The women in Peary's life Aleqasina and Josephine”
Last week I wrote about Josephine Peary's visit to the far north in 1900 aboard the vessel Windward. The ship was trapped in the ice of Payer Harbour for the winter and Josephine's and her daughter Marie's planned summer visit stretched on for fourteen months.
Worse, Robert Peary was far to the north of their wintering place and they did not see him until the following spring. In the interim, Josephine had learned some startling truths about her husband.
In August a young Inuk woman, Aleqasina, still in her teens, came aboard the vessel. She was the wife of a skilled hunter, Piugaattoq, and she carried on her back a baby only a few months old. His name was Anaukkaq. Aleqasina told Josephine, matter-of-factly, that the baby was not Piugaattoq's – Anaukkaq had been fathered by Robert Peary.
Josephine, still grieving the death of her second daughter almost a year earlier, began a letter to Robert Peary on
Aug. 28. Not knowing then that her ship would be ice-bound for the winter, she anticipated simply leaving it for him.
The letter ultimately reached 26 pages.
Today that letter is privately owned (regrettably not by me) and has remained unseen by all but a few researchers. It is perhaps one of the most amazing letters to ever come out of an Arctic expedition.
Josephine castigates her husband for his infidelities, yet remains the devoted wife, prepared to do anything necessary on her return to the South to advance his cause and secure funding for his quest to reach the North Pole.
It begins: "Today I feel as though I should not see you this year… You will have been surprised, perhaps annoyed, when you hear that I came up on a ship… but believe me had I known how things were with you here I should not have come."
Then, without detailing what she had learned about his personal life, she devoted the next two pages to business and financial matters.
On page 5 she finally turned to the matter that had broken her heart:
"I have looked out for Allakasingwah and your boy & allowed them in the cabin with Marie. It is a great concession for me to make… It cut me like a knife to hear her tell Marie all about you… To think she had been in your arms, has received your caresses, has heard your love-cries, I could die at the thought… Have you, my husband, ever thought what these years have been to me since I bade you farewell? During these hungry years I have been consoling myself… with the thought that it was just as hard for you, & I must
be brave for your sake… On reaching Etah I find you have probably never given me a thought & a creature scarcely human has the power to make you forget everything except her. Oh my love, why do I live?"
Then abruptly Josephine stops herself with "But there, I did not mean to give way to my feelings." She returns to a discussion of news from the south that will interest him, before proclaiming, "You who have given me more pain & more pleasure, more sorrow & more joy than any one else in the world. I can't give you up. I can't."
Josephine wrote that she intended to do everything within her power to advance Peary's cause once she returned south, but added, "I have the strongest feeling that I shall never see you again. I have felt this way all along but never so much as when I buried my baby & now."
On Aug. 31, Aleqasina was seriously ill. Josephine spent the day treating her rival while Marie played with her Inuit half-brother. The following day when Aleqasina's condition worsened, Josephine wrote, "I am much afraid you will lose your ‘Ally'. This morning she was a pitiful sight." Still, Josephine attended to her medically, noting, "I can assure you that had it been anyone else I would not have done it but I felt that I was doing it for you."
On Sept. 2, Aleqasina was taken to the Inuit camp onshore. Josephine had heard that it was a tribal custom to kill an infant if the mother died and, concerned for the safety of little Anaukkaq, she asked another explorer to ensure his safety. She added, "I hope for your sake the woman will recover."
And there, on the 26th page, the letter ends abruptly, unsigned.
Josephine was finally reunited with her husband the following spring on his forty-fifth birthday. She and Marie left for America on the Windward on August 24. Robert Peary remained in the north for another year.
Aleqasina recovered, and bore three more children, one,
a son named Kale, by Robert Peary. Peary died in 1920. Josephine lived on until the age of 92, constantly supporting her husband's claim to have reached the North Pole and guarding the family secrets from prying eyes. Aleqasina died in the 1930s and is buried at Inequsat near Qaanaaq.
Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.