Comdr . ROBERT E. PEARY at the POLE


Rear Admiral, USN (Ret)


A 12 MONTHS of what we believe to be the most exhaustive examination of documents relating to the Peary polar expedition of 1909 ever undertaken, the Navigation Foundation has concluded that then Comdr. Robert E. Peary and his companion Matthew Henson, along with the Smith Sound Eskimos Ootah, Egingwah, Seegloo, and Ooqueah, reached the near vicinity of the North Pole on April 6, 1909. Peary’s observations of the sun during a 30-hour period in and around his final camp, named Camp Jesup, showed that within the probable error of his navigation instruments (about five miles), the party had reached the Pole, as Peary, Henson, and the Eskimos all maintained for the rest of their lives.

On the way to our conclusion, my colleagues at the Foundation and I have combed through 225 cubic feet of papers in the Peary collection at the National Archives and reviewed relevant papers of Peary’s and other expedition members in the collec -tions of the American Geographical Society, the National Geographic Society, the Explorers Club in New York, the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Studies Center at Bowdoin College, and many other institutions. From his own correspondence and papers from his Arctic journeys, we determined that Peary’s method of navigation was by compass corrected by noon observations of the sun a method appropriate to polar latitudes. Then, in addition to scrutinizing Peary’s North Pole observations, we also examined the observations of expedition members Professor Ross Marvin of Cornell and Newfoundlander Capt. Robert Bartlett of the Roosevelt, which provided independent checks on direction and distance covered up to latitude 87 degrees 45 minutes where the final dash to the Pole commenced.

Peary Letter

With the cooperation of the United States Navy we compared the ocean-depth soundings recorded by the expedition with modern profiles of the Arctic Ocean floor and found that these support Peary’s account of his entire trek to the Pole and, incidentally, rule out the westerly displacement of Peary’s track and thus the location of Camp Jesup suggested by British author and explorer Wally Herbert in NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC (September 1988). We also examined patterns of ice drift in the Arctic Ocean and the expedition members’ accounts and concluded that the initial drift westward noted by Herbert was offset by a subsequent rapid eastward movement of the ice that he apparently overlooked.

Finally, and most convincing1y we applied modern methods of close-range photogrammetry to a number of photographs that Peary identified as taken around Camp Jesup and determined that the position of the photographer was essentially where Peary’s final celestial observations showed him to be. We also applied this technique to a photograph made by Peary on his 1906 “farthest north” expedition and, as a check on our methodology, to a photograph of the Will Steger polar expedition taken at the Pole in May 1986.

Although several institutions in Europe and the United States, including a committee of the U. S. Congress, concluded in the years following 1909 that Peary and his team had indeed reached the Pole, the subject was engulfed in controversy, continuing to this day, due to the rival and now discredited claim of Dr. Frederick Cook. The dispute engendered questions about Peary’s method of navigation, based largely on a presumed need for longitude observations, and about the distances he claimed to have traveled on the final dash. We found that remarkably little new information had been introduced into the record by a succession of critical books and articles in the nearly seven decades since Peary’s death. Thus we first addressed the issues of navigation and distance.

We have determined that Peary’s method of navigation by dead reckoning corrected by observations, as he described it to the congressional committee, was appropriate and completely adequate for the polar region.. It was, in fact, the method used by Roald. Amundsen in his successful trek to the South Pole in 1911. Contrariwise, Robert F. Scott’s navigator, on his doomed South Pole expedition, wasted precious time struggling with the reduction of complex conventional but nonessential longitude sights.

Peary Map

The peculiar condition close to either Pole that calls for a change from conventional lower latitude techniques is the greatly diminished size of each degree of longitude. At 135 miles from the North Pole, where Captain Bartlett turned back in 1909 after taking his last observation, degrees of longitude are within 2.4 nautical miles of one another, in contrast to 60 miles at the Equator; thereafter they grow even closer together, until they merge completely at the Pole. This phenomenon makes longitude sights, especially as one draws closer to the Pole, essentially useless.

