The women in Peary's life Part 2 ” Josephine”

Taissumani: 2009-04-24

By Kenn Harper

On Aug. 11, 1888, Robert Peary married Josephine Diebitsch, his fiancée of some years. She was the daughter of a linguist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. When they left on their honeymoon to Seabright, New ­Jersey, they were accompanied by – of all people – Peary's mother, Mary.

Life for the Pearys was unconventional. In the summer of 1891 Josephine accompanied Robert to northern Greenland on the small Newfoundland vessel, the Kite. They passed the winter in McCormick Bay, and Josephine Peary entered history as the white woman who had wintered farther north than any other member of her race and sex.

She wrote a book about that expedition, My Arctic Journal. In it she spoke of "months of real solid comfort and happiness enjoyed by the woman who, when she left home and friends, was told to prepare to endure all kinds of hardships."

Her book was not published until 1893 and, by that time, Josephine was back in the Arctic, wintering again with her husband. There she gave birth to her first child, Marie, ­nicknamed "The Snow Baby."

The Snow Baby herself wrote many years later, "Just why I should get all the glory for being the most northerly born white person in the world will always be an unsolved mystery to me. It certainly seems as if what admiration there is should go to my mother. It was she who unhesitatingly went to Greenland knowing that her first baby would be born away from home and friends and at the outermost limit of the world… She went where no white woman had ever been before and where many a man would have hesitated to go."

In the south, Josephine was a tireless advocate for her husband's Arctic expeditions. During the winter of 1894-5, there was considerable doubt as to whether the Peary supporters could raise enough money to send a relief ship for Robert the following summer. A charter would cost at least $10,000.

Josephine canvassed scientific institutions and secured pledges amounting to $5,000, not nearly enough. Then she approached an old family friend, Judge Charles P. Daly of the American Geographical Society, who put her in touch with Morris K. Jesup of the American Museum of Natural History.

After hearing her story, Jesup told her, "You go ahead. Do all you can: solicit, and lecture; and then whatever you still need I shall see is made up." Although she did not realize it at the time, Josephine had succeeded in securing a patron for her husband's future expeditions.

It would be some years before Josephine Peary returned to the Arctic again. In 1900, almost on the spur of the moment, she travelled north on the Windward to visit her husband, whom she had not seen for two years. The traumatic events of that summer voyage will be the subject of next week's article.

Peary claimed to have reached the Pole in 1909. Two years later he officially retired from the Navy. By then there was a second child, Robert Jr. The Pearys lived a comfortable life, in Washington in the winters and on Eagle Island off the coast of Maine in the summers.

Robert Peary died in 1920. His wife outlived him by 35 years, always tirelessly promoting his claim to the Pole. In 1955 the National Geographic Society awarded her the Medal of Achievement, its highest honour. On December 19 that year Josephine died. She was 92. She was buried beside her husband in Arlington National Cemetery.

Next week: The women in Peary's life. Part 3 – Ally

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

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