How Philadelphia's Neighborhoods Got Their Names

ThinkStock
ThinkStock

Philadelphia is a city of American history, and that history is reflected in its various neighborhoods. Here are the stories of how some of them got their names.

Bella Vista

John Donges

This classic Philly Italian neighborhood where you can still play bocce ball or get a perfect cannoli got its name—the Italian phrase for “beautiful view”—in the 1970s.

Belmont

Wikimedia Commons

Belmont, an area along the west bank of the Schuylkill River, was named for a mansion built in Fairmount Park before the Revolutionary War. Visitors to the home included Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and George Washington, who probably slept there.

Bridesburg

Adam Moss

Bridesburg was originally called Point No Point because, as you approached it from the Delaware River, it first looked like a point, and then didn’t. After the Revolution, it was named for Joseph Kirkbride, the largest landholder there at the time. But people eventually decided Kirkbridesburg was too long to say, so it became Bridesburg.

Bustleton

Violette79

This northeast neighborhood was probably settled by people from Brislington, England, which was formerly called Busselton. It grew around a tavern called the Busseltown Tavern and took that name for the whole area.

Center City

Forsaken Fotos

Where most cities have a downtown, Philadelphia has a Center City. It’s the heart of the business district, encompassing the original city of Philadelphia and is, of course, centrally located.

Chestnut Hill

Wikimedia Commons

This northwest neighborhood has been called Chestnut Hill since at least 1704. Due to its higher elevation and cooler temperatures, it was originally an attractive summer retreat for well-off Philadelphians. It got its name from the now almost extinct chestnut trees.

East Falls

Wikimedia Commons

East Falls was named for nearby rapids on the Schuylkill River. The rapids disappeared after the Fairmount Dam was completed in 1822, but the name remained.

Eastwick

This neighborhood near the airport in the far southwest corner of the city was named for locomotive builder Andrew M. Eastwick.

Fishtown

Wikimedia Commons

Fishtown, on the Delaware River, was once the center of the city’s shad fishing industry. Legend has it that Charles Dickens himself named it when he visited Philadelphia in 1842, but it was in use before that.

Fox Chase

Wikimedia Commons

Fox Chase was named for a local inn that was built in 1705. It was a destination for wealthy colonists who enjoyed the recreational pastimes of their homeland, such as fox hunting.

Germantown

Wikimedia Commons

Settled by 13 German families in 1683 and named German Town by founder Francis Pastorius, this northwest neighborhood for a time had the nickname “armentown” (poor town), but soon became a flourishing community of German farmers and craftsmen.

Graduate Hospital

The neighborhood acquired its name when the University of Pennsylvania ran their Graduate School of Medicine at a hospital here. The facility is no longer a graduate hospital, but the neighborhood name stuck.

Holmesburg

Wikimedia Commons

There is some disagreement over whether Holmesburg was named for Thomas Holme, William Penn’s surveyor, or for the descendants of John Holme, a judge who lived and owned property there. It’s possible that they were cousins, so it might all be for one family name anyway.

Juniata Park

Juniata Park, a community built in the 1920s and '30s, was named for the park in its northeast section. Juniata is the name of a tributary of the Susquehanna River and is thought to come from a Native American word for “standing stone.”

Kensington

Wikimedia Commons

Kensington was named by a colonial merchant named Anthony Palmer, who purchased almost 200 acres of land northeast of the center of Philadelphia and sold it in lots to shipbuilders. He named the town he founded after the London area where Kensington Palace is located. His own name lives on in the burial ground there, known as Palmer Cemetery.

Kingsessing

Wikimedia Commons

This area west of Center City got its name from the Lenape word for “place where there is a meadow.”

Manayunk

Harry Feigel

There is a pretty active strip of bars and restaurants in Manayunk, and some say this is fitting considering the name comes from a Lenape word for “place we go to drink.” However, it seems that the word was just the ordinary Lenape term for the nearby Schuylkill River, which, after all, is a place where one goes to drink—water.

