Robert Peary collection

Scope and Content

The collection comprises of material relating to the United States North Polar Expedition, 1905-1906 (led by Peary) and correspondence by Peary

Administrative / Biographical History

Robert Edwin Peary was born on 6 May 1856 in Cresson, Pennsylvania. He was educated at Portland High School and Bowdoin College, graduating in 1877. In 1881, he joined the U.S. Navy as a civil engineer, serving for several years in Nicaragua, where he was employed in conducting surveys for the Nicaragua Canal. Developing a keen interest in Arctic exploration, Peary led the U.S. Exploring Expedition in 1886, a private expedition to study the conditions of the little known Greenland ice cap from the vicinity of Disko Bugt and, if possible, to cross the ice cap to the east coast. His ice cap journey was one of the longest inland journeys in Greenland to that date and he reached a higher altitude, at a more northerly latitude, than any previous explorer.

In 1891, having secured a leave of absence from the Navy, Peary led the U.S. North Greenland Expedition, 1891-1892, organized to cross northern Greenland from Hvalsund on the west coast, with the objective of locating Greenland's unknown north-eastern coastline and possibly its northernmost extremity. Although Peary broke his leg in the first year, the expedition achieved a much longer crossing of Greenland than Frederick Nansen's first crossing in 1888, in addition to making the first step toward the exploration of Peary Land in northeast Greenland and conducting important ethnographical and scientific observations.

Peary returned to continue his exploration of the region in 1893 when he led the U.S. North Greenland Expedition, 1893-1895. His wife, Josephine, accompanied him on this expedition, giving birth to their daughter, Marie Ahnighito, in 1893. In two further expeditions to Greenland, in 1896 and 1897, Peary excavated and brought back to the United States the largest of the three 'Cape York' meteorites found on his U.S. North Greenland Expedition, 1893-1895, at Savigsivik, Melville Bay. An account of his Arctic experiences appeared in Northward over the Great Ice, published in 1898.

Granted another leave of absence from naval duty, Peary led the U.S. North Polar Expedition, 1898-1902, sponsored by Peary Arctic Club, with the main objective of reaching the North Pole from the north coast of Greenland. Although Peary failed to reach the Pole, he attained his farthest north, 84° 17 minutes 27 seconds, on 21 April 1902, and conducted important surveys of Ellesmere Land. He made his next attempt to reach the North Pole on the U.S. North Polar Expedition, 1905-1906. On 21 April 1906, Peary reached a record latitude of 87° 06 minutes North after various setbacks made attainment of the Pole impossible. Between June and July 1906, he explored and mapped the uncharted stretch of the north coast of Ellesmere Island between Yelverton Bay and Lands Lokk and sighted land to the northwest of Cape Stallworthy, Axel Heiberg Island, which he named 'Crocker Land'. The existence of which remained in dispute until it was finally disproved by Donald Baxter MacMillan on his expedition of 1913-1917. Peary's account of the expedition Nearest the Pole was published in 1907.

In 1908, Peary set out on his final quest for the North Pole on the U.S. North Polar Expedition, 1908-1909. Setting out from Ellesmere Island, accompanied by Matthew Henson and four Eskimos (Ootah, Egingwah, Seegloo and Ooqueah), Peary made his final assault on the Pole, which he claimed to have reached on 6 April 1909. On his return, he learned of the prior claim of Frederick Albert Cook, who had served as ship's surgeon on Peary's expedition of 1891-1892. During the ensuing controversy, Cook's claim was rejected as fraudulent by most commentators and Peary's priority was widely acknowledged, although his claim has frequently been questioned. He retired from the Navy with the rank of rear admiral in 1911, the year in which the U.S. Congress recognized his achievement by offering him its thanks. He died of pernicious anaemia on 20 February 1920 in Washington D.C.


The collection is split into two sub-fonds comprising of expedition material and correspondence respectively

Access Information

By appointment.

Some materials deposited at the Institute are NOT owned by the Institute. In such cases the archivist will advise about any requirements imposed by the owner. These may include seeking permission to read, extended closure, or other specific conditions.


Anyone wishing to consult material should ensure they note the entire MS reference and the name of the originator.

The term holograph is used when the item is wholly in the handwriting of the author. The term autograph is used when the author has signed the item.

Descriptions compiled by N. Boneham, Assistant Archivist with assistance from R. Stancombe and reference to Arctic, exploration and development c500 BC to 1915, an encyclopaedia by Clive Holland, Garland Publishing, London (1994) and Exploring Polar Frontiers, a historical encyclopaedia by William Mills, San Diego and Oxford, 2003 and 'Robert Edwin Peary' (1856-1920) by John Edward Weems in Arctic volume 35 number 4 December 1982 p556-557 and Bartleby and Geocities and U S Army

Other Finding Aids

Clive Holland Manuscripts in the Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge, England - a catalogue, Garland Publishing New York and London (1982) ISBN 0824093941.

Additional finding aids are available at the Institute.

Conditions Governing Use

Copying material by photography, electrostat, or scanning device by readers is prohibited. The Institute may be able to provide copies of some documents on request for lodgement in publicly available repositories. This is subject to conservation requirements, copyright law, and payment of fees.

Copyright restrictions apply to most material. The copyright may lie outside the Institute and, if so, it is necessary for the reader to seek appropriate permission to consult, copy, or publish any such material. (The Institute does not seek this permission on behalf of readers). Written permission to publish material subject to the Institute's copyright must be obtained from the Director. Details of conditions and fees may be had from the Archivist.


Further accessions possible