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    Josephine Diebitsch Peary

    Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies

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    (Marie Peary Stafford)


            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

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    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


            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


            In 1891 this dream was realized and an expedition, financed by the

    Academy of Natural Sciences and what money the Pearys could contribute from

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    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


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    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.

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    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,

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    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


            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


            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,

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    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

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    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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