Profile is a series of brief biographies on noted Pennsylvanians.

On Tuesday, April 6, 1909, Robert Edwin Peary accomplished an achievement worthy of the legendary explorers of history. Exhausted from sleep deprivation, in temperatures of forty degrees below zero, after sailing thousands of miles on the ship Roosevelt, with teams of dogs, and with the knowledge that more than 750 men had died in failure, Peary, along with Matthew Henson, four Eskimos, and thirty-eight sled dogs, planted the flag of the United States on Earth’s 90° latitude – the North Pole! No one had ever accomplished this in recorded history. Peary’s feat, heralded by newspapers worldwide in September, awed the public.

Peary was born in what is now Cresson Township in Cambria County, on May 6, 1856. His father, Charles Peary, moved from Maine and, with several relatives, organized Peary & Nutter, a shook (barrel) manufacturing concern at Chester Springs. Pennsylvania promised a great future for the Peary family.

Family happiness was, however, short-lived. Charles Peary died in February 1859. Robert and his mother, Mary Wiley Peary, returned to her native Maine where her husband was buried in South Portland. Settling on Cape Eliza­beth, she was determined to provide a sound education for her son and encouraged him to enjoy Maine’s rugged outdoors. He was a good fisherman and hunter. He also began expressing a desire to explore the unknown. In 1873, after graduating from Portland High School, second in his class, he won a scholarship to Bowdoin College, Brunswick, from which he graduated, also second in his class. His education in engineering was key to his ability to survey and navigate. For Bowdoin College, Peary’s association would prove to be a permanent legacy, as would that of explorer Donald B. MacMillan (1874-1970), a Bowdoin alumnus and instructor and Peary’s comrade. The college’s Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum, established in 1967, possesses one of the most extensive collections of photographs, films, and archival material chronicling early Arctic exploration.

Following graduation, Peary opened an engineering office in Fryeburg, Maine, where he was hired to resurvey and restore the town’s boundaries. In 1879, he accepted a position as a draftsman for the Coast and Geodetic Survey in Washington, D.C., but soon grew bored with his routine tasks. An opportunity arose with the U.S. Navy’s Civil Engineering Corps and at age twenty-five, he was among only four appointed out of two hundred Y applicants who took the examination. Peary found himself with an auspicious position as an assistant to Aniceto Garcia Menocal (1836-1908), a renowned civil engineer for the Navy, who gave Peary his first taste of exploration.

After Peary completed an assignment as inspector of construction at a Navy pier at Key West, Florida, he accom­panied Menocal in 1884 to make surveys for a possible Nicaragua canal (later built in Panama). Surveying and running lines through the jungle, Peary learned to communicate and deal amicably with local natives, an experience that would later prove valuable in the Arctic with Eskimo assistants. He later compared the sting of Arctic temperatures with the sting of equatorial insects.

In 1885, after discovering an old book in a Washington, D.C., bookstore, Peary set his sights on the Arctic. His first conquest was Greenland. Borrowing $500 from his mother, he sailed on the steam whaler Eagle and penetrated one hundred miles into the glacial ice cap. During his voyage, Peary had a close call with a glacier ice stream, but succeeded, unlike previous explorers.

Three years later he married Josephine Diebitsch, the daughter of a Smithsonian Institution linguist. The announcement that a woman would accompany her husband on expeditions to North Greenland stunned many. In 1892, she became the first white woman to venture into the Arctic, but remained behind at the Inuit tribe settlement’s Red Cliff House while her husband set off to explore more of Greenland. Marie Ahnighito was born to the Pearys and the first white child to begin life that far north. She was known throughout her life as the “Snowbaby.”

Peary bestowed the name Ahnighito to the largest meteorite found to date. The Eskimos led Peary to their legendary “Iron Mountain” or “heaven sent” object in northwestern Greenland. Brought to New York by Peary in 1897, the thirty-­four-ton Ahnighito, a fragment of the 200-ton Cape York meteorite, is the largest specimen in the world on display; it is exhibited at the American Museum of Natural History.

It took twenty-three years of perilous exploration of Greenland and the Arc­tic – including the amputation of all but his smallest toes lost to frostbite – but Peary became even more resolved to reach the top of the world. The formation of the Peary Arctic Club and a lecture circuit helped Peary and others raise money to finance an expedition.

One debate has raged for decades: was Robert E. Peary was the first to reach the North Pole? On the heels of Peary’s efforts were contemporaries Roald Amundsen (1872-1928) of Norway and Robert F. Scott (1868-1912) of England, who redirected their rivalry with one other in the race to the South Pole after learning that Peary beat them to the North Pole (Amundsen succeeded by adapting Peary’s sled dog transportation. Scott thought it was barbaric to use sled dogs and perished in the Antarctic). It was Frederick Cook (1865-1940) of New York who laid claim to being the first at the North Pole in 1908. Sensational newspaper headlines helped fuel a bitter feud between the explorers who had once been colleagues. Although Cook probably came close to arriving at the North Pole in 1908, an investigation by a Copenhagen University committee discredited his claims.

Perhaps the most neglected part of Peary’s story is history’s treatment of his trusted assistant, Matthew Henson (1866-1955). The son of a tenant farmer, Henson in 1887 worked in a hat shop in Washington, D.C., which Peary visited to buy a sun helmet for Nicaragua. Orphaned at age eleven, Henson had al­ready begun his worldwide travels at the age of thirteen by working in galleys of ships while learning history, geography, and seamanship. With the recommendation of Henson’s employer, Peary took Henson with him to Nicaragua and on eight arctic expeditions. The pair became inseparable during two decades of exploration, and Henson is credited with twice saving Peary’s life.

While the press and the public celebrated Peary, they largely ignored Henson. Most historians attribute the neglect to the fact that Henson was African American. Peary was given a gold medal, a $5,500 pension, promotion to rear admiral, a lifetime of accolades, and military honors upon his death on February 20, 1920. Henson received nothing. A member of Congress attempted to rectify the slight in 1935, but the bill failed in the U.S. Senate. After a quiet career with the U. S. Customs Bureau, Henson was elected to the Explorers Club in 1937, awarded a medal by the Navy in 1945, and invited by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to the White House in 1954, a year before his death. In 1988, Henson’s remains were re-interred – with full military honors – next to Peary’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery. He was finally recognized as co-discoverer of the North Pole.

Peary’s perseverance, planning, and inner strength brought him back safely from his greatest adventure while hundreds of others died trying before and since. “My Life work is ended accomplished,” he wrote in his diary. “The thing which it was intended from the beginning that I should do, the thing which I believed could be done, & that I could do, I have done. I have got the North Pole out of my system.”

Peary’s birthplace was demolished in the 1980s, after having housed the Sisters of Mercy of Mount Aloysius College. Sev­eral hundred feet to the east of the campus, across Admiral Peary Highway, is a memorial to the explorer. Thanks to donations of pennies by school children, a statue of the explorer was dedicated in Admiral Peary Memorial Park in 1937. The small park, acquired in 1945 by the Pennsylvania Historical Commission, forerunner of the present-day Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC), is now administered by the Cresson Area Historical Association. Two state historical markers, erected in the late 1940s by the PHMC, commemorate Peary and the park.