Apr 6

April 6, 1909: Commander Robert E. Peary Reaches the North Pole

Saturday, April 6, 2013 1:00 AM

This article was originally published in the April 1959 issue of Proceedings as “Peary at the North Pole” by Hugh C. Mitchell

On September 5, 1909, the steamer Roosevelt reached Indian Harbor in Labrador, and Robert E. Peary, a com­mander in the Civil Engineer Corps of the U. S. Navy, wired the secretary of the Peary Arctic Club in New York City a cipher message which, being decoded, read, “Pole reached. Roosevelt Safe.” And at the same time a message went to Mrs. Peary: “Have made good. I have the pole. Am well. Love.”

These messages announced the success of Peary, after many years of tireless effort, in reaching the north geographic pole of the earth, the goal of many intrepid explorers in years gone by, possibly the greatest and most sought for geographic prize of all time, and also the most difficult of attainment.

Peary had striven for this prize over many years of heroic effort—years of trials and dis­appointments, but not of failures, for his motto was, “I will find a way or make one!” Peary never quit trying! During all these years of effort he was learning more about the conditions affecting the problem he was seek­ing to solve-the way to the Pole. He was learning more about the Eskimos, about their capabilities in handling dogs and sleds in all kinds of ice and weather conditions, and, even more important, he was winning their affec­tion and loyalty by his own acts of friendliness and humanitarianism. He was learning more about the ways of the weather, overhead and underfoot, for upon such knowledge would depend important decisions which might mean success or failure. Many years later, a naturalist, considering another matter, wrote, “It is useless to blame Nature, it is better to work with her. She will not change.” And Peary, knowing nature to be a capricious mistress, was matching her whims with ex­perience, surer methods of ice travel and im­proved equipment.

All these years Peary was both finding and making a way to the Pole, so that when men and dogs were in readiness, when wind and ice conditions were favorable, and equipment was complete and in the best possible condi­tion, he made the great effort and on April 6, 1909, after five weeks of sledging over the polar ice, he took an observation on the sun which gave him a position line of 89° 57′ north latitude. Supported by similar observations made by other members of his party on the way up, by direction of march obtained from the sun when it was on his meridian of travel, and by estimated distances of travel, this posi­tion line assured Peary that he was quite close to the North Pole, that imaginary point on the earth at latitude 90° north where all meridians meet and all directions are south.

At this point he established his North Pole camp, which he named Camp Jesup in honor of his friend and supporter, Morris K. Jesup, who had died only a year or so previously. He made this camp his base for about thirty hours of what has been described as dynamic activ­ity, during which time he first continued his march without change of direction for a dis­tance of ten miles beyond the camp. Here he took observations on the sun, then returned to camp, where observations were taken on the sun which was then at a direction to the east of his line of march from Cape Columbia and at right angles thereto. These observations showed the camp was between four and five miles from the Pole in the general direction of Alaska—as one prominent man put it, he was “west of the North Pole.”

Acting on this knowledge, Peary made a march in the direction of the sun which, at the time of observation, would be close to the di­rection of the Pole. Going a distance of eight miles, he returned to the camp. It was on this march that he passed close to—possibly within one mile or even closer to the exact position of his goal—the North Pole.

On reaching the camp, Peary took another set of observations on the sun which, now six hours later than the previous observations, would be on or close to the meridian along which he had traveled from his land base to Cape Columbia. In all, Peary took four sets of observations while in the vicinity of the pole—­two at Camp Jesup in the direction of Cape Columbia, one at the camp at right angles to that direction, and one at the end of the 10-­mile march beyond his camp. These four sets of observations provided sufficient data for determining an accurate position of his North Pole camp and also for obtaining a mathe­matical check thereon.

In making these observations Peary used an astronomical sextant and an artificial (mercu­rial) horizon. A more precise determination of position would require the use of delicate in­struments, the transportation of which on sledges over the rough ice and pressure ridges would have been most impracticable and the use of which on the ice floes of the arctic sea would have been impossible.

At Camp Jesup, Peary planted five flags, the first of which was a silk American flag, made by Mrs. Peary and given him fifteen years earlier. He had carried this flag wrapped around his body on every expedition he had made since it had come into his possession. From it he had cut fragments which were left at the farthest north of each expedition. At the North Pole camp he cut from this flag a broad diagonal strip which, with the record of the trip, was placed in a glass bottle and deposited between ice blocks of a pressure ridge.