Mantua

Wikimedia Commons

Judge Peters, who owned the Belmont Mansion that gave the Belmont neighborhood its name, also owned this land west of the Schuylkill that he developed into Mantua, named for the Italian city where Virgil was born.

Mayfair

Wikimedia Commons

Legend has it that Mayfair got its name during a 1928 meeting where local citizen Thomas Donahue announced, “We ‘may fare’ well if we get behind this community and push—so why not call it Mayfair?” Or it might have just been the name of the telephone exchange there.

Mt. Airy

Wikimedia Commons

William Allen, loyalist, freemason, Chief Justice of Pennsylvania, Mayor of Philadelphia, and founder of Allentown, built a country estate called Mt. Airy. The neighborhood that eventually formed around it took the name of the estate.

Nicetown

InSapphoWeTrust

Nicetown doesn’t actually have anything to do with “nice” as we know it. It comes from the family name of a pair of Dutch settlers, Hans and Jan de Neus, who arrived in Philadelphia in the 17th century. Their descendants go by Nice or Nyce.

Northern Liberties

Susan Sermoneta

According to the colonial land policy of William Penn, those who purchased large tracts of land in Philadelphia got a bonus of free “liberty lands” in the surrounding rural areas. The “Northern Liberties,” now home to some of the city’s most happening spots, are no longer rural in the slightest.

Queen Village

John Dillion

Queen Village, originally part of Southwark, was named in the 1970s to honor Queen Christina of Sweden, who reigned when the area was settled by Swedes in the 1600s.

Society Hill

Payton Chung

Though there is certainly some high society living going on in Society Hill, it was originally named not for its wealthy citizens but for the Free Society of Traders, a stock company established by William Penn that was granted the land there.

Roxborough

Wikimedia Commons

This northwest neighborhood was described in a 1694 letter by Johannes Kelpius as a place “where foxes burrow in the rocks, ” and he persisted in spelling it as Rockburrow. Though that makes a good origin story, it was probably first named after Roxburgh, Scotland, where one of its prominent settlers was born.

Olde City

Wikimedia Commons

Olde City is also called Old City, but the Olde makes it look older. Known as “America’s most historic square mile,” Olde City has all the olde stuff—Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, the Betsy Ross House, Physick House, the American Philosophical Society, and many other olde things.

Olney

Wikimedia Commons

Alexander Wilson was a great admirer of poet William Cowper who lived in Olney, England and wrote Olney Hymns. So when Wilson built his estate north of Philadelphia, he named it Olney and the surrounding neighborhood took the name from the estate.

Overbrook

Adam Moss

In the late 19th century a rail station was built here over a brook, and the station, and subsequently the area around it, was named Overbrook. The name later went Hollywood, when Will Smith, who went to high school in this West Philadelphia neighborhood, named his production company Overbrook Entertainment.

Passyunk

Imnop88a / Kaitlin

This important south Philadelphia neighborhood is home to a famous cheesesteak rivalry. It was named for main thoroughfare Passyunk Avenue, which got its name from a Lenape word meaning “in the valley.” When you walk in the valley of the cheesesteaks, you must choose sides: Pat’s or Geno’s?

Powelton Village

Wikimedia Commons

Powelton was the name of the Powel family mansion that gave this west Philadelphia neighborhood its name. The third Samuel Powel, the first post-Revolutionary War mayor of Philadelphia, escaped to Powelton during the 1793 Yellow Fever Epidemic, but was bitten by a mosquito on a quick trip back into the city to check on his servants and died.

Rising Sun

According to one early 20th century history of Philadelphia, the son of the Native American Chief Tammany befriended a pair of German settlers and brought them to his father, who spent the night “feasting and smoking” with them and then led them to the top of a little hill and declared all the land within their line of vision to be theirs. “And as they looked in admiration at the extent of the gift, the sun rose gloriously, and they named their land the 'Aufgehende Sonne,' the 'Rising Sun.'” Take this story with a grain of salt.

