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It’s April 6, 1909, and Robert E. Peary and his assistant Matthew Henson are settling in at yet another camp during their third attempt to reach the North Pole. It’s something they’ve done countless times during the course of their journeys together, but on this otherwise unremarkable stretch of ice, their once-elusive goal is now within reach.
As they and the Inughuit guides unpack their supplies, tend to the dogs, and begin food preparations, Peary unfurls an American flag that his wife Josephine had sewn for him years earlier. He fastens it to the top of the camp’s igloo. Henson watches as the star-spangled silk springs to life on a polar breeze, a symbol of their triumph.
When Peary takes the first measurements of their location, his instruments give him a position of 89° 57’ North. They’re just a hair’s breadth away from true north at 90°. It won’t be long now.
With success all but secured, Henson seeks a well-earned moment with Peary. Henson later remembers, “Feeling that the time had come, I ungloved my right hand and went forward to congratulate him on the success of our 18 years of effort, but a gust of wind blew something into his eye, or else the burning pain caused by his prolonged look at the reflection of the limb of the sun forced him to turn aside, and with both hands covering his eyes, he gave us orders to not let him sleep for more than four hours.”
There are still more measurements to be taken, and Peary is seemingly in no mood to delay his work with platitudes. And as for the spurned handshake? Well, this isn’t the first time Peary refuses to share his victory with his most valued assistant. It’s a pattern that will color their working relationship for the rest of their lives.
After traveling around the area and taking more readings, Peary returns to camp on April 7 and makes the official announcement: “We will plant the Stars and Stripes—at the North Pole!" Peary’s American flag is placed at the proper location near true north, and the group gathers for a photo to capture the moment.
They are now the first men to reach the top of the world … Or so they believe.
For Robert Peary and Matthew Henson, it was the culmination of seven polar expeditions together—nearly two decades of trying for a barely tangible spot on the icy landscape. In this episode, we’ll look at how they did it.
From Mental Floss and iHeartRadio, this is The Quest for the North Pole. I’m your host, Kat Long, Science Editor at Mental Floss, and this is Episode Six: Third Time’s the Charm.
In July 1908, Robert E. Peary was 52. Matthew Henson was 41. Both had been battling the Arctic in search of icy glory for almost 20 years. Each time they had traveled to the harsh region to attack the North Pole, they had failed, and when they’d returned home, it had taken them longer to regain their physical and mental strength. Still, they weren’t ready to give up the quest. As Peary wrote later, “I realized that the project was something too big to die.”
Peary convinced his rich donors in the Peary Arctic Club that he would succeed this time. Failure was inconceivable: All of the hard-won experience and knowledge from his earlier polar forays had led to this moment, pointing the way toward his achievement—and for the donors, a namesake island or glacier. The club’s president, Morris K. Jesup, assured Peary he would be given the means for another trip north. Peary recalled, “His promise meant that I should not have to beg all the money in small sums from a more or less reluctant world.” Maybe the fact that Peary had named what was thought to be the northernmost point of land in the world Cape Morris Jesup had something to do with it.
Peary’s less-than-successful attempts to reach the North Pole had dried up other funding streams, but Arctic fever still raged among the public. Peary signed a deal with The New York Times to break the story of his success when the time came, and other newspapers breathlessly reported the preparations for Peary’s journey. This was the era of the penny press, when an explosion of cheap newspapers competed for content. Like a Gilded Age Netflix or Amazon, they also created exciting stories to drive their circulations through the roof.
Here’s Edward J. Larson, historian and author of, most recently, To the Edges of the Earth: 1909, the Race for the Three Poles, and the Climax of the Age of Exploration.
Edward J. Larson: And so one thing that would give them content that was enormously popular were tales of derring-do, which polar exploration stood right at the top. They were pushing these expeditions, because there was such a popular interest. And then it was a cycle. People are interested in it because they're told they're interested in it, they read about it, you get going in a cycle. So this was in many ways, an artificial goal, but not a meaningless goal in the sense that it tested the explorer and it proved the worthiness, you'd say, of a country [...] in a highly nationalistic period And this was part of showing that in that prowess, it was like winning... It's like countries compete today to win the most Olympic medals on the idea that somehow that shows something. This was the same sort of thing. This was the Olympic goal of the day.
And no one took more pride in their expedition than the president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. Peary and Roosevelt were two of a kind; they believed in the value of rugged pursuits for building man and country. Peary even named his custom-designed expedition ship after TR.