Almost at the same time that Peary was an­nnouncing by wire his discovery of the North Pole, Dr. Frederick A. Cook was in Copenhagen, Denmark, where, before a dis­tinguished audience, he was being awarded the gold medal of the Royal Danish Geo­graphical Society for his claimed discovery of the North Pole, although neither then nor at any later time did he produce observations or proofs of his claim. When Peary was apprised of this, a few days later, he sent this telegram to the United Press Association: “Cook’s story should not be taken too seriously. Two Eski­mos who accompanied him say he went no distance north and not out of sight of land. Other tribesmen corroborate.” And to the New York Times he sent a fuller dispatch of the same tenor, one sentence of which read: “The Affair will settle itself” and another, “He has simply handed the public a gold brick.”

Peary was quite correct in saying that the affair would settle itself, but many a day was to pass and much false testimony was to be picked to pieces and cast aside before all the public was convinced of the complete falsity of Cook’s claims. The repudiation of Cook’s claims did come in time and it was a complete repudiation—by organizations which had honored him, by geographers who had sup­ported him, and by members of the general public who had believed his story.

These matters were factors in the attempt to cloud the honor which Peary had earned and so highly deserved in securing for his country the greatest geographical prize of all time—the discovery of the North Pole. When a bill was introduced in Congress to recognize Peary’s achievement and reward him with pro­motion to the grade of rear admiral in the U. S. Navy, there had already developed an opposition so strong as to delay for months final action by the House Committee on Naval Affairs.

To some, I am sure, this opposition was a surpise. At least the power of the opposition lobby was greater than could be anticipated. When Peary reached Washington after his re­turn from the Arctic, the National Geographic Society appointed a committee of the most dis­tinguished men in geographic science and art to receive him and examine his evidence of having discovered the North Pole. This com­mittee then selected three of its members to question Peary personally, examine his in­struments, and test the accuracy of his naviga­tional data. These three men were Henry Gannett, a geographer in the service of the U. S. Geological Survey; O. H. Tittmann, Superintendent of the U. S. Coast and Geo­detic Survey; and Rear Admiral C. M. Ches­ter of the U. S. Navy. These three men met with Peary, examined his instruments and his records, and reported that they were “unan­imously of the opinion that Commander Peary reached the North Pole on April 6, 1909.” By training and experience these three men were excellent judges of the case and their determination was correct and was generally accepted in scientific circles as conclusive.

The National Geographic Society approved the findings of its committee and awarded Peary a special great gold medal “for the dis­covery of the North Pole, April 6, 1909.” But the subcommittee of the Committee on Naval Affairs of the House of Representatives was more demanding in its hearings when it met early in March, 1910. The first witness before it was Superintendent O. H. Tittmann of the U. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, to whom Peary had reported for instructions regarding tidal and other observations to be made dur­ing the projected cruise of the ship Roosevelt. This was by order of President Theodore Roosevelt and was transmitted through the Secretary of Commerce and Labor. Dr. Titt­mann’s testimony related to the work done under those orders: tidal and other data which were transmitted by Peary to the Coast and Geodetic Survey, where they were studied and officially reported on by Dr. R. A. Harris, tidal expert in that bureau. It is of consider­able interest that Peary’s first connection with the government at Washington was with the Coast and Geodetic Survey where he served as a draftsman from July, 1879, until the fall of 1881 when he received his commission as a civil engineer in the Navy.

Dr. Tittmann was followed in the witness chair by Mr. Gannett, who was questioned at considerable length by various members of the subcommittee on different phases of the Peary expedition, after which the subcommittee ad­journed to meet briefly on March 7, when it received a report that contracts with pub­lishers signed some months earlier would pre­vent the placing of all the North Pole naviga­tional data before it at the time, as that would amount to a publication of those data and a breaking of faith with the publishers. These data had, however, been seen and examined by the National Geographic Society’s subcom­mittee and were the basis for its favorable re­port, but this in no way amounted to publica­tion thereof.

The Naval Affairs subcommittee did not meet again until January 7, 1911, when Peary appeared before it in person and on that day and on subsequent days, January 10 and 11, there developed under the severe questioning by its members, the great story of the dis­covery of the North Pole. It was a magnificent story told in person by the discoverer. The co­operation between Peary and a majority of the members of the subcommittee was complete and satisfactory. No questions were dodged. All were met squarely and answered honestly, though some questions seemed directed away from the truth rather than toward it. One member of the subcommittee undertook to discredit Peary’s story with questioning and innuendoes which may have been based on ignorance or dictated by instructions from lobbyists. This member later made a speech when the bill reached the floor of the House for consideration which would amaze even a grade-school student of geography.

