary planned to fly to the North Pole today to stand on the same spot where his great-grandfather, Admiral Robert Peary, stood 100 years ago when he and his team believed they were the first to reach the North Pole, according to a news release by Polar Explorers, an outfitter that guides amateur and experienced adventurers to the North and South Poles.

Stafford will read from a family copy of Peary’s historic journal entry that begins “The Pole at   last!” and calculate the exact position of the North Pole using one of Peary’s own sextants, carefully brought to the North Pole by sled, the release said. “Then an account of this day will be placed in a time capsule and buried within the ice.”


Robert E. Peary’s Inuit guide searches the horizon for land on the 1908-1909 expedition to the North Pole.

NGS photo by Robert E. Peary

But while some members of his family choose to believe that Peary was the first person at the pole, his claim was doubted by experts almost from the outset.

In an effort to end the controversy, National Geographic commissioned Wally Herbert, a British polar explorer, to make a detailed investigation of all the claims. In September 1988, Herbert published an article in National Geographic magazine that argued that through a combination of navigational mistakes Peary probably missed the pole by as much as 30 to 60 miles.

Whatever the truth is, there can be no doubting that the expedition a century ago was an extraordinary test of courage and determination. Since then people have trekked to the pole in almost every conceivable way to make it more of a challenge. A submarine has sailed to it under the ice.

Today, for Peary’s great-grandchild, it is but a flight away.

A century from now, if global warming scenarios play out as predicted and all the polar ice disappears, getting to the North Pole might involve no more than a cruise on a luxury liner, on a floating hotel with swimming pool, disco, and casino.


NGS photo by Robert E. Peary

Forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. He has 120,000 followers on social media. David Braun edits the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. Follow David on Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn
  • Shelagh Grant

    An excellent article on the Peary North Pole story. Do you realize the NGS is the only one to have a photo of Peary’s US flag allegedly at the Pole.
    I am a historian and have written a book on the history of Arctic Sovereignty in North America — est publication date fall 2010. Can I purchase the two top photos with permission to publish them in the book? Who do I contact??

  • Benazir Ahmed Siddique

    The history of the exploration of North Pole is really awesome.
    It was one of the great victory for the human being…….

  • hunter degeorge


  • Matthew Gilbert

    On April 6, 2008, after a month of trekking with the dogs, Peary wrote in his journal: “The Pole at last!!! The prize of 3 centuries, my dream and ambition for 23 years. Mine at last.”

    This date is wrong, it should be 1909, not 2008

    • David Maxwell Braun

      Thanks for the correction, which was made in the text!

  • Terry Carraway

    Really? The author should read National Geographic magazine. The Society hired The Foundation for the Preservation of Navigation back in 1987 to be an outside investigation into whether Peary made it to the pole. Using a number of techniques, they determined that he had made the pole within a few miles, and well within the limits of navigation at the time. Yes, the story was published in the magazine.

  • e m standish

    The NGS article, written by the Navigation Foundation, is full of deceptive, mis-leading, and completely false statements. The NGS has been a supporter of Peary from the beginning, and they continue to try to support his false polar claim, as in this example, by paying the Foundation for the article. I question whether the article would have ever been published, had it given a proper analysis of all of the facts.

  • Trace Baker

    As a Native of the town of Cresson, a graduate of Admiral Peary Vo Tech & a Steampunk aficionado, I am VERY PROUD of the legacy of Admiral Peary. Yes there are naysayers & critics. But how many of us today would have that kind of Courage?!
    When they do re-enactments if the story Matthew Henson is an important part of the tale & the Inuit graciously respected as well!
    Admiral Peary & the First Portage Railroad has been our claim of pride in Cresson & hopefully
    Will remain as such, Without question for Centuries to Come!

  • peter gidal

    in the 50s life magazine did a piece on mathew hansen who actually carried peary the last few days due to his frozen feet! the book on hansen states all that,it’s easily available online….the photo is in life magazine, collection mathew hansen as he gave the photo to my dad who took 4 pages of photos of hansen for LIFE and wrote the story (the physical photo is now in the collection of a swedish photo collector…as i am a bookseller and about 10 yrs ago he bought it from one of my catalogues,signed by hansen)…somewhere i have the LIFE essay( also signed to me by hansen when 5 years old)….anyway this is 7 yrs late just saw your note above…good luck!

  • brock

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  • Will

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  • ?????????

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