The women in Peary's life The Snow Baby”
This is the final instalment in my series on the women in the life of explorer Robert Peary.
Robert and Josephine Peary's daughter, Marie, was born farther north than any white child had ever been born, at expedition headquarters in northern Greenland, on September 12, 1893, shortly after their ship's arrival.
Marie's parents gave her an Inuit name as her middle name. Ahnighito – a mangled spelling of the word Arnakittoq – meant "small female" but the Peary's always perpetrated the myth that it was the Inuktitut word for "Snow Baby."
Word of the birth of a white child spread throughout northern Greenland. In the spring, Inuit travelled from far-off camps to see this pale wonder. The fuss continued the following autumn when Josephine Peary and her baby, then one year old, returned to Washington. Newspapers wrote about her, and Marie became known around the world as "The Snow Baby."
Later in life, Marie herself wrote, "Whenever people had exclaimed at my being ‘The Snowbaby' and had made rather a fuss over me, Mother would explain to me later that I must be very proud of having a father who could make us so comfortable in a frozen land that even a small baby could live and be well and strong. As for myself, it was a piece of good fortune for me that I happen to have been that baby."
This naïve statement ignores the fact that countless generations of Inuit babies had been born in less comfortable circumstances, yet had lived and been well and strong.
In 1897, when Marie was four, the Peary family returned to northern Greenland on a summer voyage aboard the Hope. It was on this trip that Peary excavated a large meteorite to take to New York. Marie christened the huge mass of iron "Ahnighito," named after herself.
The following year, when Robert Peary headed north on the Windward, on an expedition that would last four years, Marie and her mother remained in the south.
But in 1900, missing their father and husband, they travelled to Greenland aboard the same ship, chartered to take supplies to Peary. The vessel wintered unexpectedly, locked in the firm grip of the unpredictable northern ice.
Marie became friends with a number of Inuit children and played with them aboard ship, and ashore in springtime. Life was glorious for a carefree child in the 24-hour daylight of a High Arctic spring. But summer saw mother and daughter back in Washington, while father remained in the Arctic.
In 1902, they both returned to the Arctic, again aboard the Windward, but this would be a summer-only voyage. In Marie's eyes, it was just a vacation. When they returned south, Robert Peary accompanied them, his four-year sojourn in the Arctic over. It had accomplished very little.
That fall, Marie read a newspaper account that her father was planning yet another expedition north. She was horrified and wrote a letter to him – he was already in New York raising funds.
She wrote, "Of course I know that the papers are not always right, but I read that the Peary Arctic Club are trying to get your consent to go north again. I think it is a dogs shame and wish every member of the Club were dead then you would not have to go in the first place. I know you will do what pleases Mother and me and that is to stay with us at home. I have been looking at your pictures it seems ten years and I am sick of looking at them. I want to see my father. I don't want people to think me an orphan."
As she grew to womanhood, Marie and her family often spent their summers on Eagle Island off the coast of Maine, a retreat that Peary had purchased shortly after he graduated from college. There the family had privacy, away from the questioning of newspapermen who seemed constantly interested in Robert Peary's Arctic work.
Eventually Marie would learn that the little half-Inuit baby that she had played with aboard the Windward in the winter of 1900-01 was, in fact, her brother. Robert Peary had fathered the child with his Inuit mistress, Aleqasina, whom Marie knew as Ally. Ally would give birth to the second of Peary's Inuit sons in 1906.
In the south, Peary never publicly acknowledged these children, fearing that knowledge of his escapades in the north would offend his backers, many of them devout Christian men. Marie eventually learned the family secret, but never spoke of it publicly.
After Peary claimed to have reached the Pole, the whole family went on a European tour in 1910. Later Marie returned to Europe and spent a year living in Geneva, studying French and German.
Back in America she went to secretarial school. In 1917 she married a lawyer in Washington, Edward Stafford, with whom she had two sons. She wrote five children's books about the Arctic.
Always a promoter of her father's claim to have reached the North Pole, and guardian of the family's reputation,
Marie spent ten years cataloguing the family papers and then donated them to the National Archives. In 1978, aged 85, she passed away in Brunswick, Maine. Her son, Edward Stafford, now in his 90s, continues the work of promoting Peary's claims.
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 [email protected].