On April 6, 1909 Robert Peary, Matthew Henson, their Inuit guide Ootah, and three other Inuit named Ooqueah, Seegloo, and Egigingwah, reached the North Pole—or at least came close.
Peary's ship, the Roosevelt, departed from New York City's 24th Street pier in July of 1908 and steamed down the East River. Destination: Cape Sheridan on Ellesmere Island, the winter base from which the Pole attempt would be launched.
With “a minimum party of white men; supplemented with Eskimos” (Robert Peary, The North Pole, 1910), Peary sledged westward to Cape Columbia. He was accompanied also by his righthand man, Matthew Henson, an African American adventurer who worked on sailing ships in his teen years and had served as Peary’s expedition assistant for twenty-two years, in Nicaragua and then in the Arctic.
On March 1, 1909, the expedition departed Cape Columbia, stepped off land, and set out across the frozen Polar sea. The Pole lay more than 400 miles to the north. Across the glacial foot, the ice attached to land’s end. Across the dangerous Big Lead, the fault line where the ice flows of the polar pack collide with the comparatively immobile ice of the glacial foot. And finally, across the polar pack itself, a mass of ever-shifting ice formations floating atop the five-mile-deep Arctic Ocean. The expedition traveled in a series of relays, each party blazing a trail some distance further than the last, though the final push would be up to six men and their dogs.
Achievement of the North Pole remains an unresolved issue. Frederick Cook announced in 1909 that he had reached the North Pole in April of 1908, a year before Peary’s expedition. Scholars generally have disputed Cook’s claim, but they also have disputed Peary’s claim to have reached the exact position of the geographic North Pole. A 1989 investigation by the Navigation Foundation determined that the Peary Expedition had reached “the near vicinity” of the Pole. In 1983 The Explorers Club issued a formal statement on the matter: “The position of The Explorers Club in the Cook/Peary controversy is that we have no records or documents that settle the question one way or the other….”
Cook and Peary both were early members of The Explorers Club. Henson and Ootah were finally elected as members some thirty years after their Polar feat, an honor long overdue.