Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Cresson, Cambria County
Polar explorer Admiral Robert Peary was born in Cresson.
Robert Peary was born on May 6, 1865, in Cresson, Pennsylvania. He attended Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. After college, Peary joined the U.S. Navy eventually becoming a Rear Admiral. Peary’s passion was for exploring the outdoors. He became an Arctic explorer for one reason: to be the first man to the North Pole. He claimed to have reached the Pole on April 7, 1909. Many believe that Peary lied about reaching the top in order to beat Frederick Cook as the first. Peary died on February 20, 1920, in Washington, DC, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Robert Peary was born on May 6, 1865, in Cresson, Pennsylvania. He was the son of Charles Nutter Peary and Mary Webster Wiley Peary. Robert Peary’s parents both became sick within two years, culminating in the death of his father. Peary’s desire for privacy and solitude could come from the lack of a father during his childhood. He took long hikes by himself and preferred solitude as opposed to community. The self-reliance that Peary found in his childhood became an important aspect of his character. Even though Peary was born in Pennsylvania but moved to Maine with his mother shortly after birth. His love for the outdoors and exploration was increased when Peary and his close friends hiked in the woods, sailed on the Casco Bay, and explored the unknown areas of Eagle Island in Maine. In the summer of 1873, Peary enrolled at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, where he received the Brown Memorial Scholarship. During an informal meeting with students, one of Peary’s professors, Professor Vose, often wondered how man might reach the North Pole. No one knew that one of his students, Robert Peary, had often dreamed as a child about the day when he would be the first man to the North Pole.
In 1881, Peary learned of an opening in the United States Navy for civil engineers. Working as a deskbound draftsman in the Office of the Coast Survey, this opportunity came as a welcome change. After physical and tough mental examinations Peary thought he had failed, he was appointed a civil engineer in the United States Navy. He went into the service as a lieutenant. He began his naval assignments in Nicaragua and working in the Federal Bureau of Yards and Docks. Over the years Peary rose in rank and in status. Even while working for the Navy, he never lost track of the North Pole. In his diary, he maintained that his life-long goal was to reach the North Pole. Other Arctic explorations would be preparation for the final assault on the Pole. In one of Peary’s preparatory expeditions across the Greenland ice pack, he realized that traveling solo was not only terribly lonesome but also potentially deadly. His early lessons in polar exploration gave him much needed experience. On one occasion, he realized that the sun would blind the eyes if they were left unprotected. The first big expedition was crossing Greenland where he began to use skis along with sledges to haul the material. Peary developed an appreciation for the natives while learning about and using the Eskimos’ tools and techniques for travel and survival on the frozen tundra of the Arctic. He used the help of the Eskimos on his voyages for he knew that they would be helpful with their knowledge of the Arctic.
On July 6, 1908, Peary set off on his final assault towards the North Pole. He left New York City on the Roosevelt with a group of 23 men. The Roosevelt sailed to Ellesmere Island, Canada. The crew stayed at the base camp for a long time preparing for the expedition and acclimatizing to the conditions. The party left Ellesmere Island on March 1, 1909. Over the next month, smaller groups within the expedition left to return back to base camp. They were there as support personnel to carry the supplies and set up the supply dumps. The last of the support groups turned back on April 1, 1909. This left only six men to reach the pole. Robert Peary, Matthew Henson, a black arctic explorer who was the only other “civilized” man within the Pole reaching group, and four Inuits: Ooqueah, Seegloo, Ootah, and Egigingwah. In Peary’s dairy of April 7, 1909, he recorded that the North Pole had been reached by man. From his personal diaries came the famous lines: “The Pole at last!!! The prize of three centuries, my dream and ambition for twenty-three years, Mine at last.” Robert Peary was the first person to reach the North Pole.
There is much controversy about whether Peary really made it all the way to the North Pole. Historians and scientists agree that he was close, within five miles of the pole; however, questions remain as to whether he made it all the way. He was the only one qualified to make calculations about the party’s location in relation to the pole. There are theories that say that he made it to the top, but others claim that he did not make it to the top of the world. Wally Herbert, writing in The Noose of Laurels, speaks of the possibility that Peary might have made an error in his navigational heading due to the drift of ice moving off target by an unknown amount and direction.
Another topic of debate is Frederick A. Cook. Cook was an Arctic explorer who was attempting to reach the North Pole at the same time as Peary. Cook sent a telegram to the editors of the Herald, “Reached North Pole April 21, 1908. Discovered land far north. Frederick A. Cook.” The question is whether Peary or Cook made it to pole first. Peary is credited with the first triumph of the North Pole. The people of the era regarded Cook in a better view. Even though he was not the first man recognized as reaching to the pole, he praised Peary for his accomplishment and for this was admired by the public. The community saw Peary as someone who reached the North Pole just for the glory and the title.
Peary was promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral in the Navy in 1911. In the last ten years before his death, numerous scientific societies from both America and Europe honored Peary’s work and commitment to Arctic exploration. Robert Peary died in Washington, DC, on February 20, 1920. He is buried in the Arlington National Cemetery. In death, Peary has been honored by having three ships be named after him. One was a cargo ship during World War II, the second a U.S. destroyer, and the third is a current cargo ship. Peary is also honored at the Bowdoin College at the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum. A stretch of Route 22 in the Cresson, Pennsylvania area is named the Admiral Peary Highway.
“Work in North Greenland in 1894 and 1895.” Bulletin of the American Geographical Society, v. 28, 1896.
Northward over the “Great Ice” 2nd ed. New York: Stokes, 1898.
“My Plans for Reaching the Pole.” Harper’s Weekly, 9 July 1904.
Nearest The Pole. New York: Doubleday, 1907.
The North Pole. New York: Stokes, 1910.
Secrets of Polar Travel. New York: Century, 1917.
“Ice Navigation.” Century, September, 1917.
“Sledge-traveling.” Century, November, 1917.
The North Pole: Its Discovery in 1909 Under the Auspices of the Peary Arctic Club. Ed. by Robert M. Bryce. New York: Cooper Squares Publisher, 2001.
Henderson, Bruce. True North: Peary, Cook, and the Race to the Pole. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2005.
Herbert, Wally. The Noose of Laurels: Robert E. Peary and the Race to the North Pole. New York: Atheneum, 1989.
Robinson, Michael F. The Coldest Crucible: Arctic Exploration and American Culture. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1966.
Weems, John Edward. Peary: the Explorer and the Man. Cambridge, MA: The Riverside Press, 1967.