Our research uncovered sufficient celestial sights made by Peary in Arctic regions in the 1890s and the early 1900s to convince us that he was a highly competent navigator and surveyor, which is not surprising given his formal training as a civil engineer and his earlier experience in surveying a proposed Nicaragua canal route, as well as tha t with the U. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. His location by celestial observation of the farthest north point on the coast of Greenland, utilizing his surveyor’s techniques, was checked with modern equipment by scientist Robert L. Lillestrand in 1969 and found to be more accurate than most existing maps. It defies all reason to suggest that Peary (whom even Herbert describes as “the most experienced polar explorer of his day”) was unable to find his way due north when the need arose.

From his 1909 base at Cape Columbia, the latitude and longitude of which was known, Peary’s plan as conceived and executed was to head due north until his estimated mileage, corrected by observations for latitude, indicated that he should have reached the Pole. He would then take a series of sun sights to locate the Pole from that position and make whatever final excursion was necessary to assure that he had indeed “nailed” the location and thereby attained his goal.

His method called for finding the direction of the Pole from the sun as often as feasible. By always heading straight for the Pole itself however he had been diverted, he compensated as he went along for the effects of ice drift, changing magnetic variation, and detours to the east or west due to open water leads and unsurmountable high pressure ridges. His was a zigzag course with his heading intermittently corrected to true north, not a beeline up a given meridian.

Peary’s compass always pointed to the magnetic pole and not true north. However, he was able to set his compass course by the sun, which, when visible on the trip north, lay exactly due south at “local apparent noon,” the moment when the sun reaches its highest altitude above the horizon. To make an observation for apparent noon, a sextant is used to measure the angle between the sun and the horizon. Since the frozen Arctic Ocean with its ice ridges does not provide a clean horizon, an instrument called an artificial horizon—a small wooden pan covered with glass and filled with liquid mercury—is used with the sextant. The mercury acts as a perfectly level mirror, and the sextant measures the angle between the sun and its reflected image.

Peary's Tools

Marvin or Bartlett (and finally Peary) would stretch out behind the pan and train his sextant on the image of the sun in the mercury; what he saw were the two images of the sun, which would very slowly approach each other as the sun rose. He would watch, over the course of 10 to 15 minutes, for the sun to reach culmination, its highest point or “local noon,” at which moment the two images would stop approaching and start to recede . The direction of the sun was then due south, and, of necessity, the observer would have been looking back along the northbound trail. Any significant deviation from that trail would be immediately apparent. The reverse direction was due north. In truth, after taking his sight, all he had to do was stand up and turn around; his shadow would point true north.

North of about 88 degrees, however, the rising and setting of the sun is too slight to provide accurate direction by this method. Thus Peary relied on dead reckoning rather than additional sights for his last five marches.

When taking a sun sight, the observer would note the time of the culmination on his watch, and it is important to note that the time indicated by the watch did not have to be the “correct” time. Much has been made of the fact that the Roosevelt’s chronometers were fast when Peary set his watches from them upon departing for the Pole. We have determined that the most probable error of the watches was less than one minute, but whatever the error was, it did not matter, since the time of the sun’s maximum altitude determined the time of local noon. Whatever his watch read when the maximum altitude was achieved was regarded as local noon on subsequent days when noon sights were not taken, but direction of the noon sun was used whenever it was visible. We are persuaded that Peary’s system of navigation was adequate to get him to the near vicinity of the Pole without taking longitude observations along the way.

The question then becomes, could Peary have covered the distance to the Pole and back in the time he had to do it? His critics have scoffed at the distances he claims to have traveled on the final leg to the Pole with Henson and the Eskimos as his sole companions . It follows inexorably that they also label as “faked” the series of celestial observations that undeniably show him to be in the immediate vicinity of the Pole.

