Even maniacal travelers need a respite once in a while, if only to plan their next adventures. Eagle Island, in Maine’s Casco Bay, was such a haven for big adventurers Admiral Robert and Josephine Peary.
Admiral Peary, as many know, was credited with being the first person, along with Matthew Henson and other expedition members, to reach the North Pole on April 6, 1909.
Long before reaching the Pole, however, Peary set sail for Eagle Island, which he bought for $100 in 1877, just a few years after graduating from Bowdoin College. There, in the early 1900s, the Pearys built a two-room cottage that eventually evolved into a larger home (but not a mansion). The family spent many summers on the island, which is now a State Historic Site.
In the 1890s, Admiral Peary often was in the news, celebrated (and sometimes maligned) as the great explorer. I do like his motto, “Find a way, or make one” (Inveniam viam aut faciam). But Josephine is my hero, living proof that female maniacal travelers are not a recent phenomenon but have always existed.
Three years into her marriage, Josephine bucked popular criticism to travel with her husband on his first trip to Greenland. There, living in a cobbled-together house with Peary and five other men, Josephine threw herself into Arctic living: She explored, trapped, hunted, cooked, tanned skins, and created outfits from fur and feature. She also nursed her husband, who had shattered his leg en route to Greenland. Later, Josephine chronicled her adventures in her first book, An Arctic Journal.
On her next stay in Greenland, in 1893, Josephine gave birth to her daughter Marie, soon-dubbed the “Snow Baby” by the Inuit locals and the international press. I have yet to find an account of Marie’s birth, but I imagine that Josephine labored in that cobbled-together shack, probably with with no midwife nearby (although it’s likely that the expedition included a doctor with some basic obstetrical training).
Of course, Inuit women had been having babies in the Arctic for centuries. However, childbirth remained a dangerous affair in 1893, and even more terrifying when you didn’t know what to expect because you were living in an isolated foreign land. For Josephine, however, it almost seems as if Marie’s birth was a blessed non-event, just something she did between prepping furs and cooking ptarmigan stew. She later wrote a book about Marie’s first years, The Snow Baby (1901).
All told, Josephine made a half-dozen trips to the Arctic, including one miserable winter spent, with young Marie, on board the Windward, a ship that had become bound in the ice (although not far from shore), in 1901. There, Josephine met llakasingwah, Peary’s pregnant Inuit mistress. Some sources report that Ilakasingwah also was living on board the ship (although that’s not certain). Peary himself was 300 miles away, at a winter camp in Fort Conger. It must have been an especially chilly winter for Josephine.
Back on Eagle Island, Josephine presided over what her son later called the island’s most “momentous event,” the September day in 1909 when the South Harpswell postmaster arrived with a telegram from Peary announcing that he had reached the Pole. Soon a small group of reporters gathered on the island. One reportedly said, “What do you have to say now, Mrs. Peary?”
In what I think of as true Josephine fashion, Mrs. Peary said to the group, “”I say come on boys, let’s have a drink.”
Eagle Island is located about 6 miles from Portland and about 1.5 miles from the end of Harpswell Neck. I visited with my Seal (my son), on Atlantic Seal Cruises, out of South Freeport harbor. The island is a wonderful destination for a summer afternoon. For travelers like me who don’t own a boat, getting there requires some advance planning (see info below), but it’s a trip worth making. The seals en route are a bonus.
First, the island offers incredible views, peaceful walking paths, and that sense of freedom I always feel when visiting a Maine island.
And then there is the Peary home, full of quirky Arctic artifacts and family memorabilia. Narwhal tusks. Various stuffed birds. Photos of angora rabbits from the era when one family member tried to make a go of an island rabbit farm.
But what I like most about Eagle Island is that Josephine lived there, spending more than 50 summers on the island, from 1904 until her death in 1955. (Admiral Peary died much earlier, in 1920, of pernicious anemia). Ultimately, Eagle Island became more Josephine’s place than her husband’s.
On the island, Josephine read and wrote and rowed and entertained. She picked berries with her grandchildren and taught them how to tie their shoes. During the winters, she lived quietly in a home on Baxter Boulevard in Portland. By the end of her life, she was known more as Grandma than as the intrepid young woman who dared to travel to the far North.
In 1955, just a few months before Josephine’s death at age 92, the National Geographic Society awarded her its highest honor, the Medal of Achievement.
I imagine it was gratifying, to finally be recognized. On the other hand, I also imagine Josephine shrugging off the honor as “just a little medal.” Nice to have, but not nearly so great as hiking across Greenland’s tundra, or sitting on the porch at Eagle Island, looking out at the blue expanse of Casco Bay.
Sources and Resources
The Friends of Eagle Island have established a website, Peary’s Eagle Island, that provides information about the Pearys and the Island, as well as details on how to get there. Marie L Cruises out of the Dolphin Marina in South Harpswell also offers regularly scheduled excursions to the island.
Josephine’s books are available online (see links above) but also have been reissued in print.
Josephine’s papers and photographs can be found at the University of New England in The Maine Women Writer’s Collection.
For additional information about Josephine, see Patricia Erikson’s articles, with several links gathered together in one place at her blog, Heritage in Maine.
African-American Matthew Henson wrote a memoir about his dash to the Pole with Peary, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole (1912). Many books have been written about Henson, but a revised version of his memoir recently published is Matthew A. Henson’s Historic Arctic Journey: The Classic Account of One of the World’s Greatest Black Explorers (2009).
Finally, I’m well aware that Peary’s claim to have reach the North Pole is disputed by many, although I didn’t get into the details above as my focus here is Josephine. For more on the controversy, see John Tierney’s New York Times column, “Who was first at the North Pole?”
If Eagle Island intrigues you, you might also check out the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum on the campus of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. See the Josephine D. Peary biography page for more info on Josephine.