Review | Peary’s Arctic Quest

G.T. Dempsey


This is a delight of a book.  Published in cooperation with the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum, it combines the thorough research and documentation of a scholarly work with the profuse illustrations (particularly contemporary photographs) of an exhibition catalog.  Both authors are professors at Bowdoin College (Peary’s alma mater), one an Arctic anthropologist and archaeologist who studies prehistoric and historic Inuit responses to environmental change and to contact with the West; the other a museum curator and an archaeologist who has excavated Paleo-Eskimo sites.   Their product is, then, both a rigorous scholarly work and a popular exposition of Robert Peary’s Arctic achievements and his legacy.

Robert Peary (later Admiral Peary) may or may not have reached the North Pole (90° North Latitude) on 6 April 1909; and, if he did, he may or may not have been the first to do so (a former colleague turned rival, Frederick Cook, claimed to have made it to the North Pole the previous year).   This book, explicitly, does not focus on litigating these competing claims (as many dozens of books have done over the last century); indeed, it finds any definitive answer ‘unknowable.’   It seeks, rather, to venture beyond this controversy to explore such significant sidelights of Peary’s explorations as his own scientifically methodical and creative mind, the vital contributions of others to his success, particularly that of the Inuits, and the impact of Western explorations on both the Inuit people and the environment.  The first three chapters are devoted to Peary:  the first provides an overview of his career as a whole; the second sets out detailed accounts of the two critical polar expeditions, those of 1905-06 and of 1908-09; and the third illuminates Peary the innovator via his own illustrations and plans for improved equipment, from sledges to camp stoves to an Arctic sailing vessel capable of withstanding being frozen into ice for months.  Peary’s strategy for reaching the North Pole, developed through years of on-the-ground experience, was to sail as far north as possible between the northwestern coast of Greenland and Ellesmere Island, use the ice-bound vessel as a base, and send out leap-frogging teams to pre-position supplies (and igloos), until a final dash to the North Pole was possible.

Robert Peary, photo taken between 1886 and 1909. Library of Congress.
Robert Peary, photo taken between 1886 and 1909. Library of Congress.

Chapter 4 profiles the many people who made Peary’s achievements possible, in particular his devoted wife, Josephine, vital in the PR and fundraising which made the expeditions financially possible, and in his African-American right-hand man, Matthew Henson. Chapter 5 considers his Inughuit assistants (the Inughuit are the Inuit indigenous people of northwestern Greenland), their way of life and how Peary depended on their traditional skills, particularly in handling dogs and sledges and in reading ice conditions (there is a most helpful excursus on the various types of ice that had to be traversed, from ‘fast ice’ to the treacherous ‘pack ice’).  Henson’s mastery of the native language made all this possible.

Chapter 6 (despite the up-front disclaimer) is entirely devoted (some 25 pages) to the Peary/Cook controversy, as it was covered in the popular press of the time.  It makes for entertaining reading, today.  In the early twentieth century, polar expeditions were all the rage, and if you took Peary’s side you could advertise it by purchasing a ceramic mug with his ‘mug’ on it.

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Magazine cover highlighting the rivalry between Arctic explorers Frederick A. Cook and Robert E. Peary. Illustration: "A coldness between them" by L.M. Glackens featured on Puck, v. 66, no. 1700 (1909 September 29). Image: Library of Congress
Magazine cover highlighting the rivalry between Arctic explorers Frederick A. Cook and Robert E. Peary. Illustration: “A coldness between them” by L.M. Glackens featured on Puck, v. 66, no. 1700 (1909 September 29). Image: Library of Congress

The final chapter lays out ‘the contemporary Arctic.’  Today, large sections of the Arctic are warming, and there has been a significant reduction in sea ice, the platform on which Peary reached the North Pole (if he did!).  In Peary’s time, the various Inuit groups inhabiting Greenland and Canada led nomadic lives, harvesting food from the land and sea using their traditional methods. Today, their descendants have been settled in permanent communities and have experienced both benefits and traumas from their assimilation into Western lifestyles.  Also in Peary’s time, the areas through which his expeditions passed were beyond any government’s control – thus, he experienced no restriction on his bestowing on geographic features the names of his financial benefactors. Today, the eight nations that ring the Arctic Ocean have formed the Arctic Council to manage and resolve problems in a peaceful manner; sitting with the representatives of these nations are those of seven organizations which represent all the indigenous people of the Arctic.  The Inuits themselves have achieved self-rule from both Canada and Denmark (which has also granted Greenland a home-rule government).

In the Arctic, there have been profound changes, both social and environmental, some positive, some not. This book’s authors do not pretend to a scholarly detachment regarding these changes – indeed, they are advocates – but they are, demonstrably, true scholars.  Their facts can be relied on.

Susan A. Kaplan and Genevieve M. LeMoine Peary’s Arctic Quest:  Untold Stories from Robert E. Peary’s North Pole Expeditions (Camden, Maine: DownEast Books, 2019), pp. xvii, 189  ISBN: 9781608936434  $26.95


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About the author
G.T. Dempsey
G.T. Dempsey is a Research Associate in the history of Late Antiquity at the University of California at Davis and, as a retired American career diplomat, he is also a commentator on American foreign policy.