Video | Canadian High Arctic and Greenland

Top of the World: Robert Peary

American explorer Robert Peary’s ultimate goal was to reach the North Pole. It seems there was no end to the lengths he would go to get there! Learn more about how his quest for fame left tragedies in his wake, while his claims of reaching the pole are now disputed.

Video Transcript

In 1894, American polar explorer, Robert Peary, was on the hunt for fame. Peary's ultimate goal was the North Pole, but he wasn't above theft, grave robbing, and kidnapping along the way.

In his early efforts to reach the pole, Peary journeyed to Cape York, Greenland. There, he interacted with local Inuit. He traded with them, offering tools and goods for assistance and local knowledge. But Peary wanted more than knowledge.

His Inuit hosts were astonished to find him digging up the graves of their ancestors. Peary claimed he wished to rebury the remains in the warm and pleasant land to the far south. But bones weren't all that Peary wanted to take south.

Peary would also take with him the region's most valuable treasure, and some of his local hosts for good measure. Peary was led on an expedition to a series of large meteorites. These massive rocks from space had been a source of iron for the Inuit for as long as anyone knew. Inuit stamped and hammered the iron into tools like knives and spear points.

A local hunter led Peary on a trek for eleven days to the meteorites' location. The Inuit had special names for each of the massive rocks: The Woman, The Dog, and The Tent. The Tent was the largest of the three, more than three metres across, weighing more than thirty tons.

Having learned the secret of the meteorites' location, Peary decided to take them home. Trade with Europeans now provided the Inuit with an easier source for tools, but the meteorites were still objects of immense value for them.

Peary's crew had to build a railway to get the meteorites to his ship. Three years and several voyages later, Peary got the meteorites to New York, where they caused a sensation—but Peary arrived in New York with more than meteorites. He also brought a group of Inuit from Greenland to New York for scientific research.

Somehow, Peary had convinced six Inuit to make the difficult journey by sea from Cape York, Greenland to New York, New York. The group was offered supplies and tools in exchange, and Peary promised they'd only be gone for a year. None of this turned out to be true.

The Inuit were brought to the Museum of Natural History in New York. There they were forced to live in a damp cellar. Anthropologists studied the Inuit intently, but their studies didn't last long. Four of the Inuit died within months.

One survivor went back to Greenland, and a boy, Minik, was left orphaned—probably the only Inuk in New York. Abandoned by Peary, Minik was adopted by museum supervisor William Wallace and his wife Rhetta.

Minik's father had been among the Inuit who had died. Minik was horrified to discover that the museum had faked his burial and kept his remains for study. Minik tried to get them back. His request was refused and Minik gave up. Instead, he demanded to be sent home.

Finally, in 1909, the Peary Arctic Club paid for his passage home to Cape York. But after years in New York, the orphan Minik didn't fit in back in Greenland either, although he polished up his local language skills and became a fine hunter. He returned to New York in 1916. Minik died of the Spanish Flu just two years later.

Robert Peary, meanwhile, had gone on to worldwide fame, after he claimed to be the first explorer to reach the North Pole in 1909. Today, his claim to the pole is widely disbelieved, but his fame lives on.

The sad story of Minik and his fellow Greenlanders reveals the true cost of Peary's search for fame. In 1920, after Robert Peary's death, his wife sold the meteorites to the Museum of Natural History for $40,000. There they remain, sad souvenirs from the voyages of Robert Peary—grave robber, kidnapper, and meteorite thief.