Rittenhouse Square

Wikimedia Commons

In 1825 the Center City green space known as Southwest Square was renamed Rittenhouse Square for David Rittenhouse—inventor, scientist, mathematician, member of the American Philosophical Society and the Royal Society of London, and first director of the U.S. Mint.

South Philadelphia

Wikimedia Commons

This is a very apt name for the area south of Center City. Its main drag, South Street, was the original southern border of the city limits.

Southwark

Wikimedia Commons

This area along the Delaware River was named by William Penn for another area similarly situated on a river, the London neighborhood of Southwark on the Thames.

Strawberry Mansion

Wikimedia Commons

Strawberry Mansion was the name acquired in the 1870s by a grand house (formerly called Summerville) in Fairmount Park that later became a popular restaurant. There may have been a signature dish of strawberries and cream involved. The neighborhood and a nearby bridge were named for it.

Tacony

Floyd B. Kelley Jr. 

Tacony comes from a Lenape word, though there is some disagreement as to whether the word it comes from meant “wilderness,” “forest creek,” or the name of a chief.

Torresdale

Floyd B. Kelley Jr.

This northeast neighborhood was named by banker Charles Macalaster after his family home in Scotland.

University City

Wikimedia Commons

When this formerly bucolic area of West Philadelphia went on the decline during the rapid expansion of the city in the first half of the 20th century, officials from the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel came up with a revitalization plan that included referring to the area as University City.

Wissinoming

marc-cleansweep.com

There used to be a creek called Wissinoming running through this neighborhood near the Delaware, but it has long since been filled in. Wissinoming was the Lenape word for “place where the grapes grow.”

We're slowly working our way across the country. See how the neighborhoods in other cities got their names.

15 Convenient Products That Are Perfect for Summer

First Colonial/Lunatec/Safe Touch
First Colonial/Lunatec/Safe Touch

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Carsule tent from Mogics.
Mogics

This tent connects to your hatchback car like a tailgate mobile living room. The installation takes just a few minutes and the entire thing stands 6.5 feet tall so you can enjoy the outdoors from the comfort of your car.

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Mosquito-killing lamp.
Kinkoo

If you just so happen to be one of those unlucky souls who attracts a suspicious amount of mosquitos the second you step outside, you need this repellent lamp to help keep your arms and legs bite-free. It uses a non-toxic combination of LED lights, air turbulence, and other methods to keep the pests at bay.

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Mosquito repeller watch.
Safe Touch

While a lamp is a great non-toxic solution for keeping bugs at bay, active individuals need a bug repellent that can keep up with their lifestyle. This wrist wearable keeps you safe from mosquitoes anywhere by using ultrasonic sounds to drive them away.

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Aduro flashlight set.
Audro

If you want your summer to be lit, this set will do the trick. All puns aside, this trio of LED brightness is perfect for camping fun and backyard parties, or it can be stored in the car for emergencies.

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First Colonial cooler.
First Colonial

Cookouts are easy with this cooler and table set that chills your drink until you're ready to pop it into one of the four convenient cupholders. Bring this set camping or out by the pool for convenience anywhere.

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Trident underwater scooter.
Geneinno

If you’ve ever dreamed of better mobility while exploring the water, you’re not alone. The Trident underwater scooter, which raised over $82,000 on Indiegogo, can propel you through the water at up to nearly 6 feet per second, which isn't that far off from how fast Michael Phelps swam in his prime. The battery on it will last 45 minutes, allowing you to traverse with ease.

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GoSun solar grill.
GoSun

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3P Experts bug zapper.
3P Experts

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Urban Rover E-Skateboard
Urban Rover

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Headlamp from One80Light
One80Light

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Bladeless fan
Whirlwind

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Bladeless fan
3P Tech

This bladeless fan won't just keep you cool while you work on your laptop—it also has a built-in rechargable battery that you can use to charge your phone.

