How Brooklyn's Neighborhoods Got Their Names

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Brooklyn's modern history began as six small Dutch towns on the southern tip of Long Island. From these inauspicious beginnings sprouted New York's most populous borough, full of unique and distinct neighborhoods. You may know where these neighborhoods are, but do you know what their names mean?

Bay Ridge

Bay Ridge, ca. 1872-1887

Dutch settlers landed in this area and dubbed it “Yellow Hook” for its yellow clay soil along the water. In 1853, a yellow fever epidemic broke out and, in a move of astute marketing, Yellow Hook’s citizens changed the neighborhood’s name to Bay Ridge. Wealthy New Yorkers were attracted to the area’s beautiful views of New York Bay—a much better draw than a virulent blood disease.

Bergen Beach

The Bergen family were some of the first Dutch settlers to land in Brooklyn. Their clan originated in Bergen, Norway, and descendent Hans Hansen Bergen migrated to Kings County in 1633. His wife, Sarah Rapelye, arrived with the first Dutch ship to the borough and, according to the book Brooklyn by Name, she called herself the “first-born Christian Daughter of New Netherland.” What people actually called her behind her back, however, has been lost in the tides of history.

Bedford-Stuyvesant

This hybrid name comes from the time when the town of Bedford merged with Stuyvesant Heights. Stuyvesant Heights was named for Peter Stuyvesant, the last governor of the Dutch-controlled New Netherlands colony before it was given to British rule in 1664.

Boerum Hill

The Boerums were early Dutch settlers who arrived in Brooklyn in 1649 and rose to prominence as farmers in the area. The name Boerum Hill was out of fashion for much of the 20th century and the area was often just referred to as “South Brooklyn.” When the neighborhood’s popularity rose in the 1990s, South Brooklyn was out and Boerum Hill was in.

Brooklyn Heights

This one is relatively self-explanatory, but the name "Brooklyn" isn't (at least for those of us who don't speak Dutch). It comes from Breuckelen, one of the aforementioned six original towns of Kings County. New York's first suburb was named for the ridge it's perched upon over the East River. It was known as "Brooklyn Village" for years before the name "Brooklyn Heights" stuck as the borough grew.

Carroll Gardens

Like Boerum Hill, Carroll Gardens was just “South Brooklyn” for most of its history. The name “Carroll Gardens” comes from Charles Carroll, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Carroll led a failed assault on a British encampment near the Gowanus Canal in 1776 and lost about 300 of his 400 troops. In the mid-20th century, a neighborhood civic association popularized the name Carroll Gardens in an attempt to revitalize the area. Their plan wound up being far more successful than Carroll's assault.

Clinton Hill

This neighborhood just east of Fort Greene is named after Clinton Avenue, which is itself named after New York Governor DeWitt Clinton (in office from 1817 to '22 and again from 1825 to '28). “Hill” alludes to the area's downright dizzying elevation of 95 feet.

Cobble Hill

This area is named for the steep cobblestone street that once rose from what today is the corner of Court and Pacific Streets. Early Dutch settlers called it "Ponkiesbergh," which literally translates to "Cobble Hill." George Washington used it as a vantage point during the Revolutionary War's Battle of Long Island. The Americans lost, but as least he had a great view.

Coney Island

The Dutch called this land "Conyne Eylandt," meaning "Rabbit Island."

Crown Heights

Crown Heights was originally Crow Hill until Crown Street was laid through the neighborhood in 1916. We may never know why they didn't just change the name to "Crown Hill" so they would only have to buy one letter to change all the signs.

Cypress Hills

The sprawling Cypress Hills Cemetery was incorporated on November 21, 1848 by New York state as a non-profit, non-sectarian organization, and the surrounding neighborhood soon took its name.

Downtown Brooklyn

Downtown Brooklyn became the business hub of the borough largely because Fulton's steamship, which was the first form of mass transit between Manhattan and Brooklyn, connected the area to New York's financial center.

