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Josephine Diebitsch Peary: Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies
Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, 1879-1962

Josephine Diebitsch Peary

EA-Biography
(Marie Peary Stafford)

JOSEPHINE DIEBITSCH PEARY

Josephine Diebitsch Peary (1863 - ), the wife of Robert Edwin
Peary, discoverer of the North Pole, was born in Washington, D.C., on
May 22nd, 1863, the daughter of Hermann and Magdelene (Schmid) Diebitsch.
Her parents were both German-born and German-reared and met only after
they had come to the United States. Her father was a Prussian Army officer
of noble family (von Diebitsch) and came to America at the same time as his
friend Carl Schurz and for the same reason — violent and active dislike for
the political set-up in Germany. Her mother was a descendant of the famous
publishing firm of von Tauchnitz.
Hermann Diebitsch tried various scientific agricultural experiments on
farms which he bought in Maryland, near Washington, but his scholarly mind
and his rigorous military training made him completely unsuited to such a
life and he eventually found congenial employment in charge of the Foreign
Exchange Department at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. Josephine
was educated in the public schools of Washington through high school and
then attended the Spencerian Business College. She was the oldest of a
family of four, two brothers and a sister, and her merry nature and abounding
vitality made her a ring-leader, not only at home but among her friends
everywhere. Almost a tomboy in her girlhood, she grew into a tall, slender,
strin g k ingly beautiful woman, whose charm and graciousness and simplicity of

EA-Biog. Stafford: Josephine Diebitsch Peary

manner proved to be tremendous assets to her husband in his naval and
arctic careers.
After graduation from the Spencerian Business College, she proved her
independence by taking a job in the Census Bureau, something unheard of at
that time for a young girl of her family background. In 1882, when her
father's illness made it impossible for him to continue his work at the
Smithsonian, she was given the position until his death in 1883 and there–
after held various important posts in the Smithsonian until 1886 when she
resigned upon her engagement to Robert Edwin Peary, at that time a lieu–
tenant in the Navy.
Peary was ordered to Nicaragua in charge of an expedition to survey
the proposed route of the Nicaragua Canal and was gone from November 1887 to
July of 1888. The couple was married in Washington, August 11th, 1888.
Peary's next orders were to the Philadelphia Navy Yard and during their
residence in that city he was able to interest the Philadelphia Academy
of Natural Sciences in a project dear to his heart, the exploration of
Greenland.
In 1886, on a short leave of absence from the Navy, Peary had gone
north on the old sealer Eagle . With one companion, and no first-hand
knowledge or experience, the two of them had penetrated farther onto the
mysterious "inland ice" than anyone had previously succeeded in doing. It
was his desire to go north with a well-equipped expedition, to cross Green–
land on the inland ice, if possible, and to settle the question as to whether
Greenland was an island or the immense peninsula of some great arctic
continent.
In 1891 this dream was realized and an expedition, financed by the
Academy of Natural Sciences and what money the Pearys could contribute from