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Mogics portable lamp.
Mogics

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Lunatec spray water bottle.
Lunatec

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Hydration backpack.
It's All Goods

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13 Facts About Robert E. Peary, North Pole Explorer

Christie's, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Christie's, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Robert Edwin Peary, called "one of the greatest of all explorers," claimed to have been the first person to reach the North Pole on April 6, 1909. But from the moment his achievement was announced to the world, Peary was mired in a controversy that overshadowed his other accomplishments as a skilled civil engineer, natural historian, and expedition leader. Here are a few things you should know about this daring Arctic adventurer.

1. Robert Peary was extremely close to his mother.

Robert Edwin Peary was born May 6, 1856, in Cresson, Pennsylvania, an industrial town in the Allegheny Mountains. His father died when he was 3, and his mother, Mary Wiley Peary, returned with her son to her home state of Maine. As an only child, Peary formed a close bond with his mother, and when he attended Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, they lived together in rooms off campus. When Peary married Josephine Diebitsch, Mary accompanied the couple on their honeymoon on the Jersey Shore and then moved in with the newlyweds, to Josephine's utter surprise. The explorer confided all of his aspirations to his mother throughout his life. In one prophetic letter to her following his first expedition to Greenland in 1886, he wrote:

"I will next winter be one of the foremost in the highest circles in the capital, and make powerful friends with whom I can shape my future instead of letting it come as it will ... remember, mother, I must have fame, and I cannot reconcile myself to years of commonplace drudgery and a name late in life when I see an opportunity to gain it now."

2. Robert Peary had a side hustle as a taxidermist.

Peary enjoyed a childhood spent outdoors playing sports and studying natural history. After graduating from college with a degree in civil engineering, Peary moved to his mother's hometown of Fryeburg, Maine, to work as a county surveyor. But the county had little need for a surveyor, and to supplement his income, he taxidermied birds. He charged $1.50 for a robin and $1.75 to $2.25 for ducks and hawks.

3. Before he went to the North Pole, Robert Peary went to Nicaragua.

Portrait of Robert Peary
Robert Peary in his naval uniform
The American Museum Journal, Wikimedia Commons // No Known Copyright Restrictions

In 1881, Peary was commissioned by the Navy Civil Engineer Corps, which made him a naval officer with a rank equivalent to lieutenant. Three years later, renowned civil engineer Aniceto Menocal picked Peary to lead a field party to survey an area in Nicaragua for a canal linking the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Peary's ability to hack through thick jungle and scale mountains impressed Menocal enough that he hired Peary for a second survey of Nicaragua in 1887, this time with a well-funded, 200-person operation.

4. Robert Peary met Matthew Henson in a Washington, D.C. hat shop.

Though some details of the encounter differ, Peary met his eventual polar partner Matthew Henson at B.H. Stinemetz & Son, a hatter and furrier at 1237 Pennsylvania Avenue. Peary needed a sun helmet for his second trip to Nicaragua. He also needed to hire a valet. The shop's owner recommended his clerk, Henson, who surely impressed Peary with his years of experience on ships. Henson accompanied Peary to Nicaragua and on every Arctic expedition thereafter, including the successful North Pole excursion in 1908-1909.

5. Robert Peary made seven trips to the Arctic.

Peary's first trip to Greenland occurred in 1886 between his two trips to Central America. With a Danish companion, he trekked 100 miles across the Greenland ice cap but had to turn back when food ran low.

During his second and third expeditions (1891-1892 and 1893-1895), Peary, Henson, and company traversed the northern end of the ice cap and established that Greenland's land did not extend to the North Pole. On his fourth trip (1896-1897) [PDF], he brought back meteorites for the American Museum of Natural History. Peary's fifth and sixth expeditions (1898-1902 and 1905-1906) tested a feasible route to the North Pole and established relationships with Inughuit communities on which Peary would rely for assistance and supplies. Peary and Henson finally reached the North Pole on the seventh expedition in 1908-1909.