Dyker Heights

Dyker Beach and Meadow is thought to have been named after the Van Dykes, a Dutch family who divided the land when it was part of New Utrecht, one of the original Dutch towns on Long Island. The overhang above it was disregarded as unfarmable for centuries before 1893, when Walter L. Johnson inherited it and turned it into a livable suburb named after the beach below. Above is a Popular Science Monthly cross-section of Dyker Beach and Meadow from 1876.

DUMBO

This acronym stands for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass and was coined in the 1970s after artists began to migrate to the then-unnamed, sparsely populated former industrial hub between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges. The name was inspired by Manhattan’s sing-song neighborhoods like SoHo and Tribeca.

East New York

East New York was the brainchild of John R. Pitkin, a rich merchant from Connecticut who began developing the area in 1835. He wanted it to rival New York City, but an economic depression ruined those plans. East New York eventually became incorporated into regular New York in 1897. Sorry, John.

Flatlands

Jans Martense Schecnk House, ca. 1891

Flatlands was originally known by Dutch settlers as Nieuw Amersfoort. Once British rule set in, the name became "Flatlands" because the area was—wait for it—flat. The region was primarily used for farming tobacco and other crops.

Fort Greene

Here’s a simple one: Fort Greene was once a fort. It was named after Nathanael Greene, a Major General in the Continental Army and one of George Washington’s most trusted officers. Washington withdrew troops from this earthen fort when he knew the Battle of Long Island was lost, preventing further casualties.

Gerritsen Beach

This hard-to-access, crescent-shaped neighborhood adjacent to Marine Park is named for Wolfert Gerritsen, a 17th century settler. The area was mostly marsh until New Yorkers began building summer homes there after the first World War.

Gowanus

Named after the canal, which itself was named after Gouwane, a chief of the Lenape (also known as Canarsee) tribe of Native Americans who lived in the area long before any Dutch or British people came and started calling it "Brooklyn" or "Breuckelen."

Gravesend

The origin of this neighborhood name was under some dispute, but the argument didn't last long. Historical archeologist (and Bayside, Queens resident) Richard Schaeffer settled it with a one-punch knockout of a letter to the editor in the New York Times. The Times had said that "Gravesend" comes from the British township where Lady Deborah Moody had migrated from. According to Schaeffer, it actually comes from Dutch governor-general William Kieft, who “chose to name the settlement 's- Gravesande after the town in Holland that had been the seat of the Counts of Holland before they moved to the Hague. It means the count's sand or beach. The odd spelling, with hyphen and apostrophe, is an archaic Dutch possessive form.”

So there.

Greenpoint

Early European settlers called a small, grassy bluff protruding out into the East River “greenpoint,” and the name stuck for the entire area. The original greenpoint would have been at the end of Freeman street, where a truck yard stands now.

Mill Basin

This tiny protected peninsula inside Jamaica Bay was once the site of tidal mills, hence “Mill Basin.”

Navy Yard

This stretch of piers, channels, and dry docks on the East River became an official United States Navy Yard in 1806 and was in service until 1966. After a short period of commercial shipbuilding, the Navy Yard has been out of maritime service since 1987.

Park Slope and Prospect Heights

These adjacent neighborhoods are both named for Prospect Park. The names were interchangeable when referring to the whole area for years until residents and real estate brokers began firmly differentiating the two. 

Red Hook

Red Hook, ca. 1875

Red Hook's name comes from the red soil found at the point of South Brooklyn (“hoek” is Dutch for “point”). Red Hook was of great strategic importance in the defense of New York Harbor during the Revolutionary War. There’s an IKEA there now, so score a surprising victory for the Swedes.

Sea Gate

Not many people know about Sea Gate, a tiny beachside community located on the western tip of Coney Island. The area was originally named "Norton’s Point" after a casino that once operated there, but the gaming industry was ushered out in 1892 in favor of a small, gated community. Hence, “Sea Gate.”

Sheepshead Bay

The sheepshead fish was such a popular catch in the 1800s in Brooklyn that they named the sliver of a bay and the adjacent plot of land after it. Oddly, the sheepshead prefers much warmer climes, but the funny-looking fish with human-like teeth couldn't get enough of Brooklyn. Nowadays, it's remarkably rare to find one swimming in the area. It’s theorized that pollution killed the oyster reefs they fed on and eventually thinned out their numbers. That, or their rents got jacked up when yuppie fish moved in.