We minutely examined those sights for mistakes that a faker would be likely to make, and we could find no reason to believe that they are not genuine, as determined by the National Geographic Society’s experts in 1909. Among other things, the pattern of “random scatter,” the fingerprint of the field observer, is completely consistent with other sights Peary made on previous expeditions.

As to the distances in controversy, we specify them, as Peary did, as nautical miles “made good.” The polar party covered about 270 miles (excluding the excursions at the Pole) round-trip from 5a.m. April 2, when they departed from Camp Bartlett (where the captain turned back) , to 30 minutes after midnight on April 10, when they returned to the same camp after spending 30 hours in the vicinity of the Pole. Peary covered the distance to the Pole in five marches averaging about 27 miles per march, at an average speed of about 2.5 miles an hour .In 1986 Will Steger covered virtually the same distance at the same speed and expressed the opinion that Peary’s claims were not unreasonable.

Peary’s return trip, from 4 p.m. on April 7 to 12:30 am, on April 10, is more frequently the basis of skepticism. This trek was made in three forced marches of about 45 miles per march, following the party’s old trail and using previously built igloos, totaling about 48 hours of sledging at an average speed of about 2.8 miles an hour, with nine hours of stops for food and rest. Peary’s rapid progress on the return trip was attributable more to the duration of his extended marches than to the small increase in speed.

Both factors are understandable when one considers that every hour of delay increased the party’s chance that their southward travel would be hindered by winds that would obliterate the trail or open leads that could be slow to freeze over with the onset of warmer weather, leaving them to face starvation on the ice. Few explorers have been so motivated to drive themselves and their teams to the bounds of their endurance.  We examined the distances and speed of a number of sled travelers in the Arctic, including Peary himself on his earlier expeditions, and found that his 1909 figures are entirely credible. Dogs and sleds with far less skillful drivers than Matthew Henson and Peary’s Eskimos have often maintained or exceeded these claimed speeds over much longer distances . For example, Gunnar Isachsen, captain of the Fram under the Norwegian explorer Otto Sverdrup—who concedes the superiority of the Smith Sound Eskimos and their dogs, which he did not have —wrote in the Geographical Review in January 1929: “On our sledging trips we were not content with marches under 15 miles. We often made 20 to 30 miles, and marches of over 30 miles were not rare. Several times we even made marches of over 70 miles. If we could make such long marches over ice which may be supposed to have been about the same kind as the ice on the most difficult part of Peary’s journey, then even longer ones may be made on better ice such as that which Peary met on his journey to the Pole in 1909 to the north of the ‘Big Lead.’ It is my opinion that marches of the length of Peary’s on his North Pole expedition of 1909 are possible not only for parts of his trip but for the entire journey.”

In addition to Steger, many other explorers with sledging experience have found Peary’s speeds credible. Two experienced sledgers, Lord Shackleton (explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton’s son) and geologist-glaciologist Geoffrey Hattersley-Smith, who note that they traveled extensively by dog team in north Greenland and Elles-mere Island in the 1930s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, responded to the recent controversy with a letter to the Times of London.

I quote from the letter: “It was clear from our conversations with the Greenlander Odaq [Ootah], the last survivor of the polar party, that Peary found very good travel conditions on the last stretch to the North Pole. We have ourselves traveled up to 70 statute miles ‘between sleeps,’ admittedly on very good surfaces, so Peary’s distances, allowing for deviations of route, were by no means extra-ordinary.”

Speed in sledging is determined by a number of variables—the ability and deter-mination of drivers, the strength of dogs, the confiuration and weight of sledges, and, of course, ice conditions. Peary’s Eskimo drivers were unsurpassed; Ootah’s sledging skills had made him a legend in his own time among his people, and Matt Henson after long years in the Arctic had become almost his equal. The Smith Sound dogs were conceded to be superior to those of other Eskimo tribes. Peary’s 40 dogs for the final dash were the pick of 133 that had started the trek and were well fed and rested in readiness for the final assault.

