Robert E. Peary was born on May 6,1856 in Cresson, Pennsylvania. Having family in Maine, his mother brought him to live in Maine when he was three years old, after his father's death. Peary spent his childhood living in Cape Elizabeth and Portland, Maine, then graduating from Portland High School. A graduate of Bowdoin College, class of 1877, Peary studied civil engineering. After college he moved to Fryeberg, Maine, where he became the town surveyor. He was then hired as a draftsman for the Coast and Geodetic Survey and moved to Washington, DC. In 1881 Peary joined the US Navy Civil Engineers Corps. In 1884 Peary began his career of exploration as chief assistant on an expedition to Nicaragua to survey a route for the planned alternative to the Panama Canal.
Peary began his Arctic career in 1885 as he began to plan an expedition that would ascend the Greenland Ice Cap. He had dreamed of exploring the Arctic since he was a young child reading Elisha Kent Kane's accounts of Arctic travel. Peary had a strong desire to become famous. He felt that one sure way to gain that fame would be to discover the North Pole. In 1886 he crossed a section of the Greenland Ice Cap, and in 1892 he investigated northeast Greenland. His exploration of the far North continued until 1909, when he announced that he, his assistant Matthew Henson, and the Polar Eskimos Uutaaq, Ukkujaaq, Sigluk, and Iggiannguaq were the first men to reach the North Pole.