The Roosevelt departed from the pier at East 24th Street on July 6, 1908, in the middle of a deadly heatwave. Peary wrote about the weather in his journal, noting, “It was an interesting coincidence that the day on which we started for the coldest spot on Earth was about the hottest which New York had known in years.”
But New Yorkers weren’t the type of people to let blistering heat slow them down. Thousands lined up to watch the Roosevelt sail up the East River with Peary’s hand-picked team waving from the deck. Matthew Henson would again serve as Peary’s senior assistant and right-hand man; Robert Bartlett returned as the Roosevelt’s captain; Ross Marvin signed on as Peary’s secretary for the second time; and three other members of the ship’s crew rejoined. New members included Donald MacMillan, a Bowdoin College graduate and teacher, and Yale grad George Borup as Peary’s assistants.
As the vessel made its way up the river, factories blew their whistles to see them off; Theodore Roosevelt’s presidential yacht, The Mayflower, followed suit. Even the prisoners at Blackwell Island lined up outside the penitentiary to cheer them on.
The next day, the Roosevelt docked at Oyster Bay on the north shore of Long Island, where TR had his summer home. Roosevelt treated Peary, his wife Josephine, and members of the Peary Arctic Club to lunch. The president was a curious adventurer in much the same mold as Peary, and it’s easy to imagine TR himself tagging along on the expedition, if he hadn’t had a country to run.
Roosevelt, a fanboy of big ships if there ever was one, took this lunch as an opportunity to inspect every inch of his namesake vessel before it departed. Decked out in an all-white suit, he spent an hour shaking every hand he came across, powering through the engine room, petting all of the sled dogs on board, and admiring Peary’s cramped yellow-pine cabin, complete with its library of Arctic books and equipment.
At the end of the lunch, Peary all but promised Roosevelt that he would reach the North Pole, no matter what. “Mr. President, I shall put into this effort everything there is in me—physical, mental, and moral,” he said. Roosevelt replied, "I believe in you, Peary, and I believe in your success—if it is within the possibility of man.”
Peary felt no qualms about what lay ahead. He and his team had made every preparation and taken every possible obstacle into account. Everything they had to do was done. He wrote, “Perhaps this feeling of surety was because every possible contingency had been discounted, perhaps because the setbacks and knock-out blows received in the past had dulled my sense of danger.”
Whether it was enough to get them to the North Pole this time would be up to fate.
From Oyster Bay, the Roosevelt traveled the familiar route to Sydney, Nova Scotia, for its convenient proximity to coal supplies that the ship took on board. By July 17, the Roosevelt had cleared North Sydney, and on August 1, they made it to Cape York, Greenland, an area Peary described as “the dividing line between the civilized world on one side, and the arctic world on the other.” But to put it in perspective, Peary wrote that Cape York is farther from the North Pole than New York City is from Tampa, Florida. There was still a long way to go.
Just a few weeks earlier, throngs of wellwishers had cheered the expedition on as they cut through New York’s East River, one of the world’s busiest arteries of commerce. Now, as the Roosevelt approached the treeless cape, the explorers were greeted by a handful of Inughuit in kayaks. But these tiny communities at the edge of Greenland’s ice sheet would make or break Peary’s dream.
Peary’s men bartered with the Inughuit for the essential equipment they couldn’t get back home: additional dogs, bearskins, sealskin whips, and walrus blubber. From Cape York, they traveled north to Etah, a village that Henson and Peary had visited on previous expeditions, where they greeted the Inughuit families who had helped them on so many of their Arctic efforts. Henson was delighted to see old friends, who had nicknamed him Mari-pahluk, “the kind one.” Ootah, his most trusted Inughuit assistant, was the leader of the dozens of hunters in his community. The people looked up to him and followed his advice. If Ootah agreed to help Peary and Henson, others would too.
As he had before, Peary hired the Inughuit men to hunt and drive sledges, and the men’s wives to sew fur clothing and prepare food. Whole families clambered onto the Roosevelt’s deck for the adventure.
The Inughuit’s familiarity with the polar conditions, their survival skills, and their willingness to work hard was invaluable to Peary. In return, Peary paid them in trade goods that were otherwise hard to come by in Greenland. Their relationship was transactional.
Susan Kaplan: He respected them, but he was also using them.
That’s Susan Kaplan, professor of anthropology and director of the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum and Arctic Studies Center at Bowdoin College.
