Little Bits of History

North Pole Perhaps

Posted in History by patriciahysell on April 6, 2014
Robert Peary and Matthew Henson

Robert Peary and Matthew Henson

April 6, 1909: Robert Peary and Matthew Henson reach the North Pole, they claim. Peary was born in 1856 in Cresson, Pennsylvania. When he was three, his father died and his mother took her son to Maine where he grew up in Portland. After college, he worked at the US Coast and Geodetic Survey office and joined the US Navy in 1881 as a civil engineer with the rank of lieutenant. While in the Navy, he was first stationed in the tropics but vowed to be the first man to reach the geographic North Pole. In 1886, he wrote an article debating the two methods of traversing Greenland to get to the Pole.

He made his initial Arctic expedition in 1886 but was unable to complete his journey because of low food stores. Back in the tropics, he was assigned to Nicaragua Canal as a surveyor and met Matthew Henson, 21-years-old and with seafaring experience, and hired him to be her personal valet. While working, they discussed further Arctic expeditions. In 1891, both men (and Peary’s wife) were once again off to cross Greenland, using the second route Peary had delineated in his old article. On the trip, a mishap left Peary with both bones in his lower leg broken and it took six months to recuperate. In May 1892, the team finally set forth and discovered that Greenland was actually an island  – an unknown bit of information until this time. They returned to their camp, completing a 1250 mile trip.

The next trek was scheduled for 1898-1902. Again, much was learned. The next expedition was taken from 1905-06. Traveling in the rough seas of the Polar ice pack proved to be another learning experience. The 1908-09 was to be Peary’s last assault. The travelers had a 23 man team and departed for the pole from Ellesmere Island at 83⁰ north latitude. The last support ship turned back from Bartlett Camp and Peary and five assistants, none of whom could make navigational observations, set out. Peary, Henson, and four Inuits established Camp Jesup and what Peary claimed was the North Pole. Upon his return, he heard a claim was made for reaching the pole the year before. Frederick Cook’s claim along with Peary’s was widely debated at the time.

Modern historians agree that Cook did not make it to the North Pole. Wally Herbert, a polar explorer of more modern times, concluded in a 1989 book that Peary also did not reach the North Pole and was short of the distance by about five miles. This conclusion is widely accepted today. The first undisputed explorers of the geographic North Pole took place in 1969 by the British expedition led by Herbert. In 1926 there were two claims of flyovers, the first by Richard Byrd (disputed) and three days later by Roald Amundsen (accepted). Others got to the pole sooner than Herbert using mechanical means of one sort or another, as well. The Pole, like Mount Everest, is a challenge and there continue to be people who trek there for the sheer purpose of conquering the route.

The process of scientific discovery is, in effect, a continual flight from wonder. – Albert Einstein

Mistakes are the portals of discovery. – James Joyce

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. – Marcel Proust

The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance – it is the illusion of knowledge. – Daniel J. Boorstin

Also on this day: Twinkies – In 1930, James Dewer invents the ubiquitous treat.
Varney Air Lines – In 1926, air mail delivery began.
Money, Money, Money – In 1808, John Astor incorporated the American Fur Company.
Olympiad – In 1896, the first modern Olympic Games opened.


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