Through the nineteenth century, interest in the North Polar region was stimulated by various reasons: exploration for a North-West Passage linking the Atlantic and the Pacific, the search for the lost Franklin Expedition, territorial expansion, and the spreading of Christianity. However the various expeditions led by Robert Peary (1856-1920) to Greenland and the North Pole definitely fall into the “because it’s there” category – the glory of becoming the first person to reach the top of the world, an ambition he had harboured since being a young naval officer.
His first two expeditions (1886 and 1891) taught him a lot about the difficulties of crossing the Polar regions and it was on the second that Peary adopted Inuit survival techniques; he built igloos during the expedition and dressed in practical furs in the native fashion. He adopted these practices both for heat preservation (furs) and to dispense with the extra weight of tents and sleeping bags when on the march by building igloos instead. Peary also relied on the Inuit as hunters and dog-drivers on his expeditions. He pioneered the system (which he called the "Peary system") of using support teams and establishing supply caches for Arctic travel.
Peary made further expeditions in 1898-1902, and 1905-1906, both times establishing “Farthest North” records. The second of these expeditions proved highly controversial with Peary claiming to have discovered a new land in the north-west which he named Crocker Land after his sponsor, George Crocker. Although honoured for this by the American National Geographical Society, it later turned out that the land did not exist.
Peary’s final expedition took place in 1908-1909. Setting out on S. S. Roosevelt, wintering on Ellesmere Island, before making his final push for the Pole together with five companions, he claimed to have reached the North Pole in April 1909. Controversy dogged him yet again – none of his companions on the final stage of his journey were capable of verifying the navigational measurements so it came down to Peary’s word. Also, the surgeon on one of his earlier expeditions, Frederick Cook, had himself led expeditions to the Pole and claimed to have discovered it the previous year. Although Cook’s claim was later discredited, at the time it was widely believed.
Peary is also controversial for removing and selling Inuit meteorites to American Museums, exploiting the native people and displaying them in New York. Nevertheless, it can’t be disputed that Peary made important contributions to Arctic exploration, and his personal accomplishments of adventure and endurance were remarkable feats.
Peary recorded his expeditions in three books: Northwards over the Great Ice, 1898; Nearest the Pole, 1907; and The North Pole, its discovery in 1909, 1910.