Kaplan: And they were also using him, because first of all, he would go to Northwest Greenland and ask people to join his expedition. But what Inughuit got in return were tremendous amounts of Western goods, such as rifles and ammunition, that they really valued. For instance, with the rifle, here was a piece of technology that they could use very effectively. So they went home, and Peary's payment to them, to both the men and the women who were on the expedition made them very wealthy, well-off individuals in their own community. So Peary certainly used them, but they were not without agency themselves.
Despite being skilled hunters and in familiar territory, the Inughuit weren’t immune to the anxieties of a mission like this. In their normal, everyday lives, Inughuit had no reason to venture far from land over sea ice, since the sea mammals they hunted for food tended to hang out close to shore. But Peary was asking them to leave land behind and march hundreds of miles across the frozen ocean.
Kaplan: From what we can gather, they thought it was kind of crazy. They certainly got more and more nervous the farther out on the polar sea Peary ventured and had them go. They traveled on the polar sea, but close to shore. The farther out you get on the polar sea, fewer marine mammals are going to be around, and the more dangerous it is, because leads will open up and you may get stuck and not be able to get back to land. So they got very, very nervous, and there are instances in the journals where you can see that people like Donald MacMillan is having to distract them and cajole them to continue going north. They didn't see the point.
After Etah, the expedition’s next stop was Cape Sheridan; to get there, the Roosevelt had to cut through miles of treacherous ice, some of which may have been 80 to 100 feet thick. For most ships at the time, it would have been impossible to survive the maze of ice, but the Roosevelt was designed to deal with these exact types of obstacles.
The ship barreled through the unforgiving waters for weeks, finally arriving at Cape Sheridan on September 5, 1908. This would be the location of their winter base camp for the next few months.
Cape Sheridan lies on the northeastern coast of Canada’s Ellesmere Island, located just a few miles from modern-day Alert, the northernmost permanently inhabited place in the world. Sir George Strong Nares, whom we met in our third episode, wintered at Cape Sheridan, and Peary had made it his jumping-off point on his previous two expeditions. Now the plan was to set up a winter camp at the cape. It wasn’t a time to rest and conserve strength for the final push to the North Pole, though: Peary expected everyone to prepare supplies, build equipment, and get ready for victory.
At the camp, Henson again proved invaluable to Peary. He joined Inughuit hunters on two 10-day excursions out in the elements to provide the camp with fresh meat. And when he wasn’t out on dogsleds, he was at the base camp, building over two dozen sledges and handling any other tasks that came his way.
But Henson was much more than just someone who could manage physical tasks. He acted as a liaison between Peary and the Inughuit on the voyage. And as the Inughuit people became more important to Peary’s organization, so, too, did Henson. Here’s Susan Kaplan.
Kaplan: Matthew Henson becomes an absolutely indispensable part of Peary's expeditions. From what we can tell, also a very charismatic individual, a lovely individual, and also linguistically talented. So he learns the Inuktitut, the language spoken by Inuit. He learns the language. From that perspective, he's able to communicate more effectively than... Peary knows some language, but not the way that Henson does. But also I think a combination of his charisma and also his race. The Inuit look at him and they go, "Okay, he's not like these other Westerners who are white. His skin is darker. It certainly isn't like ours, but he's sort of more like us." I think that he had an easier acceptance with them. But he certainly was enfolded into their community. So he had a wonderful relationship with the Inughuit, and Peary counted on that relationship.
The sledges that Henson and the other members of the party built were then used to move supplies and equipment 93 miles from Cape Sheridan to Cape Columbia, the northernmost point in all of Canada. This is where the final push to the pole would begin.
Let’s take a break here. We’ll be right back.
On their way toward the North Pole from Cape Columbia, Robert Peary and his entire team would carry all of the equipment and supplies they’d need on sledges. Pulling those sledges was the other vital part of the operation: the dogs themselves. There is evidence of humans using sled dogs as far back as 9500 years ago, and for the Inughuit it was a way of life. They had taught Henson the skills years earlier. It was the only way anyone would make it to the North Pole, and more importantly, back to safety.