6. Robert Peary's successes in Greenland contrasted with two previous polar disasters.

Robert Peary in furs
Robert Peary, in fur clothing, stands on the deck of the Roosevelt.
Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

In 1879, newspaper mogul James Gordon Bennett and Navy commander George Washington DeLong organized an expedition to reach the North Pole via the Bering Strait in a reinforced ship, the Jeannette. After months of besetment, ice crushed the ship and the crew made a desperate escape to Siberia, where all but two members died. Then, Army lieutenant Adolphus Greely led a 25-member magnetic survey expedition to the Canadian high Arctic in 1881. Relief ships failed to reach them for three years. By the time rescue arrived and they returned home, only Greely and five other men had survived starvation. The public's appetite for polar adventure waned until, a few years later, Peary's triumphs in Greenland earned him a heroic reputation and revived interest the quest for the North Pole. 

7. Robert Peary lost eight toes to frostbite.

On the grueling march to establish his camp at Greely's abandoned Fort Conger on the 1898-1902 expedition, Peary suffered a severe case of frostbitten feet. When they reached the hut, Henson took off Peary's footwear and revealed marble-like flesh up to his knees. As Henson removed the commander's socks, eight of Peary's toes popped off with them. As Bradley Robinson writes in the Henson biography Dark Companion, Peary reportedly said, "a few toes aren't much to give to achieve the Pole."

8. Robert Peary's wife Josephine accompanied him to the Arctic when she was eight months pregnant.

Josephine Diebitsch Peary was a formidable adventurer as well [PDF]. Her father Hermann Diebitsch, a Prussian military leader who had immigrated to Washington, D.C., directed the Smithsonian Institution's exchange system. Josephine worked at the Smithsonian as a clerk before marrying Peary in 1888. Bucking social convention, she insisted on accompanying his second expedition in 1891-1892, and in Greenland she managed the day-to-day operation of the base camp, including rationing provisions, bartering goods, hunting, and sewing furs. She even helped defend the men from a walrus attack by reloading their rifles as fast as they shot them.

She also went on Peary's third Greenland trip when she was eight months pregnant, and gave birth to their daughter Marie Anighito—dubbed the Snow Baby by newspapers—at their camp. In total, Josephine went to Greenland multiple times, wrote three bestselling books, gave lecture tours, was an honorary member of the American Alpine Club and other organizations, and decorated the family's apartment with narwhal tusks, polar bear skins, fur rugs, and other polar trophies.

9. Matthew Henson saved Robert Peary from a charging musk ox.

Cigarette card featuring explorer Matthew A. Henson
A cigarette card for the American Tobacco Company's Hassan Cork Tip cigarettes shows a portrait of Matthew Henson in a fur parka. The card belongs to the "World's Greatest Explorers" series.
American Tobacco Company, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

In 1895, Peary and Henson scouted a route toward the Pole over the northern edge of Greenland’s ice cap, just as they had done on their previous trip in 1891-1892. They reached a promontory called Navy Cliff, in extreme northeastern Greenland, but could go no farther. On the way back to their camp on the northwestern coast, they suffered from exhaustion, exposure, and hunger. Their only chance to make it back to camp was to find game.

As described in Dark Companion, Peary and Henson stumbled upon a herd of musk oxen. Henson and Peary killed several, but in his weakened state, Peary shot and missed one. The animal turned around and charged Peary. Henson picked up his gun and pulled the trigger. "Behind [Peary] came the muffled thud of a heavy, fallen thing, like a speeding rock landing in a thick cushion of snow," Bradley Robinson writes in Dark Companion. "Ten feet away lay a heap of brown, shaggy hair half sunken in a snowdrift."

