Autograph Letter Signed Lauding the Discoverer of the South Pole, “The man of the hour Amundsen,” When They Met at the Geographical Society of Philadelphia

Signed by Robert E. Peary

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PEARY, ROBERT. (1856-1920). American admiral and explorer; widely recognized as the first person to reach the North Pole. ALS. (“Peary”). 3pp. 8vo. On board the König Albert ocean liner, March 16, 1913. To Paul J. Sartain, secretary of the Geographical Society of Philadelphia. On König Albert stationery.

Your letter of Feb. 24, enclosing Director’s resolution came while I was laid up as the result of a surgical operation & unable to acknowledge it. I appreciate the courtesy of the Directors & hope you will convey to them my thanks for their friendly action, but I cannot take any credit for what everyone considered a very satisfactory affair. I felt the compliment & honor of being present, but the success of the occasion was due entirely to the Society, & the man of the hour Amundsen. My congratulations to the Society, & my regards best wishes to you & my other friends in it…”

Robert Peary, explorer of the North Pole, and Roald Amundsen, explorer of the South Pole, meeting in 1913

In 1891, Peary, accompanied by his wife and team, set off for Greenland to prove by inland exploration that the icy wilderness was in fact an island. Two years later, he sailed on another expedition in an attempt to be the first to reach the North Pole. Despite several setbacks, Peary remained undeterred: “In the years up to 1900 Peary made several unsuccessful attempts on the Pole, during one of which the temperature fell to –50o Celsius (–58o Fahrenheit) and eight of his toes had to be amputated because of severe frostbite. With each attempt he became more determined, enlisting the aid of the Peary Arctic Society [and] of congressmen,” (Great Explorers, Owen). In 1903, he was elected president of the American Geographical Society and that autumn he garnered the unexpected support of both the secretary of the navy and President Roosevelt. After a failed attempt in 1905, “the next three years were spent in preparation for a final try,” (ibid.). Finally after traveling hundreds of miles across ice in conditions more extreme than any previously encountered, Peary and his team reached the Pole on April 6, 1909. However, his claim was challenged by Dr. Frederick Cook who maintained that he had attained the Pole exactly one year earlier. “In October 1909 a committee of experts appointed by the National Geographic Society examined his records and reported that they were unanimously of the opinion that [Peary] had reached the North Pole… His friends also worked actively to induce Congress to give adequate recognition to his achievements… In March 1911… a bill was passed tendering him the thanks of Congress and placing him on the retired list,” (DAB). Interestingly, Peary’s claim has been challenged in recent years, with the very organization he once headed, the American Geographical Society, withholding its recognition and the National Geographic Society steadfastly confirming Peary’s achievement.

In 1910, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen (1872-1928) set off ostensibly to explore the Arctic Basin aboard Fridtjof Nansen’s famous ship, Fram. However, his real intention was to be the first to set foot at the South Pole, and he reached it on December 14, 1911. The news did not reach the wider world until his return to civilization in the spring of 1912, and his heroic adventure and victory over England’s Robert F. Scott brought instant acclaim and many honors including a special gold medal from the National Geographic Society presented by Peary at its annual banquet in Washington. The jubilation surrounding Amundsen’s achievement was somewhat dampened, however, when the public learned in February 1913 that Scott and four of his crew had perished during their return from the pole.

Paul J. Sartain

The Philadelphia Geographical Society was founded in 1891 for the purpose of promoting “the discovery and appreciation of the many wonders of our world.” In 1902, it awarded its Elisha Kent Kane Gold Medal “for eminent geographical research” to Peary and, in 1907, to Amundsen. Our letter is likely regarding the January 16, 1913 meeting at which Amundsen gave a presentation. The Bulletin of the Geographical Society of Philadelphia (volume XI, January-October 1913) records, “One of the most notable meetings in the history of the Society was that which filled the Academy of Music to overflowing on the evening of January 16, 1913, to hear the story of the intrepid and modest Roald Amundsen, who told of his discovery of the South Pole. President Henry G. Bryant presided. Rear Admiral Peary and Lieutenant Shackleton were present, to give the occasion historic significance by bringing together the only living men who had been at the opposite ends of the world. Sir Ernest Shackleton gave a brief address in appreciation of Captain Amundsen’s explorations. Captain Amundsen, who was introduced by Admiral Peary, told his now familiar story to a fascinated audience, and in an interview announced his intention of leading another expedition to the Far North in June, 1914.” Written on a folded sheet which has some minor folds, with a small paper clip indentation in the upper margin; in excellent condition. A wonderful association piece!


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