Henson described the animals as more wolflike than doglike. There were over 100 of these dogs on the Peary expedition, and caring for them was a community effort. Henson, in particular, became intimately familiar with dog care: he fed them, kept them stimulated, broke up fights, and observed their behavior. He wrote at length about the troubles the men had with loose dogs rummaging through the camp’s provisions on previous expeditions, and how there would be constant fights to break up among the pack if the dogs weren’t tied down. But he also praised their intelligence and loyalty, later writing, “Without the Esquimo dog, the story of the North Pole would remain untold.” Among Peary’s men, only Henson could drive dog teams as well as the Native people. Only Henson had spent the time and effort in learning the skills.
For that reason, Peary probably decided early on—without revealing his thoughts to anyone—that Henson would accompany him in the polar party, the final group in Peary’s relay system. The only party that would stand at the North Pole.
According to the Peary system, advance parties set out from Cape Columbia to break the trail and set up the temporary camps. Peary appointed Henson, Bartlett, Borup, MacMillan, and Marvin to lead advance parties, each with two or three Inughuit assistants and four dogsleds. Bartlett left first to break the trail, followed by others to build igloos and carry supplies to the temporary camps. Peary’s team would bring up the rear, after the trail had been smoothed and the camps established. This strategy reduced the amount of gear Peary needed to carry and allowed him to increase his pace over a prepared trail.
Peary had developed the system over his years in the Arctic. He had tried various methods of polar travel and refined his plan down to be as energy efficient as possible. But it was still dangerous and riddled with potential pitfalls.
Kaplan: So he certainly took risks, but they were calculated risks. He was not interested in sort of risk-taking for the thrill of it. Kat Long: People might say that just going to the North Pole is a risk that seems crazy to take though. Kaplan: But he spent years trying and refining his equipment and his techniques to do it. He experimented with every kind of sledge design you can imagine. He just planned everything. We found, when we were going through his papers in the National Archives, that drafts of letters... There were these little doodles in the margins where he's trying to design the most perfect camp stove that will burn the least amount of fuel as fast as possible to turn ice into boiling water so that his crews could have tea and warm up. I mean, he was just so meticulous in his training, and over the years, just refined it and refined it. The same with decisions as to where he was going to leave the land and venture out onto the polar sea. He was adjusting his approaches and his locations. He realized that he was trying to get to the North Pole with too many people and too much equipment, and so he pared that down. He was a student of how to get there. So he left as little to chance as he could.
On February 15, while darkness still enveloped the landscape, Bartlett’s team was the first to depart the Roosevelt. They went ahead to break the trail for the advance parties that followed. Peary’s party left last, abandoning the safety of the ship on February 22. All of the personnel rendezvoused at Cape Columbia on the last day of February, where Peary arranged the dogs into 19 teams of seven dogs apiece.
From Cape Columbia, Bartlett’s and Borup’s teams left first. Peary wrote, “One by one the divisions drew out from the main army of sledges and dog teams, took up Bartlett’s trail over the ice, and disappeared to the northward in the wind haze. This departure of the procession was a noiseless one, for the freezing east wind carried all sounds away.”
Peary, the last man in the chain, found relatively easy traveling conditions—thanks to his men’s hard work. After three days of traveling, he saw that Borup was on his way back to Cape Columbia. Peary sent Marvin’s team back to join him, with instructions to fetch additional fuel at Cape Columbia and then rejoin the line of advance parties.
Everything was going according to plan until he reached the Big Lead, the unpredictable stretch of black water that had blocked his way on his previous attempt at the Pole. His team now caught up to the remaining advance parties, including Bartlett’s pioneer party, that had also been stopped at the edge of the water. No more progress could be made until they could cross the lead. The five days of forced inaction took a psychological toll on the men. “I think that more of mental wear and tear was crowded into those days than into all the rest of the 15 months we were absent from civilization,” Peary recalled.
Once they crossed the lead, the teams could travel 25 miles on a good day. Borup and Marvin reappeared with the supplies of fuel. Again, the teams spread out in a chain across miles of ice, each building igloos or laying caches of supplies. But with temperatures as low as 50 degrees below zero, and high winds and other calamities popping up without warning, progress was not guaranteed. In mid-March, Peary had to send MacMillan and his dog team back to base camp due to frostbite, but the others remained in formation.
At certain points, ice had built up in hummocks, forcing the men to break it up with pickaxes in order to move the sledges. As they worked to clear the trail, the dogs would curl up and fall asleep. As frustrated as Henson was about chipping away at ice for hours at a time, he was even less enthusiastic about having to wake up sleeping, temperamental dogs to get back to work. He wrote, “We would have to come back and start them, which was always the signal for a fight or two.”
