Peary and Henson Reach the North Pole Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Six North American explorers became the first people to reach the geographic North Pole.

Summary of Event

European exploration of the North American Arctic region began in the late fifteenth century, with the search for a northwest passage to Asia as the primary goal. By the nineteenth century, it was clear that an easily navigable northern route to Asia did not exist, and attention gradually shifted toward efforts to reach the North Pole. North Pole;exploration Exploration;North Pole [kw]Peary and Henson Reach the North Pole (Apr. 6, 1909) [kw]Henson Reach the North Pole, Peary and (Apr. 6, 1909) [kw]North Pole, Peary and Henson Reach the (Apr. 6, 1909) [kw]Pole, Peary and Henson Reach the North (Apr. 6, 1909) North Pole;exploration Exploration;North Pole [g]Arctic;Apr. 6, 1909: Peary and Henson Reach the North Pole[02410] [g]North Pole;Apr. 6, 1909: Peary and Henson Reach the North Pole[02410] [c]Exploration and discovery;Apr. 6, 1909: Peary and Henson Reach the North Pole[02410] Peary, Robert Edwin Henson, Matthew Alexander Cook, Frederick Albert

Early American Arctic explorers, including Elisha Kent Kane Kane, Elisha Kent and Charles Francis Hall, Hall, Charles Francis became involved in polar explorations as part of the search for information on the fate of the 1845 British expedition led by Sir John Franklin. Franklin, Sir John The Franklin party, consisting of two ships and 133 men, was the last major effort by the British to find a northern passage through the Canadian Arctic. The last contact with Franklin occurred shortly after he entered Baffin Bay, and it was later discovered that, after terrible hardships, Franklin and all members of his party had perished. The main contribution that Kane and Hall made to Arctic exploration was the realization that the use of Eskimo clothing as well as Eskimo hunting and travel techniques greatly improved explorers’ ability to survive in the harsh Arctic environment.

In 1881, as part of a scientific research program connected with the First International Polar Year, a U.S. Army expedition led by Lieutenant Adolphus Greeley Greeley, Adolphus established a camp on Ellesmere Island. The next year, two members of the Greeley party, Lieutenant James Lockwood Lockwood, James and Sergeant David Brainard, Brainard, David along with their Eskimo sled driver, reached 83°24′ north latitude. This set a new record for the closest approach to the North Pole, the first time in three centuries that the record for traveling the farthest north was held by a non-British exploration party. However, the Greeley expedition ended in disaster in 1884, with eighteen of the twenty-four members of the party dying before the rest were rescued.

Robert Edwin Peary.

(Library of Congress)

By this time, several other Americans had become interested in Arctic exploration. Chief among them was Robert Edwin Peary, who at the time of his first visit to Greenland in 1886 was an engineer in the U.S. Navy. In 1891, Peary returned to Greenland as head of an expedition that included Frederick Albert Cook, a doctor from Brooklyn, and Matthew Alexander Henson, an African American who acted as Peary’s servant. Both Cook and Henson would become noted explorers over the next several years. During the second year of his stay, Peary, accompanied by the Norwegian explorer Eivind Astrup, Astrup, Eivind made an eleven-hundred-mile journey across northern Greenland. The journey established Peary as a leader in polar exploration.

After a brief fund-raising visit to the United States, Peary returned to Greenland in 1893 to search for routes to the North Pole. During his three-year stay, Peary, along with Henson and Hugh Lee, another member of his party, retraced Peary’s previous path across Greenland. Peary also recovered two of three large meteorites that had served as sources of iron for the Eskimos in the region.

A new Peary expedition returned to the Arctic in 1898 and remained until 1902. Peary’s previous exploration of the Greenland ice cap had convinced him that an alternative route to the North Pole was needed, and he therefore spent most of his time on Ellesmere Island. On one early journey, Peary suffered severe frostbite and lost most of the toes on both of his feet. Undaunted, he made a four-hundred-mile trip across northern Greenland in 1900, proving that Greenland is an island. In 1902, the last year of the expedition, Peary attempted to reach the North Pole, but he was able to travel only to 84°17′ north latitude. This represented Peary’s closest approach to the pole up to that time, an attempt that fell short of the latitude achieved by Umberto Cagni, Cagni, Umberto an Italian explorer, in 1899.





After three years of preparation, Peary launched a new Arctic expedition in 1906. Winter quarters for the party were established at Cape Sheridan, on the northeastern tip of Ellesmere Island. Peary was again accompanied by Henson. On March 6, 1906, Peary set out on what he believed would be his last attempt to reach the North Pole. Once again, he failed to reach his objective, although he did set a new record for farthest north, at 87°06′ north latitude.