Sunset Park

Another neighborhood known simply as “South Brooklyn” for years, Sunset Park got its current name from the local park just south of Green-Wood Cemetery. The park offers terrific views of the Manhattan skyline during sunsets, hence the name "Sunset Park." If you are poetic at heart, feel free to ascribe the name as a sorrowful allusion to the neighboring cemetery.

Williamsburg

This area along the East River was dubbed "Bushwick Shores" before it was purchased in 1802 by real estate investor Richard Woodhull. He named it "Williamsburgh" after Jonathan Williams, the engineer who surveyed the land.

British Brooklyn

These neighborhood names skip the anglicized Dutch and come directly from towns in the UK.

Brighton Beach

Brighton Beach got its name in 1878 after a group of business developers held a contest to decide what the area would be called.

Bath Beach

Bath Beach, which rests up against Gravesend Bay, is named for the town located in the southwest of England. 

Kensington

Kensington, Flatbush’s quiet and small neighbor, is named for the residential West London borough.

The Modest Men of Brooklyn

These three communities have one thing in common: The men who established them humbly named each one after themselves.

Bensonhurst 

In 1835, Brooklyn Gas Light president Arthur W. Benson bought a large plot of farmland and developed it into a suburb he named Bensonhurst.

Brownsville

Browsnsville, ca. 1962

Two decades later, a man named Charles S. Brown subdivided a patch of unclaimed land between East New York and Bushwick and renamed it Brownsville.

Lefferts Gardens

In 1893, James Lefferts inherited a swath of Dutch farmland that he divided into 600 separate building lots for single-family homes. That area, within Lefferts Gardens, still stands and goes by its original name, Lefferts Manor.

The Woods

Much of Brooklyn was at one time dense woodlands, hence these names from the endlessly creative Dutch.

Midwood

Midwood, 1977

From “Midwout,” meaning “middle woods.”

Flatbush

Originally “Vlackte Bosch," which means “flat forest," or "a plain with woods."

Bushwick

Evolved from “Boswijck,” meaning “little town in the woods.”

UPDATE: As many readers have correctly pointed out, this article omits Canarsie. The name "Canarsie" comes from a translation of what the original Dutch settlers called the Lenape Native Americans who lived in what is now Brooklyn.

Also omitted: Vinegar Hill (named by Irish immigrants after the Battle of Vinegar Hill), Windsor Terrace (which is said to have been coined by Robert Bell, an early resident in the area), and Boro Park (State Senator William H. Reynolds bought the land in 1898 and called it "Borough Park").

All images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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

10 Products for a Better Night's Sleep

Amazon/Comfort Spaces
Amazon/Comfort Spaces

Getting a full eight hours of sleep can be tough these days. If you’re having trouble catching enough Zzzs, consider giving these highly rated and recommended products a try.

1. Everlasting Comfort Pure Memory Foam Knee Pillow; $25

Everlasting Comfort Knee Pillow
Everlasting Comfort/Amazon

For side sleepers, keeping the spine, hips, and legs aligned is key to a good night’s rest—and a pain-free morning after. Everlasting Comfort’s memory foam knee pillow is ergonomically designed to fit between the knees or thighs to ensure proper alignment. One simple but game-changing feature is the removable strap, which you can fasten around one leg; this keeps the pillow in place even as you roll at night, meaning you don’t have to wake up to adjust it (or pick it up from your floor). Reviewers call the pillow “life-changing” and “the best knee pillow I’ve found.” Plus, it comes with two pairs of ear plugs.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Letsfit White Noise Machine; $21

Letsfit White Noise Machine
Letsfit/Amazon

White noise machines: They’re not just for babies! This Letsfit model—which is rated 4.7 out of five with nearly 3500 reviews—has 14 potential sleep soundtracks, including three white noise tracks, to better block out everything from sirens to birds that chirp enthusiastically at dawn (although there’s also a birds track, if that’s your thing). It also has a timer function and a night light.