10. Robert Peary absconded with a 30-ton meteorite.

In 1818, explorer John Ross wrote about several meteorites near Greenland's Cape York that served as the Inughuit's only source of metal for tools. In 1896, Peary appropriated the three huge meteorites from their territory. (By the late 19th century, Inughuit had obtained tools via trade and no longer needed the stones for that purpose.) The largest of the three weighed 30 tons and required heavy-duty equipment to load it onto Peary's ship without capsizing the vessel. 

Josephine Peary sold the meteorites to the American Museum of Natural History for $40,000 (nearly $1.2 million in today's money). They remain on display in the museum's Hall of Meteorites, where custom-built supports for the heaviest one extend into the bedrock of Manhattan island.

11. Theodore Roosevelt was one of Robert Peary's biggest supporters.

Robert Peary and Theodore Roosevelt
President Theodore Roosevelt (left) greets Robert Peary on the deck of the S.S. Roosevelt on July 7, 1908. Peary stopped at TR's home in Oyster Bay, New York, before departing on his North Pole quest.
George Borup, American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries // Public Domain

Peary and President Theodore Roosevelt shared a dedication to the strenuous life, and TR—who had served as the assistant secretary of the Navy—helped Peary obtain his multi-year leaves of absence from civil engineering work. "It seems to me that Peary has done valuable work as an Arctic explorer and can do additional work which entitles him to be given every chance by this Government to do such work," Roosevelt wrote to Secretary of the Navy William H. Moody in 1903. Peary repaid the favors by naming his custom-built steamship the S.S. Roosevelt.

In 1906, TR presented the explorer with the National Geographic Society's highest honor, the Hubbard Medal, for Peary's attainment of farthest north. Roosevelt also contributed the introduction to Peary's book about his successful quest for the North Pole.

12. Robert Peary met his nemesis, Frederick Cook, more than a decade before their feud.

Frederick Cook, a New York City physician, signed up as the surgeon for Peary's second trip to Greenland in 1891-1892. Neither Peary nor Matthew Henson was very impressed with his wilderness skills. Afterwards, Cook joined an expedition to Antarctica and claimed he summited Denali in Alaska, though his climbing partners disputed that feat.

So when Peary and Henson arrived back in Greenland in September 1909 after attaining the North Pole on April 6, they were shocked to hear that Cook had supposedly reached the Pole in spring 1908 and had announced it to the world just five days before Peary had returned to civilization. "[Cook] has not been at the Pole on April 21st, 1908, or at any other time," Peary told newspapers. "He has simply handed the public a gold brick."

From then on, Peary and his family strenuously defended his claim to the Pole. Cook had left his journals and instruments in Greenland in his dash to announce his discovery to the world, and Peary refused to transport them aboard his ship to New York, so it became Cook's word against Peary's. Peary also had the backing of wealthy funders, The New York Times, and the National Geographic Society, who eventually decided the matter in Peary's favor. But the controversy never went away; as late as 2009, the centennial of Peary's claim, historians and explorers were reexamining Peary's records and finding discrepancies in the distances he traveled each day on his way to the Pole. Cook's journals were lost in Greenland, and he spent time in jail for mail fraud. The jury is still out.

13. Robert Peary advocated for a Department of Aeronautics.

Peary was an early proponent of aviation for exploration as well as military defense. As World War I engulfed Europe, he argued for the creation of an air service, the Department of Aeronautics, that would operate alongside the Army and Navy and could then be used for lifesaving coastal patrol. Peary embarked on a 20-city tour to drum up public support for the Aerial Coastal Patrol Fund and raised $250,000 to build stations along the U.S. coast.

The Navy later implemented many of Peary's suggestions, but the tour left the explorer in frail health. He was diagnosed with incurable pernicious anemia and died on February 20, 1920. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, and his gravesite is adorned with a large granite globe inscribed with a motto in Latin, Inveniam viam aut faciam—"I shall find a way or make one."

Additional sources: Dark Companion, The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the Northwest Passage and the North Pole