This Day in History
Flag Reaches the North Pole

Peary Discovers the North Pole
April 6, 1909

When, in 1953, Edmund Hillary was asked why he had been willing to risk his life climbing to the top of Mount Everest, he replied quite simply, “because it was there.” That has been the cri de coeur of explorers and adventurers, of scientists and inventors, from the beginning of history. The passion to “conquer” the North Pole - and after that the South Pole - emerged in the 1880s when, for the first time, it seemed possible of realization. As early as 1886, young Robert Edwin Peary of the U. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, visited Greenland and conceived the idea of reaching the North Pole. Others, too, were inspired by that ambition - none more distinguished than the Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen, who had crossed Greenland in 1889; and in 1893 launched the first major polar expedition.

That same year, and each year thereafter, Peary penetrated Greenland ever farther north toward the Pole. In 1897 he won the backing of the British magnate Lord Northcliffe, and by 1905 returned to the challenge in his specially constructed ship, the Roosevelt; that venture had to be abandoned some 200 miles from the Pole. Finally, in the winter of 1908-09, with four Eskimos and one Negro - Matthew Henson - Peary fought his way over the ice and on April 6, 1909, was able to raise the United States flag at the North Pole. His triumph was marred by the claim of Dr. Frederick Cook that he had actually reached the Pole a year earlier. Eventually, however, Peary’s claim to discovery was conceded. Acclaimed on two continents, he was promoted to Rear Admiral of the Navy and heaped with honors. “To say that my motives were entirely unselfish,” he later confessed, “would be incorrect, but I can say that the desire to win honorable and lasting reputation went hand in hand with the desire to add to the sum total of human knowledge.”

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Wednesday May 1, 2019
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All illustrations by Mort Künstler. Text by Michael Aubrecht, Dee Brown, Henry Steele Commager, Rod Gragg, Mort Künstler, Edward Lengel, James McPherson, and James I. Robertson, Jr. - Copyright © 2001-2019. All Rights Reserved. No part of the contents of this web site may be reproduced or utilized in any form by any means without written consent of the artist.