The women in Peary's life, part 1 mother”

Taissumani: 2009-04-17

By Kenn Harper

Robert Peary's father died when he was only two years old. Peary, an only child, was raised by his mother, Mary.

And an odd upbringing it was. His daughter wrote a biography of her father in which she said, "Gentle, pious Mary Peary had no previous experience with small children, especially small boys… She tried her best to make her small son over into the gentle little girl whom she would have known so well how to handle. She tried to implant in him the idea that he was not strong, that he was too delicate to play with other boys…" Hardly an auspicious start for an Arctic explorer.

A later biographer, Fitzhugh Green, inexplicably concluded, "…living along with his mother probably did more to make him a great explorer than any other single factor in his life. She it was who… moulded the moral character of her son."

Perhaps it is just as well that she sent young Robert away to boarding school when he was eight years old. But that did not make him any less emotionally dependent on his mother.

A much later biographer, Wally Herbert, characterized Peary as "self-reliant, yet reticent," sociable and likeable, outwardly self-assured but emotionally insecure.

In his late teens when he attended Bowdoin College in Maine, it cannot have helped his need for independence that his mother packed up and moved to be nearer the college, so that Robert could live at home instead of on campus.

Then, after college, at the age of 23 Peary landed a job with the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey in Washington. There he learned of an opportunity that would eventually take him to Nicaragua to survey a route for a proposed canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

But he felt he needed his mother's permission to apply for such a posting. And so he wrote a letter, cajoling and pleading for her support for his plans:

"I feel myself overmastered by a resistless desire to do something. I do not wish to live and die without accomplishing anything or without being known beyond a narrow circle of friends. I wish to acquire a name which shall be an ‘open sesame' to circles of culture and refinement anywhere, a name which shall make my Mother proud…

"What good will fame or a name do me if it comes when I am an old man? I want to have some years to enjoy it in and then, my Mother, I want it to come soon enough for you to derive some pleasure from it."

Then he overtly asked for his mother's blessing. "Think over all that I have written Mother and give me your consent, which is all that I lack." After he had achieved success in Nicaragua, he wrote, "I will come back to you, and together we will watch the happy days slip by."

And then came the statement that a psychoanalyst would have a field-day with: "And perhaps another dream may come to pass, and there may be a little house on Eagle Island where we will laugh at the heat and in the strong health-giving sea air you will renew your youth and people more than ever, will think my little Mother is my wife."

Peary went to Nicaragua. Then in 1886 he made a summer trip to West Greenland and travelled onto the inland ice for a distance of about 100 miles.

In February of the following year he wrote to his mother again, this time with more self-assurance, "Remember, mother, I must have fame, and I cannot reconcile myself to years of commonplace drudgery and a name late in life when I see an opportunity to gain it now and sip the delicious draughts while yet I have youth and strength and capacity to enjoy it to the utmost."

Finally, it seemed that Peary was making his decisions on his own, telling his mother about them, rather than asking for her permission. Almost as an after-thought he added, "And I am not entirely selfish, mother. I want my fame now while you too can enjoy it."

His mother's reply was prophetic: "If fame is dearer to you than anything else, what am I to say. I think if you should look at the matter calmly and dispassionately you would be less enthusiastic – such fame is dearly bought."

In the summer of 1901 Dr. Frederick Cook accompanied a relief ship north with supplies for Peary, who had been in the Arctic since 1898. Cook was asked to examine Peary, whose backers were worried about his condition.

Cook wrote, "The first impression was of an iron man, wrecked in ambition, wrecked in physique, wrecked in hope… Peary was worried, anxious, discouraged as I have never seen him before. In desperate overreaching he had frozen both feet. Dr. Dedrick had removed eight of his toes leaving only the two small digits and painful stubs with which he could barely walk."

Mary Peary had already died on November 2, 1900, while Peary was wintering at Fort Conger on the Ellesmere Island coast. Her son's fame had indeed been dearly bought.

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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