Other than Peary’s own description we cannot know what ice conditions were at the time, but we do know that Steger reported a smoothing of the ice and the presence of a frozen north-south lead that provided an improved surface for sledge travel in the near vicinity of the Pole. Ralph Plaisted’s colleague, Col. Gerry Pitzl, navigator on their successful snowmobile assault in 1968, similarly reported that for the last two weeks before reaching the Pole travel was “practically unrestricted. . . . In many cases the lead direction was north, affording us the luxury of effortless travel.”

Measurements of the ocean depth (soundings) taken by Peary on the trek from Cape Columbia to the Pole contribute significantly to the much debated question of where his track lay. These data were no help to Peary in proving his case in 1909, since a profile of the Arctic Ocean in the vicinity of the 70th meridian did not then exist. Now of course it does. The Defense Mapping Agency made available to the Foundation a number of relevant bottom depths obtained by U. S. submarines operating under the Arctic ice, and these were used to refine a recent chart of the area issued by the Office of Naval Research.

A computer-generated model based on these data show that if Peary’s track was close to the 70th meridian, he would have twice crossed over a major feature of the ocean bottom, the Lomonosov Ridge, during the trek to the Pole. Sure enough, a series of deep-shallow-deep soundings by Marvin indicates that the party passed over a southern leg of the ridge. A sounding made by Bartlett at 870 15’ north indicates that he was over the canyon just west of the ridge, and Pearys sounding at 890 55’ showed that he had by that point crossed the ridge again. Thus he was on or very close to the track he describes in The North Pole. In any event, he could not have been on the track described in NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC by Herbert; Marvin’s soundings could only have been made some 20 miles to the east of Herbert’s suggested track . Moreover, Peary’s own sounding of 2,743 meters without reaching bottom, made at about five miles from his Pole camp, Camp Jesup, rules out at least one of Herbert’s three suggested locations for Camp Jesup.

Herbert’s conjecture as to Peary’s track is based on a westward drift of the ice just north of Cape Columbia of about 20 miles in the first three days, caused by easterly winds. He asserts that from the outset of the polar assault Peary was always to the west of where he thought he was because he had failed to take this phenomenon into account. However, Herbert overlooked the fact that after returning to the land base for supplies during this period, Marvin and fellow expedition member George Borup recorded that westerly winds (also noted by Peary) were moving the ice north of the shore lead rapidly back eastward. To their surprise the outbound trail, which earlier had been driven 15 miles west of Cape Columbia, had drifted back nearly to its original position. We have thus concluded that during the entire north-ward trip, Peary would have experienced only a slight westward drift due to the net effect of wind. Moreover, modern data on prevailing ocean currents show that he would have experienced a slight eastward ice movement as he got closer to the Pole.

The net effect of ice drift that would be predicted from these two causes is negligible.

Our final and most conclusive examination was of the photographs taken by Peary near Camp Jesup. Since an inadequate attempt by merchant captain Thomas Hall in Did Peary Reach the Pole? (1917), there seems to have been no real analysis of Peary’s photographs; accordingly our efforts represent new evidence. Techniques of photo-graphic analysis that were pioneered during World War II developed into a fine craft during the Cold War years of satellite observation. One technique, called photogrammetric rectification, can produce the angle of the elevation of the sun from the shadows in pictures. This angle can be compared with the sun angle calculated from the Nautical Almanac to confirm a specific location and time.

Certain prerequisites must be met. There must be shadows that begin and end within the frame of an uncropped negative; there must be a horizon to determine the orientation of the camera; and the focal length of the camera must be known. Thus not every photograph can be so analyzed.

Establishing the focal length posed an initial problem because the only Peary camera we found was the 1906 camera at the National Geographic Society. With the help of the International Museum of Photograhy in Rochester, New York, however, we determined the focal length of the type of camera Peary was using in 1909.

