Home World Wars A Leader of Robert Peary to the Pole

A Leader of Robert Peary to the Pole

by Tatiana Sandlewood
A Leader of Robert Peary to the Pole

Robert Peary receives all the praise (and lots of justifiable doubt) for being the first person to reach the North Pole, but if it hadn’t been for the daring master mariner and ice navigator Bob Bartlett, he would never have arrived there. The debate over whether Peary actually reached the North Pole and Matthew Henson’s participation in the last push have received much of the attention throughout history.

Here is what happened, but first some background information and context. Brigus, Newfoundland, was the place of Robert Abram Bartlett’s birth in August 1875. He was descended from a long line of ship captains in the cod and seal fisheries—the renowned “Bartletts of Brigus.” In 1845, his father William, uncles John and Sam, and he all participated in the hunt for any signs of the ill-fated Franklin Expedition. His great-uncle Isaac led the Tigress during its search for Charles Francis Hall’s lost Polaris in 1874, saving those on board by landing them on a raft of ice in lower Baffin Bay.

A Leader of Robert Peary to the Pole

Young Bob Bartlett had a strong desire for seafaring adventure. Throughout his infancy and adolescence, he went sailing with his father. At the age of seventeen, he took command of his own schooner, the Osprey, and sailed back from the treacherous waters of Labrador with a cargo of cod. He practically lived at sea for the next six years, traveling to and from the Caribbean, Latin America, and the North Atlantic. He received the titles of captain and master mariner by 1898, when he was just 23 years old.

When Bartlett was John Bartlett’s first mate on the Windward during Peary’s first North Pole Expedition (1898–1902), Bartlett had his first interaction with Peary. Peary made that trek and came back from a three-month sledding adventure with badly frostbitten feet. As the ship’s doctor gave ether and held Peary down while amputating eight of his toes, Bartlett assisted in preparing Peary for surgery.

Young Bob Bartlett had a strong desire for seafaring adventure. Throughout his infancy and adolescence, he went sailing with his father. At the age of seventeen, he took command of his own schooner, the Osprey, and sailed back from the treacherous waters of Labrador with a cargo of cod. He practically lived at sea for the next six years, traveling to and from the Caribbean, Latin America, and the North Atlantic. He received the titles of captain and master mariner by 1898, when he was just 23 years old.

When Bartlett was John Bartlett’s first mate on the Windward during Peary’s first North Pole Expedition (1898–1902), Bartlett had his first interaction with Peary. Peary made that trek and came back from a three-month sledding adventure with badly frostbitten feet. As the ship’s doctor gave ether and held Peary down while amputating eight of his toes, Bartlett assisted in preparing Peary for surgery.

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Peary was so impressed with the young man that he hired him as captain and ice master for his next two trips to the North Pole, in 1905–1906 and 1908–1909, on the beautiful, 1,000-horsepower steel-hulled SS Roosevelt.

During the second trip, Bartlett gained Peary’s confidence to the point that, after spending the winter at Ellesmere Island’s furthest point, Bartlett was chosen to lead the “Pioneer Party” across the Polar Sea ice and toward the North Pole. Bartlett and his advance sled crew laid out the track, built igloos, prepared food, and set the course for Peary and the main party to follow behind over the course of nineteen days. Their mukluks and the wooden sled runners were torn apart by the sea ice’s jagged edges as they traversed the uneven, harsh terrain.

Bartlett continued to drive for his leader despite having frostbite on his face and hands from the terrible weather and howling winds. With his perseverance and navigational expertise, Bartlett believed he had a chance to make the last push for the pole. Peary, however, spoke with Bartlett privately on April 1st, 1909.

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They were barely a few degrees of latitude away from 88 degrees, or perhaps a few days or a week at most, from the North Pole. Peary gave Bartlett his appreciation for his tireless trail-blazing, route-finding, and commitment. But he said that he wanted Bartlett to go back to the Roosevelt and that Matthew Henson was going in his place. Peary claimed that Henson was the superior dog driver. That was a fact that Bartlett could not contest.

A Leader of Robert Peary to the Pole
Captain Bob Bartlett (right) and Robert Edwin Peary (left). Battle Harbour, Labrador. 1909.
This image is in the public domain via Wikicommons.

However, Bartlett was the team’s far stronger navigator. A master of the sextant, he was able to make observations, confirm their position, and offer unambiguous evidence that they had reached the pole. But Peary’s choice was irrevocable, and all Bartlett could do was bow his head and express gratitude to Peary for bringing him thus far. Peary turned to Bartlett when he realized how disappointed he was.

“It’s all in the game,” Peary continued, his eyes fixated on the northhe sextant, he was able to make observations, confirm their position, and offer unambiguous evidence that they had reached the pole. But Peary’s choice was irrevocable, and all Bartlett could do was bow his head and express gratitude to Peary for bringing him thus far. Peary turned to Bartlett when he realized how disappointed he was. “It’s all in the game,” Peary continued, his eyes fixated on the north. You’ve played the game long enough to understand how challenging it is.

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Bartlett felt terrible. He was only 135 kilometers from the farthest point on the planet. Later, when asked if he had shed any tears, he admitted that he had. “It was so close,” Bartlett made one last observation at latitude 87° N. 48 ‘before departing, walking five kilometers north of the igloos in gale-force winds.

Peary, Matthew Henson, and four Inuit men stood at the geographic North Pole on April 6, 1909. He revealed it to the world upon his return to civilization. The men holding the flags are captured on camera. However, controversy over his claim and homecoming tarnished both. He quickly found out that American explorer Dr. Frederick Cook had asserted that he had arrived at the pole in April of 1908, one year before Peary. In the first years after his return, Peary’s own records were examined, scrutinized, and cast into doubt. Peary endured three days of arduous hearings in 1911 from Subcommittee No. 8 of the Committee on Naval Affairs, during which time he was interrogated about his meager observations and dubious missing diary entries.

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Even though Peary eventually received recognition as the North Pole’s discoverer from almost all geographical societies on the planet, his claims are still hotly debated and are denoted with the word “disputed.” The National Geographic Society came to the conclusion that Peary probably made up his records in the 1980s after carefully looking at recently found documents. 

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