Peary returned to the United States, determined to make one final attempt to reach the pole. Financial difficulties delayed him, and it was not until July 6, 1908, that he again departed for the Arctic. He again chose Cape Sheridan as the base from which he would launch his journey. During the winter of 1908-1909, Peary and his party moved provisions from Cape Sheridan to Cape Columbia, a more northerly part of Ellesmere Island, from which the trip to the pole would begin. On February 28, 1909, the first supply party set off from Cape Columbia toward the pole. Remaining supply parties, then Peary himself, soon followed. Open water on the polar ice cap delayed their progress, but by April 1, Peary had moved to within 150 miles of the pole. At this point, the last supply party moved south, and Peary began the final part of his journey accompanied by Henson and four Eskimos whose names were Egingwah, Ookeah, Oatah, and Seegloo. Five days later, on April 6, 1909, Peary and his companions reached the North Pole. They set up camp and stayed for thirty hours. After a three-week journey, the party returned to Cape Columbia on April 23.


The race to become the first person to reach the North Pole was driven more by the challenge involved than by any practical benefits from the accomplishment itself, although many Arctic expeditions carried out specific scientific and geographic measurements. The prestige attached to being the first to reach the pole accounted for the controversy in which Peary found himself when he returned to civilization. Frederick Cook, who had been a member of one of Peary’s early expeditions to Greenland, claimed that he and two Eskimo traveling companions had reached the North Pole on April 21, 1908, almost a full year before Peary’s visit. Cook’s claim already had been recognized by the University of Copenhagen, and Cook had received congratulations from a number of other polar explorers as well as a massive amount of popular support.

For the next several months, the competing claims of Peary and Cook sparked controversy. However, Cook’s story gradually fell apart. The Eskimos who accompanied Cook testified that during their journey, their party had never left sight of land. More damaging, it was found that a previous claim by Cook to have been the first person to climb Mount McKinley was fraudulent. Cook also failed to present convincing proof to support his story of reaching the pole. Cook’s claim was gradually disbelieved, and Cook fell into disfavor and died a pauper in 1940.

Doubts remain, however, concerning Peary’s trip to the North Pole. A committee of the National Geographic Society unanimously confirmed Peary’s account of his journey, but the British Royal Geographical Society, which also examined Peary’s records, supported his story by a vote of eight to seven, indicating some skepticism. Peary’s case was not helped by the fact that several of his previous geographic discoveries, including “Jesup Land” and “Crocker Land,” turned out to be in error. Further doubts were raised by discrepancies in Peary’s written records of his polar journey. Although Peary is generally recognized as having led the first expedition to the North Pole, it is unlikely that it will ever be known for certain whether he was in fact successful in his trip. North Pole;exploration Exploration;North Pole

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Abramson, Howard S. Hero in Disgrace: The Life of Arctic Explorer Frederick A. Cook. New York: Paragon House, 1991. A thorough account of Cook’s life and explorations, although biased in favor of Cook’s claim to have been the first person to reach the North Pole.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berton, Pierre. The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the Northwest Passage and the North Pole, 1818-1909. 1988. Reprint. New York: Lyons Press, 2000. An impartial and informative history of nineteenth and early twentieth century Arctic explorations. Chapter 13 examines Peary’s and Cook’s claims to have reached the North Pole.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cook, Frederick Albert. My Attainment of the Pole. 1913. Reprint. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2001. A reprint edition of Cook’s own account of his Arctic expedition and his claim to have been the first to reach the North Pole. Features illustrations and a new introduction by Robert M. Bryce.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fleming, Fergus. Ninety Degrees North: The Quest for the North Pole. New York: Grove Press, 2001. Describes the major Arctic expeditions undertaken from 1845 to 1969 in exhaustive detail, using excerpts from journals and other documents to flesh out the characters involved. Includes photographs, chronology of major expeditions, maps, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goetzmann, William H. New Lands, New Men: America and the Second Great Age of Discovery. 1986. Reprint. Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1995. A general history of exploration from the seventeenth century to the early twentieth century. Chapter 11 discusses the Cook and Peary polar expeditions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Henderson, Bruce. True North: Peary, Cook, and the Race to the Pole. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005. Uses the accounts of Arctic exploration recorded by Peary, Cook, and others to examine the rivalry between Peary and Cook. Includes illustrations, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Henson, Matthew A. A Negro Explorer at the North Pole. 1912. Reprint. Montpelier, Vt.: Invisible Cities Press, 2001. A reprint edition of Henson’s first-person account of the North Pole expedition. Includes photographs and a new introduction by S. Allen Counter.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Herbert, Wally. The Noose of Laurels: Robert E. Peary and the Race to the North Pole. New York: Atheneum, 1989. A detailed and critical history of the explorations of Peary and Cook by an author with extensive personal experience in the Arctic.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weems, John Edward. Peary: The Explorer and the Man. 1967. Reprint. Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1988. A well-written but uncritical biography. Makes extensive use of Peary’s personal papers and writings.

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