On March 19, Peary told the remaining team leaders—Marvin, Bartlett, Borup, and Henson—his plan for the rest of their journey. After the next day’s march, Borup’s team would turn back. Five marches after that, Marvin would turn around. And five marches after that, Bartlett’s team would return to base camp—leaving Peary, Henson, and the four Inughuit assistants—(Odaq) Ootah, Iggianguaq (Egingwah), Sigluk (Seegloo), and Ukkujaaq (Ooqueah)—to actually go to the North Pole. We’ll talk more about Peary’s reasons for this decision in a later episode.
The men who had traveled this far, and had suffered such extreme conditions, were surely devastated that they would not, ultimately, go to the Pole themselves. They hid their true feelings, however, and did not try to argue their case with Peary. Borup later remarked that “I would have given my immortal soul to have gone on. … As a matter of fact, the Commander lugged some of us a good deal farther than necessary, knowing our feelings.” But they stuck to the plan.
Around March 20, according to protocol, Borup turned back, followed by Marvin on March 26. On April 1, after reaching 87°48’ North, Bartlett was told to head back to base camp. That meant Peary, Henson, and the four drivers were on their own for the final 130 nautical miles to the Pole.
Henson would often be the one at the front of the party, breaking the trail so Peary and the Inughuit could follow from behind. Peary could barely walk at times due to the pain in his feet where frostbite had claimed eight toes during his 1898 expedition. It’s unclear when, or how often, Peary had to ride on a sledge rather than walk.
Henson later wrote, “The memory of those last five marches, from the Farthest North of Captain Bartlett to the arrival of our party at the Pole, is a memory of toil, fatigue, and exhaustion, but we were urged on and encouraged by our relentless commander, who was himself being scourged by the final lashings of the dominating influence that had controlled his life.”
Though the fulfillment of a dream may have been in sight for Peary, the team was soon reminded how little the polar world cares about the goals of men. On April 3, the team was traveling through a section of moving ice, where floes could crash against each other or suddenly pull away to leave lanes of open water. As the men traveled over the shifting floes—Peary setting the pace, half an hour ahead of the five other men—Henson struggled to get his dogsled across a patch of ice. Suddenly, the ice slipped from beneath Henson's feet, and he plunged through the crack into the freezing water below.
Henson knew that it wouldn't take long for water like this to become an icy tomb. Partially in the water, he struggled frantically to pull himself up, but his gloved hands couldn't make purchase on the ice. In just a few seconds, his heavy fur clothing would become saturated with water and drag him beneath the surface forever.
Suddenly, Henson felt himself being grabbed at the nape of the neck. With one hand, Ootah pulled Henson upwards and back on to the solid surface, and with the other hand guided Henson’s dogs and sled across the fragile ice. Ootah had undoubtedly saved Henson's life—and their chance of reaching the Pole.
That quick-thinking heroism probably didn’t come as much of a shock to Peary or Henson. Ootah was already the expedition’s most trusted guide and a personal favorite of Peary. He’d proven himself more than capable during the 1906 expedition, and Peary knew that if he wanted to stake his claim at the Big Nail, he’d need Ootah by his side on occasions just like this.
Once out of the water, Henson acted quickly, beating the ice out of his pants and changing into dry boots. He and Ootah continued on until they caught up with the rest of the party.
On April 6, 1909, after traveling more than 400 miles over the frozen Arctic sea, the crew settled down to make camp as they had so many times before. When Henson asked what the name of this camp would be, Peary responded it would be called Camp Morris K. Jesup after the Peary Arctic Club president—”the last and most northerly camp on Earth,” Henson recalled.
As their leader took his first round of observations that day, anticipation among the men grew. Could they already have reached their goal?
Peary's observations indicated that they were at 89° 57’ North—just three short nautical miles from the top of the Earth. The North Pole was all but theirs.
After a few hours’ sleep in his igloo, Peary wrote the famous words in his journal. “The Pole at last. The prize of three centuries. My dream and ambition for 20 years. Mine at last! I cannot bring myself to realize it. It seems all so simple and commonplace.”
He also couldn’t bring himself to even write the word “we” or “team” or “us” once in his journal on that night. For Peary, it was his goal, his journey, his achievement.
Though selfishness is one explanation for Peary’s behavior, there could be another reason. According to the account Henson told after the expedition, he was actually the one who stepped foot on the North Pole first, not Peary. As the lead driver most of the way, Henson was 45 minutes ahead of Peary at times. And when Peary reached 89° 57’ North, three miles from the Pole, his assistant had already beaten him to it—and then some. That couldn’t have made Peary happy.