The technique is one based on simple perspective. Imaginary lines drawn through each object and the end of its shadow would be, in th e real world, parallel to the sun’s rays. Such lines drawn on a two-dimensional picture converge at a vanishing point (often outside the picture). This vanishing point is also the point at which a ray of sunlight through the camera would cast a shadow of the camera. Thus the vanishing point defines the angle of the sun’s rays relative to the optical axis of the camera—which may be pointing up or down, as shown by the location of the horizon. The mathematical method used to fix these relationships is spherical trigonometry, much like that used in the reduction of a navigation sight. The Nautical Almanac gives the declination of the sun at the Pole for the date, and the time (taken from Peary’s account or other sources) tells which meridian the sun is on. The altitude of the sun measured from the photograph was used to establish a rough “line of position.”

We were able to analyze several pictures in the vicinity of Camp Jesup and so concluded that Peary was probably within four or five miles of his reported position, and certainly no more than 15 miles away. Since we had the 1906 camera, and since th e 1906 “farthest north” location has also been questioned, we applied the rectification \technique to Peary’s photograph taken at noon on April 21, 1906, on his misfortune-plagued expedition. Though many critics maintain that he faked his speed and distances to surpass the record established by the Italian Cagni, we found that he was at least as far north as the 87 degrees 06’ minutes latitude that he claimed, and perhaps a little farther.

With these technical proofs of Peary’s account, what are we to make of the anecdot-al evidence his critics use against him—the lack of a destination on the cover of his 1909 diary, the blank pages for the return trip, the unattached page on which he noted “the Pole at last !!!!“, his diffident attitude toward Henson at the Pole and later and his delay in claiming success after reaching the Roosevelt. These are not matters that a foundation such as ours is designed to examine, belonging to historians or psychologists rather than navigators . But having delved so deeply into the Peary archives, we can hazard a few speculations of our own. For example, Pcary’s answer to the congressional committee that he was too busy to fill in his diary on certain dates seems credible. He was certainly busy during the 30 hours spent at the Pole—during which he made two excursions totaling 36 miles to make certain that he had nailed down its location—and afterward, driven by the need to survive, hastening back to his base as quickly as humanly possible. Keeping a complete diary must sometimes be secondary to survival.

The incomplete cover is typical of virtually every journal of Peary’s in the archives. We must remember that the diary was never intended for public inspection but as an aid in preparing books and articles. We surmise that Peary made the entry on the loose page from a second notebook that he carried on the trip and used on several occasions to write notes to other members of his party. It seems to us that had Peary faked the diary as his detractors suggest, he would not have invited suspicion by leaving pages empty, nor would he have scrawled his dramatic announcement on a loose insert.

Peary’s coolness toward Henson may have resulted from resentment that his assistant and two Eskimos actually reached the location of Camp Jesup ahead of him and that Henson had suggested that he was “the first man to sit on top of the world.” In any event, in his many conflicting accounts of his journey, Henson never once questioned that he and Peary had reached the Pole.

Contrary to what some critics have stated or implied, Peary let expedition members know upon his return to the Roosevelt that his assault on the Pole had met with success. True, he was afterward withdrawn and despondent, but this may have been due to his grief over the death of the dedicated young Professor Marvin on the latter’s trek back to the ship with two Eskimo companions, or it just may be that the man was physically and emotionally exhausted.

In the light of all the data we have assimilated and analyzed, the board members of the Navigation Foundation have unanimously agreed that Peary realized his life-long goal by attaining the North Pole on the last of his many expeditions. We found no evidence to the contrary. And, on a personal note, we cannot but hope that this marks the end of a long process of vilification of a courageous American explorer. 


                                                                        NOTE: The full report for $15.00

Thomas D. Davies, President.

The Navigation Foundation,

                                                                                            Box. 1126,

Rockville, Maryland



Vol. 177, No. 1. January 1990. (Pgs. 46-60)

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