It was at the session of January 10 that copies of letters to and from the Coast and Geodetic Survey were introduced into the record. These included orders and instruc­tions under which Peary had carried on tidal, hydrographic, and other work in the Arctic, and reports relating to that work.

I was present at this last session (January 11) and was so fascinated by the unfailing courtesy and frankness of Peary’s answers un­der all conditions of questioning that I hardly noticed the passing of time. Consequently, I was somewhat taken by surprise when I found myself seated in the chair which had just been vacated by Peary, and being introduced to the subcommittee by my bureau chief, Super­intendent O. H. Tittmann of the U. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey.

The discovery of the North Pole was a sub­ject on which I had been engaged for some months. To Peary and his friends, it had for some time been evident that the Congres­sional committee desired something more tan­gible than the examination given his records and instruments by representatives of the Na­tional Geographic Society—something more than the personal faith of his friends and sup­porters in his integrity and ability.

Accordingly, one day in the fall of 1910, Dr. Tittmann asked me to make a mathematical analysis of Peary’s navigational data taken at the North Pole. A junior member of a small group of mathematicians in the U. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey who were engaged in discussions of astronomic and geodetic survey data, I had seen service in the field work of the Bureau, including an astronomical survey of the Philippine Islands, earlier in my career.

Like many other Americans I was aware of the bitter contest then being waged in private and in public to obtain recognition of Cook and to discredit Peary, but my interest in the matter was small, possibly leaning a little to­ward the Cook claims, but only in a senti­mental way. Neither man was known to me personally. Had I known Peary then as I was to know him later, as a man not only incapa­ble of falsehood himself, but intolerant offalse­hood in others, I would have been eager to accede to Dr. Tittmann’s request. However, I did agree to undertake a critical analysis of Peary’s North Pole observations and at once made arrangements to do so.

The exact date of my first meeting with Peary has slipped my mind. No diary was kept of our meetings—a fact that I have sometimes regretted, though, except to recall dates, a diary was hardly needed. The man—his rugged personality, his tremendous mental and physical strength, his searching gaze—made a deep impression on me. That winter of 1910-11, Peary was living at the Dresden, an apartment house in Washington, on Con­necticut Avenue, just south of the Taft Memo­rial Bridge which spans Rock Creek Valley. Dr. Tittmann had advised Peary of my com­ing and he was expecting me. From the first moment when his piercing eye surveyed me as if it would search out my innermost thought, the one dominant trait of the man which im­pressed me was his unfaltering honesty coupled with a spirit of utter abomination of dishonesty in others. From that meeting we were friends; in fact, it was the beginning of a friendship which I have always prized.

Following this first meeting with Peary, there were others, most of them at his apart­ment in the Dresden. At that first meeting he placed in my hands the original records of his observations in the vicinity of the North Pole and those taken by his aides en route to the Pole. I spread them out on the piano bench in the reception room and made copies of them. With these basic data I at once undertook to comply with Dr. Tittmann’s request to make the mathematical analysis of those observa­tions. Associated with me in this work was a fellow member of the Coast and Geodet­ic Survey’s astronomic-geodetic computing force, Charles R. Duvall—one of the most dependable computers I have ever known. Duvall was my associate in a number of in­teresting problems which came to us in the Survey and I had learned in our years of association that complete dependence could always be placed on his work. Of course, we always insisted on one full check of the solu­tion to any problem, but Duvall seemed al­most unhappy if he could not secure two in­dependent checks and such was his ability that he nearly always did have two checks.

Peary was keen to see that I had every op­portunity to obtain all the facts; he was eager at all times to place himself at my disposal and answer frankly and fully every question. Knowing well the value of truth and the danger of inexact statements, and not know­ing what turn questioning might take in fu­ture hearings before the Congressional sub­committee, he would sometimes at the end of a conference caution me to think carefully over the facts of our visit and establish a clear mental record thereof.

Peary would sometimes talk about his arctic work in a reminiscent way after the particular purpose of the conference had been con­sidered. It was on one such occasion that he spoke of the various developments in equip­ment which had helped him to the Pole, and he gave some credit to the cooker which con­verted snow into hot water in ten minutes and gave them hot tea as soon as camp had been made.