“I didn’t know it at the time” Henson said in a 1934 interview, “but I was in the lead breaking trail that final morning, as I had been through the whole last dash, and when Peary took his sights we found out we had overshot the mark a couple of miles. We went back then. Yes sir, these here feet were set down where no human being ever had put his feet before.”
Though we may never know for sure who actually took those first steps, we do know that on the morning of April 7, Peary took an additional measurement at the camp with a sextant and pan of mercury, lying flat on his stomach on the ice. When Peary stood up, with “a resolute squaring of his jaws,” Henson wrote, “I was sure that he was satisfied.”
Now Henson moved forward to congratulate his longtime commander, knowing what the achievement of his life’s dream meant to him. With the temperature at -29° Fahrenheit, Henson removed his warm fur glove and went to shake Peary’s hand. Peary turned away.
Peary spent the rest of the day traveling beyond the Pole in different directions and taking more measurements of their position. Upon returning to camp, Peary confirmed to Henson and the others that they had indeed made it to the Pole.
Together, the six men convened at 90° North and built a mound of snow to mark the spot. The flags were raised, pictures were taken, and only after Henson and the Inughuit gave three cheers for their leader did Peary shake each man’s hand. History had been made.
We’ll be right back.
The irony of spending almost 20 years trying to reach the North Pole is that Peary didn’t want to spend an extra second more than absolutely necessary there. In fact, they were only there for 30 hours. The men would soon face what Henson would describe as “17 days of haste, toil, and misery as cannot be comprehended by the mind.”
Despite the sheer physical test of the return trip, it was as uneventful as a 400-mile trek through 30-below temperatures could possibly be. As the team finally got off the frozen sea and back onto solid ground, Ootah remarked, “The devil is asleep, or having trouble with his wife, or we should never have come back so easily.”
The fact that their return went as smoothly as it did is a credit to Peary’s planning. The team was traveling over trails that the relay sledges had already established, and they reused the igloos they had built for the poleward journey.
Here's James Edward Mills, freelance journalist, independent producer, and author of the book The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors.
James Edward Mills: It involved really high-level reconnaissance. And also, just building the technology and having a better ... When I say technology, I mean how much food, or how much time, how big of a party that you need. And frankly, it's not unlike how explorers train for Everest or some of the other big mountains around the Himalaya or even being able to make a good climb up Denali or going up Aconcagua.
There's all of these things that you need to learn, and at the turn of the century, no one really knew how to do it. Long: That's a really good point. Yeah, I feel like people try, and then they get to a certain point. And then the next person tries, and they learn something new. It's a cumulative effort. Mills: Right. Oh, absolutely. In many ways, it's how it turns into a race, and I think that there's all this romantic pressure to be the first. But sadly, sometimes people get to where they're going out of sheer blind luck as opposed to thoughtful, deliberate skill and working really hard at establishing the things they need in order to be successful. And in my opinion, that's one of the main reasons why people die climbing big mountains because of exposure. And often, rock falls happen, but sometimes things happen, simply because you're so wrapped up in the summit that you forget that the goal was to get back safely, not just to make it to the top. One of the things that I really have to credit Henson and Peary for, they took the time to figure out how to do it right. They were able to make it back safely.
On April 23 at 6 a.m., Peary was back at Cape Columbia. He was alive. And he had reached his ultimate goal. He wrote in his diary:
“My life work is accomplished. The thing which it was intended from the beginning that I should do, the thing which I believed could be done, and that I could do, I have done. I have got the North Pole out of my system after 23 years of effort, hard work, disappointments, hardships, privations, more or less suffering, and some risks. I have won the last great geographical prize, the North Pole, for the credit of the United States. This work is the finish, the cap and climax of nearly 400 years of effort, loss of life, and expenditure of fortunes by the civilized nations of the world, and it has been accomplished in a way that is thoroughly American. I am content.”
But their celebration was soon tempered by tragedy. When they returned to the Roosevelt, still stationed at Cape Sheridan, the crew greeted them with terrible news: Ross Marvin, Peary’s secretary, assistant, and well-liked advance party leader, had drowned on his return trip to base camp.