Buy it: Amazon

3. ECLIPSE Blackout Curtains; $16

Eclipse Black Out Curtains
Eclipse/Amazon

According to the National Sleep Foundation, too much light in a room when you’re trying to snooze is a recipe for sleep disaster. These understated polyester curtains from ECLIPSE block 99 percent of light and reduce noise—plus, they’ll help you save on energy costs. "Our neighbor leaves their backyard light on all night with what I can only guess is the same kind of bulb they use on a train headlight. It shines across their yard, through ours, straight at our bedroom window," one Amazon reviewer who purchased the curtains in black wrote. "These drapes block the light completely."

Buy it: Amazon

4. JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock; $38

JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock
JALL/Amazon

Being jarred awake by a blaring alarm clock can set the wrong mood for the rest of your day. Wake up in a more pleasant way with this clock, which gradually lights up between 10 percent and 100 percent in the 30 minutes before your alarm. You can choose between seven different colors and several natural sounds as well as a regular alarm beep, but why would you ever use that? “Since getting this clock my sleep has been much better,” one reviewer reported. “I wake up not feeling tired but refreshed.”

Buy it: Amazon

5. Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light; $200

Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light
Philips/Amazon

If you’re looking for an alarm clock with even more features, Philips’s SmartSleep Wake-Up Light is smartphone-enabled and equipped with an AmbiTrack sensor, which tracks things like bedroom temperature, humidity, and light levels, then gives recommendations for how you can get a better night’s rest.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Slumber Cloud Stratus Sheet Set; $159

Stratus sheets from Slumber Cloud.
Slumber Cloud

Being too hot or too cold can kill a good night’s sleep. The Good Housekeeping Institute rated these sheets—which are made with Outlast fibers engineered by NASA—as 2020’s best temperature-regulating sheets.

Buy it: SlumberCloud

7. Comfort Space Coolmax Sheet Set; $29-$40

Comfort Spaces Coolmax Sheets
Comfort Spaces/Amazon

If $159 sheets are out of your price range, the GHI recommends these sheets from Comfort Spaces, which are made with moisture-wicking Coolmax microfiber. Depending on the size you need, they range in price from $29 to $40.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Coop Home Goods Eden Memory Foam Pillow; $80

Coop Eden Pillow
Coop Home Goods/Amazon

This pillow—which has a 4.5-star rating on Amazon—is filled with memory foam scraps and microfiber, and comes with an extra half-pound of fill so you can add, or subtract, the amount in the pillow for ultimate comfort. As a bonus, the pillows are hypoallergenic, mite-resistant, and washable.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Baloo Weighted Blanket; $149-$169

Baloo Weighted Blanket
Baloo/Amazon

Though the science is still out on weighted blankets, some people swear by them. Wirecutter named this Baloo blanket the best, not in small part because, unlike many weighted blankets, it’s machine-washable and -dryable. It’s currently available in 12-pound ($149) twin size and 20-pound ($169) queen size. It’s rated 4.7 out of five stars on Amazon, with one reviewer reporting that “when it's spread out over you it just feels like a comfy, snuggly hug for your whole body … I've found it super relaxing for falling asleep the last few nights, and it looks nice on the end of the bed, too.” 

Buy it: Amazon 

10. Philips Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band; $200

Philips SmartSleep Snoring Relief Band
Philips/Amazon

Few things can disturb your slumber—and that of the ones you love—like loudly sawing logs. Philips’s Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band is designed for people who snore when they’re sleeping on their backs, and according to the company, 86 percent of people who used the band reported reduced snoring after a month. The device wraps around the torso and is equipped with a sensor that delivers vibrations if it detects you moving to sleep on your back; those vibrations stop when you roll onto your side. The next day, you can see how many hours you spent in bed, how many of those hours you spent on your back, and your response rate to the vibrations. The sensor has an algorithm that notes your response rate and tweaks the intensity of vibrations based on that. “This device works exactly as advertised,” one Amazon reviewer wrote. “I’d say it’s perfect.”

Buy it: Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

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