Who Was the First Person to Reach the North Pole?

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

The first person to reach the North Pole was an engineer in the American Navy named Robert Edwin Peary, who reached the Pole on 6 April 1909, along with his employee Matthew Henson and four Inuit men named Seeglo, Ootah, Ooqueah, and Egigingwah. Although his achievement was shadowed with doubt for almost a century, a 2005 expedition by a British explorer named Tom Avery and four others were able to recreate Peary's journey with replica wooden sleds pulled by Canadian Eskimo Dog teams, taking 36 days and 22 hours to reach the North Pole, a figure only 5 hours faster than that given by Peary.

Robert Edwin Peary was the first person to reach the North Pole.
Robert Edwin Peary was the first person to reach the North Pole.

The Earth's North Pole is extremely isolated and cold. As there is little reason to travel there except to make a point, the total number of explorers who travel there numbers no more than a couple hundred per year. Fly-bys have been made by plane and airship, and US and Soviet submarines have passed by the North Pole and even surfaced there. Lacking solid ground, the North Pole is covered by constantly reshuffling thick sea ice. This makes it impossible to build any permanent structure there.

In 2005, British explorer Tom Avery replicated Peary's journey with wooden sleds pulled by Canadian Eskimo Dog teams.
In 2005, British explorer Tom Avery replicated Peary's journey with wooden sleds pulled by Canadian Eskimo Dog teams.

During the summer, the North Pole receives 24 hours of sunlight, and during the winter, 24 hours of darkness. To understand why, recall that the Earth's axis is not directly perpendicular to the plane of the ecliptic, but rather is offset by a factor of 23 degrees, called the axial tilt. So while the majority of the planet is thrust in and out of sunlight every 24 hours, small portions around the North and South Pole experience 6-month nights and days. Of course, this makes them all the more hostile to would-be polar colonizers or scientific researchers.

Numerous controversies surrounded the first polar expedition. Except for Peary, no one on the trip was trained in navigation, and thus no one could confirm Peary's navigational work. In a book later published by Henson, he recalled the trip as difficult, involving torturous detours to avoid ice ridges and areas where the ice pack grew thin. This contradicted Peary's account of a fast and direct trek to the Pole. However, as stated before, their trip was recreated by explorers using period equipment, and thus looks more plausible than many historians of the 20th century would have thought.

Sunshine is omnipresent at the North Pole in summer.
Sunshine is omnipresent at the North Pole in summer.
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime wiseGEEK contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

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Discussion Comments


At the time of the trip to the N. Pole, Peary had lost most of his toes to frost bite, and had difficulty walking. Henson scouted out the way to the pole, before going back to get Peary (who was in a dog sled), and transporting him to the pole, where Henson had already been.


I would like to contact the relative of Plaisted. The family of a Sherpa from Darjeeling, India, has told me that he, as an employee on the Plaisted expedition, was the first Indian to reach the North Pole. I would like to confirm this.


Ralph Plaisted was my grand uncle and according to my family history he was the first "undisputed" person to reach the North Pole by land. Due to the difficulties he had on the trek, and Peary's journal, he believed that Peary had faked his accomplishment. Some experts believe he missed the North Pole by anywhere from 30-120 miles. As for Matthew A. Henson I believe he was on the same expedition as Peary.


Matthew Henson was the first to reach the North Pole and was an African-American. For reasons that have been well documented he received no credit for that. He sent forward while the others did whatever was needed for the expedition to go further. If you check the records you will see the documentation, but if not there, check African-American history on the subject.


How about Ralph Plaisted? In 1968 a group with Plaisted as their leader definitely made it to the North Pole. His conquest of the North Pole is indisputable.


Matthew A. Henson was determined to be the first person to reach the north pole. Only getting credit for it in his latter years.

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