It was on Thursday, January 12, 1911, that I appeared before the subcommittee of the House Committee on Naval Affairs to present the results of Duvall’s and my reduction of Peary’s North Pole navigational observations. Duvall had prepared a chart of the immediate vicinity of the Pole on which he had shown the position of the North Pole camp and the lines of march to that camp the extension of that march a distance of ten miles beyond the camp and the eight-mile march of April 7 which took Peary quite close to the pole—­possibly directly over it. It was a graphic illustration of good navigation and was evi­dence of the skill acquired by Peary on his many expeditions into the trackless areas of the frozen north.

As I took the witness chair which Peary had just vacated, Dr. Tittmann vouched for me as a competent member of his Bureau. Looking back over the years, I note with interest that the opposition tried to make something of the fact that Dr. Tittmann vouched for Duvall and me as professional computers of the Coast and Geodetic Survey, proficient in this kind of work; that he considered us unsurpassed in ability and experience in this kind of work not only in his own organization, but in such work anywhere. He did not vouch for the results of our computations officially. These we had to prove mathematically correct and this we did.

My appearance before the committee was quite short and most satisfactory to me and, as shown by its report, to the subcommittee also. Later in the day, Peary called my home by phone and expressed his thanks. Under the clear and direct questioning by members of the subcommittee, the report prepared by Duvall and me became a matter of official record.

Our computations were basic and were intended to determine whether Peary had reached the North Pole in April, 1909, as claimed. They definitely did determine such to be a fact: that on April 6, 1909, Peary had made camp within five miles of the north geographic pole and that on the following day he had made a march which had brought him very close to the exact location of the Pole, well inside the limits of position determination by competent mariners at sea.

In presenting its findings to the Committee on Naval Affairs, the subcommittee having the Peary bill in charge made two separate reports, both of which were favorable to the passage of the bill, recommending that Peary be recognized and honored for having reached the North Pole. The majority report of the subcommittee was fairly comprehensive, em­phasizing the evidence which I had presented and also listing the many honors and recogni­tions which Peary had received at home and abroad for his discovery of the North Pole. But the minority report was based wholly on the chart and on my testimony relating to the chart.

In one of its concluding paragraphs, the minority report makes the following comment on the chart:

“Had such a chart been worked out by members of the Geographic Society (and there is no reason why it should not have been done, for that com­mittee had before it the same astronomical obser­vations that were before Mr. Mitchell) and had the chart been given to the world by that com­mittee of the Geographic Society, undoubtedly the controversy would have ended then and there.”

The House Committee on Naval Affairs accepted the reports of its subcommittee and made favorable report on the Bill (Senate Bill 6104-Hale) and recommended its passage. That Bill would authorize the President of the United States to “place Civil Engineer Robert E. Peary, United States Navy, on the retired list of the Corps of Civil Engineers with the rank of rear admiral, …” and also rec­ommended that “the thanks of Congress be,
and the same are hereby, tendered to Robert E. Peary, United States Navy for his arctic explorations resulting in reaching the North Pole.”

On March 3, 1911, after a number of speeches on the floor of the House, all of which with one exception gave unstinted praise and appreciation to Peary for his great achievement, the Bill was passed and Peary thereby received the highest possible official recognition for having discovered the North Pole.

It was then proposed by the Peary Arctic Club to present a report of Peary’s journey to the North Pole, including the reduction of Peary’s navigational data made by Duvall and me, to the Tenth International Congress of Geography which was scheduled to meet in Rome, Italy, in 1913. This inspired us to re­view our earlier computations to see what re­finements, if any, could be introduced therein. We also proposed to investigate the accuracy of sextant and artificial horizon observations on the sun such as Peary had made at the North Pole.

But Peary’s observations were so strong in their arrangement and of such observational excellence that refinements of computation satisfactorily checked the earlier results, giving the geographic position of the North Pole camp (Camp Jesup) as follows: latitude 89° 55′.4: longitude 137° West. In Washington, at the Office of the Coast and Geodetic Survey, members of that Bureau made observations on the elevation of the sun when close to the horizon, using sextant and artificial horizon, and obtained results which fully justified the claim that the geographic position of Camp Jesup, Peary’s North Pole camp, as deter­mined by him on April 6-7, 1909, could not be in error by as much as 2′ of latitude.

