Born in Cresson, Pa. In 1881 he entered the U.S. navy as a civil engineer and for several years served in Nicaragua, where he was engaged in making surveys for the Nicaragua Canal. He became interested in arctic exploration and made a trip to the interior of Greenland in 1886; later (1891–92), having secured a leave of absence from the navy, he led an expedition to Greenland for scientific study and exploration. Important ethnological and meteorological observations were recorded, a long sled journey to the northeast coast of Greenland was made, Peary Land was explored, and the insularity and approximate northerly extension of Greenland were confirmed.
New expeditions continued the work in 1893–95, and in two summer voyages (1896, 1897) Peary brought back to the United States his noted meteorites. An account of his arctic experiences appeared in Northward over the “Great Ice” (1898). Granted another leave of absence from naval duty, he again led an expedition (1898–1902), this time to search for the North Pole. He was only able to reach lat. 84°17'N, but he made important surveys of Ellesmere Land and a study of the surface and drift of the polar ice pack. His Nearest the Pole (1907) recorded the events of his 1905–6 expedition, when he attained lat. 87°6'N, which was only c. 174 mi (280 km) from his objective.
In 1908, Peary set out on his last quest for the North Pole. From Ellesmere Island, accompanied by Matthew Henson and four Eskimos, he made a final dash for the pole, which he claimed to have reached on Apr. 6, 1909. He announced that he had achieved his goal, but on his return he learned of the prior claim of Dr. Frederick A. Cook, who had been ship's surgeon on Peary's expedition of 1891–92. An extremely bitter controversy followed. Although Cook fought to the end of his life, not without some support, to substantiate his claim, Congress recognized Peary's achievement and offered him its thanks in 1911, the year in which he retired from the navy with the rank of rear admiral. Nevertheless, it remains questionable as to whether Peary reached the exact location of the North Pole.
Peary's wife, Josephine Diebitsch Peary,. 1863–1955, accompanied him on several of his expeditions and gave birth in the arctic to Peary's daughter, Marie Ahnighito Peary. His wife published her experiences in My Arctic Journal (1893).
See his North Pole (1910) and Secrets of Polar Travel (1917); biographies by W. H. Hobbs (1936) and J. E. Weems (1967); D. B. MacMillan, How Peary Reached the Pole (1934); W. R. Hunt, To Stand at the Pole (1982); M. A. Henson, A Black Explorer at the North Pole (1991); F. L. Israel, ed., Robert E. Peary and the Rush to the North Pole (1999).
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