EA-Biog. Stafford: Josephine Diebitsch Peary

their own slender means, sailed in the Newfoundland sealer the Kite ; to the
wonder and admiration of the public, Mrs. Peary accompanied her husband.
There were no women explorers in that day, woman's place was in the home,
and Peary was severely criticized for venturing to take his wife into certain
hardship and danger. His own feelings in the matter are best expressed in
his own words, as found in his foreward to Mrs. Peary's book, My Arctic Journal .
The feeling that led Mrs. Peary through these experiences was first
and foremost a desire to be by my side, coupled with the conviction that
she was fitted physically as well as otherwise to share with me a portion at
least of the hardships and fatigues of the work. I fully concurred in this
feeling and yet, in spite of my oft-expressed views that the dangers of life
and work in the Arctic have been greatly exaggerated, I cannot but admire her
courage. She has been where no white woman has ever been, and where many a
man has hesitated to go. Within sixty miles of where Kane and his little
party endured such untold sufferings; within eighty miles of where Greely's
men one by one starved to death, and within less than fifty miles of where
Hayes and his party and one portion of the "Polaris" party underwent their
Arctic trials, this tenderly nurtured woman lived for a year in safety and
comfort; in the summer time climbed over the lichen-covered rocks, picking
flowers and singing familiar home songs, shot deer, ptarmigan and ducks in
the valleys and lakes and even tried her hand at seal, walrus and narwhals in
the bay; and through the long, dark winter night, with her nimble fing [: ] rs and
ready woman's insight, was of inestimable value in devising and perfecting
the details of the costumes which enabled Astrup and me to make our journey
across the great ice cap in actual comfort.
I rarely if ever, take up the thread of our Arctic experiences without
reverting to two pictures. One is the first night that we spend on the
Greenland shore after the departure of the ship, when, in a little tent on
the rocks--a tent which the furious wind threatened every moment to carry away
bodily--she watched by my side as I lay a helpless cripple with a broken leg,
our small party the only human beings on that shore and the little "Kite" from
which we had landed, drifted far out among the ice by the storm and invisible
through the rain. Long afterward she told me that every unwonted sound of the
wind set her heart beating with the thoughts of some hungry bear roaming along
the shore attracted by the unusual sight of the tent; yet she never gave a
sign at the time of her fears, lest it should disturb me. The other picture
is that of a scene perhaps a month or two later, when--myself still a cripple
but not entirely helpless-this same woman sat for an hour beside me in the
stern of a boat, calmly reloading our empty firearms while a herd of infuriated
walrus about us thrust their savage heads with gleaming tusks and bloodshot eyes
out of the water close to the muzzles of our rifles, so that she could have
touched them with her hand, in their efforts to get their tusks over the gunwale
and capsize the boat. I may perhaps be pardoned for saying that I never think
of these two experiences without a thrill of pride and admiration for her
pluck.

EA-Biog. Stafford: Josephine Diebitsch Peary

The fact that this first expedition into the North did not consist
entirely of excitement and adventure, but that Mrs. Peary took upon herself
and faithfully performed the duties of cook for the seven members of the
party throughout almost an entire year with no shops upon which to draw for
additional food items and only the most primitive of kitchen equipment, adds
rather than detracts from the picture of a character not only cool and daring
but steadfast and enduring. Peary traversed northern Greenland from coast to
coast on this expedition, but he returned to headquarters long overdue and
those anxious weeks of waiting without hope of news or the possibility of
doing anything to help, were the hardest trial Josephine Peary was forced
to endure. She wrote in her diary "Never before have I felt so utterly alone
and forsaken with no possible chance of knowing where or how my dear one is."
But in 1893 Peary had succeeded in financing and organizing another
expedition and, when it sailed in June, Mrs. Peary was once more on board.
This was a larger and more ambitious undertaking. The party planned to be
gone for two years and this time Mrs. Peary was not going to do the cooking.
Other arrangements had been made, for a baby was expected in the Peary family
in August. Great pessimism was felt over such an unorthodox proceeding, the
general consensus being that there might be a chance of the mother's surviving
the ordeal but no hope for the baby. The only concession the Pearys made to
the unusual feature of their expedition was to make certain that the doctor
for the party had had experience in obstetrics and to take with them a
friendly, motherly, practical nurse. The baby, Marie Ahnighito, was born
the 12th of September, with no more difficulty than that attendant upon
the birth of any first child; she not only survived the birth but the suc–
ceeding months of darkness of the arctic winter and is alive today and of
a rugged constitution.

EA-Biog. Stafford: Josephine Diebitsch Peary

In the summer of 1894 a ship went north to the party in Greenland
although it had been understood that no ship was to be sent for two years.
However, the anxiety of the family and the curiosity of the public made
waiting another twelve months impossible. On the arrival of the ship, all
the members of the expedition with the exception of Hugh Lee and Matt Henson
broke their two-year contract, for one reason or another, and decided to
return to the United States. Peary himself was determined to stay the full
two years but he insisted upon Mrs. Peary's returning home with the baby.
This she reluctantly did.
At home she was faced with the disagreeable fact that the money intended
for the ship which was to bring Peary back in 1895 had already been spent on
the ship in 1894 and [: ] so there would be no way for the little party left
in Greenland to return except by foot along the coast of Greenland in the
hope of picking up a Danish ship or a Scotch whaler. This was not the kind
of situation which Mrs. Peary could face with equanimity. During the winter
of 1894-95 she, who was fiercely proud and would have starved rather than
beg for herself, interviewed one influential and wealthy man after another,
begging funds to equip a ship for the following summer; she, who dreaded
publicity and had never been on a public platform in her life, lectured wherever
there was a chance of making a little money. Finally things turned in her
favor. The National Geographic Society, through the kindness of its presi–
dent, Gardiner Greene Hubbard, invited her to lecture for them and offered
to give her the proceeds of the ticket sale; the Brooklyn Institute did the
same thing. Her valiant efforts aroused the interest of Morris K. Jesup
and his wife who promised to make up whatever amount was still needed when
it came time for the ship to go. To any other woman this would have spelled
respite; to her it was a challenge and she only drove herself the harder,