This result had already been accepted by the scientific world. The Rome paper was simply a carefully prepared exposition of the closeness of the approach to the Pole. It was presented to the International Congress of Geography (Rome, 1913) by Thomas H. Hubbard of the Peary Arctic Club and was published in the Acts of the Congress. Many years later it was republished by the National Geographic Society in Washington, D. C.

Although Peary’s having reached the North Pole was now fully established as an historic fact, there were still occasional claims made by Dr. Cook’s friends that in employing the word reach instead of discover, Congress had in­tended to deny that Peary was the first man to reach the Pole. This was nonsense, for Congress had not considered the question of priority, but had based its investigation and made its award wholly on the question of whether Peary had been successful in reaching the Pole. But it was well known at that time and convincing evidence has accumulated through the years that Dr. Cook had not been near the North Pole. Peary was fully rec­ognized as the first man to reach the Pole and therefore to discover it. As has already been noted in this paper, the gold medal awarded Peary by the National Geographic Society employs the word discovery.

Some time in the 1930′s there was a revival of interest in North Pole matters. Pro­fessor William H. Hobbs of the University of Michigan, a geologist who had made explora­tions in the interest of his own science, was preparing a biography of Peary which ap­peared in 1936. While doing this he con­tacted Duvall and me and at the same time engaged the interest of Heber D. Curtis, Direc­tor of the Ann Arbor observatory, in Peary’s
astronomical work. Dr. Curtis was experi­enced in field operations, having directed a number of expeditions for observing eclipses. Both Hobbs and Curtis were members of the National Academy of Sciences.

Curtis undertook a thorough study of Peary’s North Pole data, in which Duvall and I were naturally quite interested, and letters discussing Curtis’s approach to the problem passed between Ann Arbor and Washington. Duvall and I undertook a recomputation of Peary’s observations, this time giving weights to the various sets, and making a least-squares adjustment and determining a probable error for the result.

The latitude of Peary’s North Pole camp (Camp Jesup) as reported to Congress in 1911, to the 10th International Congress of Geog­raphy in Rome in 1913, as computed by Heber D. Curtis and published by him in 1939, and as computed by Duvall and me in a least-squares adjustment, gave values with a spread of 0.’2 or about 1200 feet. The prob­able error of our least-squares determination was ±0.’6. The longitude derived in these various computations had a spread of 130 which at this latitude represents a distance of about one mile.

Dr. Curtis published the results of his study of Peary’s discovery of the North Pole in the January, 1939 Proceedings, under the title Navigation Near the Pole. In this paper he in­cluded the results of computations made by Duvall and me. Because of its completeness and soundness, Dr. Curtis’s paper is strongly rec­ommended by anyone who may be interested in the subject.

While the results of our latest computations of Peary’s North Pole data were incorporated in Curtis’s paper, Navigation Near the Pole, they were given no other general publication. But the manuscript copies of our study (computa­tions and notes) were assembled with printed copies of the Rome paper and of Dr. Curtis’s paper, and these were bound together in book form and copies presented to the National Geographic Society, to the Library of Con­gress (Rare Book Section) and to the Univer­sity of Notre Dame. A copy was also presented to Mrs. Edward Stafford, daughter of Admiral Peary.

The conclusions given by Dr. Curtis in his paper are of considerable importance, coming from a man who was director of a great state university observatory, a member of the Na­tional Academy of Sciences, and an explorer who organized and led parties on field trips to observe eclipses which were visible over very limited areas. His final paragraph is most interesting:

“All in all, the writer, as a result of his examina­tion of Peary’s work near the pole, is far more im­pressed with what Peary did than with what he left out. His journey north and his dynamic ac­tivity in the 30 hours spent near the pole form a tour de force with few if any parallels in the annals of exploration. It seems impossible to plan any procedure more adequate than that actually used by Peary, and it is the measured judgement of the writer that Peary sledged within about three-­quarters of a mile of the earth’s true pole, and perhaps even actually over that unmarked and quasi-imaginary point on the shifting ice floes of the Arctic Sea.”

The above may well be taken as the epi­logue of the great drama based on the dis­covery of the North Pole by Robert E. Peary in April, 1909, the prelude being the computa­tions and chart prepared by Charles R. Du­vall and me, both members of the U. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, which were accepted by the U. S. Congress as complete evidence of Peary’s great achievement and formed the basis on which Congress honored him with promotion to the grade of Rear Admiral in the U. S. Navy.