Marvin had apparently gone ahead of his two Inughuit drivers during their journey. As the men traveled to catch up to him, they came across a break in some thin ice. They glimpsed the top of Marvin’s fur jacket under the water … but no body could be seen. They couldn’t retrieve Marvin. With the precarious ice and the lack of visibility, any attempt could have led to them slipping through too.
Wrote Henson, “He died alone, and he passed into the great unknown alone, bravely and honorably. He is the last of Earth's great martyrs; he is home; his work is done; he is where he longed to be; the Sailor is Home in the Sea.”
There must have also been an added bittersweet feeling for Henson, who was celebrating his team’s incredible accomplishment aboard the Roosevelt, having narrowly avoided Marvin’s fate just a few weeks earlier.
While Borup and MacMillan conducted scientific work, Henson and Peary remained on the Roosevelt—and Peary’s attitude toward his loyal assistant took a strange turn. He barely acknowledged their achievement, much less expressed his gratitude for the work Henson had helped make possible.
“I would catch a fleeting glimpse of Commander Peary, but not once in all of that time did he speak a word to me,” Henson wrote. “Then he spoke to me in the most ordinary matter-of-fact way, and ordered me to get to work. Not a word about the North Pole or anything connected with it; simply, ‘There is enough wood left, and I would like to have you make a couple of sledges and mend the broken ones. I hope you are feeling all right.’”
As the ice broke up in summer, the Roosevelt set a return course home. On August 17, 1909, they stopped in Etah to drop off the Inughuit families and pay them. Ootah received a rowboat, a rifle, a knife, a sledge, tobacco, and a few other Western items for his year of work. After two decades of getting to know the Native people, their customs, and their stories, Peary knew he’d probably never see them again.
In Etah, Peary also found Harry Whitney, a wealthy American big-game hunter who had come up the previous year on the Roosevelt’s supply ship. During the intervening months, he had lived with the Inughuit and tried to bag polar bears, walrus, and musk ox for his trophy room.
Whitney told Peary news that must have come as an utter shock.
Frederick Cook—the surgeon on a couple of Peary’s early expeditions—was about to announce to the world that he had reached the North Pole. And he said he had done so on April 21, 1908, almost a full year before Peary.
Whitney said he had run into Cook on April 18, 1909, struggling over the ice from Ellesmere Island. He had two young Inughuit guides, Etookahshoo and Ahwellah, with him. When Whitney met up with the group, Cook said he had reached the North Pole the previous year. Whitney was certainly stunned, too—unlike Peary’s huge sendoff from New York, there had been little publicity in advance of Cook’s voyage.
Cook left his journals from the trip with Whitney and then raced south to catch a ship to Copenhagen, where he told the world of his triumph. But Henson and Peary, after experiencing the excruciating journey themselves and hearing Whitney’s account, thought there was just no way Cook could have done it.
Henson recalled, “We knew Dr. Cook and his abilities: he had been the surgeon on two of Peary’s expeditions and, aside from his medical ability, we had no faith in him whatsoever. He was not even good for a day’s work, and the idea of his making such an astounding claim as having reached the Pole was so ludicrous that, after our laugh, we dropped the matter altogether.”
Peary said little. But when Whitney attempted to bring some of Cook’s records and other possessions on board the Roosevelt for the journey home, he forbade it.
On August 26, the Roosevelt left Cape York, and on September 5, they docked in Indian Harbor, Labrador. There was a telegraph station there, and this was Peary’s first chance to get the word of his accomplishment out to the wider world.
His first message was to his wife, Josephine, simply saying: “Have made good at last. I have the Pole. Am well.” The next went to H.L. Bridgman of the Peary Arctic Club, which just read “Sun.” This was Peary’s code word for successfully reaching the Pole. Another, lengthier message was more theatrical: "Stars and Stripes nailed to the North Pole."
The Roosevelt continued down to Battle Harbor, where two reporters from the Associated Press arrived for the sensational story. Twenty-three newspaper correspondents followed. All there was left for Peary to do was rest on his laurels—or so he thought.
The Quest for the North Pole is hosted by me, Kat Long.
This episode was researched by me and written by Jay Serafino, with fact-checking by Austin Thompson. The Executive Producers are Erin McCarthy and Tyler Klang. The Supervising Producer is Dylan Fagan. The show is edited by Dylan Fagan and Lowell Brillante. Thanks to our experts Edward Larson, Susan Kaplan, and James Edward Mills.
For transcripts, a glossary, and to learn more about this episode, visit mentalfloss.com/podcast.
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