EA-Biog. Stafford: Josephine Diebitsch Peary

with the result that there was little which the Jesups needed to contribute.
Not only did the ship go north in 1895 to bring home Peary and his faithful
companions but the lasting friendship of the Jesups had been won, together
with their respect and admiration.
In 1898 Peary went North again, this time to be gone for four years,
and his wife and small daughter did not accompany him. A second daughter,
Francine, was born in January, 1899 and died the following August. Immedi–
ately after this sad blow, Mrs. Peary received the news that her husband
had frozen his feet the preceding January so severely that eight of his
toes had been amputated but that, undaunted, he was remaining in the Arctic
for his allotted time to carry on as much of his work of exploration as
possible.
In the summer of 1900 a ship went north to carry additional supplies
and mail to the Peary party and Mrs. Peary, more unerved than she had ever
been before by the two shocks in rapid succession, took her daughter Marie
and accompanied the ship to get what consolation she might from a brief sight
of her husband. The ship was due to return to the United States in the early
fall but ice conditions were very bad and, before any contact had been made
with Peary, the ship was caught in a sheltered harbor and frozen in for the
winter.
This was a fresh ordeal for Mrs. Peary. There was no doctor on the ship;
she and the Captain were the only members of the party who could read or write;
it was impossible to send word to her anxious family at home that she was safe;
apparently, although she made every effort, it was equally impossible to get
word to her husband at his headquarters, two hundred miles to the north, that
she and their daughter were nearby.
The anxiety, the responsibility of a small child, the nervous strain,

EA-Biog. Stafford: Josephine Diebitsch Peary

the lack of congenial companionship, the monotony, and the continuous
darkness of the winter night combined to make a situation which would have
reduced most women to nervous prostration. Yet her daughter can never re–
member seeing her give way to grief nor was there any time when she was not
ready and willing to enter into the amusements of the child. She held
school every forenoon with an extremely reluctant little pupil; there were
candy pulls and corn poppings; long walks out over the ice when the moon was
full, and every possible occasion was seized upon as a pretext for celebra–
tion in an effort to break the dull daily routine and make the ship's company
more contented. It was an admirable example of a gallant and completely
selfless character.
In May of 1901 Peary reached the ship by sheer accident and remained
with it until it was free of the ice in the spring break-up and able to
sail for home. He remained in the Arctic and, in 1902, Mrs. Peary and Marie
once more went north with the ship and brought Peary back. In 1903 their
son, Robert Edwin Peary, Junio n r was born; in 1907 Peary went north again
in an effort to reach the Pole but only succeeded in breaking all previous
records by reaching 87° 6′ N. In 1909 he achieved his life's ambition, the
discovery of the North Pole.
All the major scientific and geographical societies of the world
honored the great explorer for his achievement and not a few of them were
clever enough to recognize the tremendous part his wife had played in his
success. Her constant belief in him, her sharing when possible, in his work
and remaining uncomplainingly at home when it was not possible, her pride in
his achievements, above all, her love and courage, were an incentive to which
no man could fail to respond. In his dedication of the book recording his
great triumph Peary refers to her as the one who "Had been my constant aid

EA-Biog. Stafford: Josephine Diebitsch Peary

and inspiration and has borne the brunt of it all."
Josephine Peary is the author of three books, My Arctic Journal ,
New York, 1893; The Snowbaby , New York, 1901; Children of the Arctic ,
New York, 1903.
Mrs. Peary has lived in almost complete retirement since the death
of her husband in 1920, but her influence and the inspiration of her
life continue to make themselves felt by everyone who comes in contact
with her.
Marie Peary Stafford
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