“STARS AND STRI PES NAILED TO THE POLE ” an exuberant Robert Peary telegraphed from Labrador, Canada, announcing that he had reached a goal long sought by explorers – the North Pole.
Peary, a 52-year-old U.S. Navy commander, had made several arctic expeditions and two failed attempts to reach the Pole. He had spent years learning from the native Inuit the best ways to dress in furs, build igloos, and drive sledges over the ice. On one trip he had lost eight toes to frostbite. But he was determined, he said, “to hurl myself, time after time, against the frigid No of the Great North.”
On March 1, 1909, Peary set out from his base camp on Ellesmere Island, 413 miles from the Pole. His team counted 24 men, 19 sledges, and 133 dogs. With him was his longtime assistant, Matthew Henson, an expert explorer in his own right.
For weeks the men battled roaring winds and temperatures of -50° F. They hacked trails across rough patches, floundered in snowdrifts, and hauled their sledges across ridges of ice. At times channels of water suddenly opened before them. They waited for the water to refreeze, then scampered over the thin ice.
Peary, Henson, and four Inuit made the final, 133-mile part of the trek. On April 6 Peary calculated that they had reached their goal. “The pole at last!” he wrote in his diary. “The prize of three centuries.”
Over the decades, some critics have questioned whether Peary actually made it as far as the North Pole. And for years Henson, who was black, received scant recognition for his role. But today the two men are generally credited as the first to reach the Pole. Both are buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Peary’s gravesite is inscribed with his motto: “I shall find a way or make one.”