Thanks to the generosity of Philadelphia’s Independence Seaport Museum, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University has recently acquired, and successfully conserved, an important piece of exploration history – the flag that was created for and used on the Peary Auxiliary Expedition to Greenland in 1894.
Robert E. Peary (1856-1920), a U.S. Naval officer who devoted much of his professional life to Arctic exploration, is best known for leading an expedition that claimed, in 1909, to be the first to have reached the geographic North Pole. Matthew Henson (1866-1955), Peary’s African-American companion and fellow explorer, joined Peary on seven different Arctic expeditions between 1891 and 1909.
Now a national hero buried in Arlington Cemetery, Henson may have reached the North Pole shortly before Peary, though the two men considered it a joint discovery.
Peary and Henson had their start in the Far North in the winter of 1891-92 when they made an expedition to Greenland that was sponsored by the Academy. They carried with them on that first trip a 43-star U.S. flag that is still owned by the Academy.
It was returned to the institution by Peary at an elaborate banquet held in the Academy’s library in September 1892. It was restored in 2007 and was, for the next 10 years, on display on the second floor of the Academy’s museum just outside of the library. That historic flag, long a valued treasure, has now been joined by another, equally important flag, also associated with Robert Peary, Mathew Henson and the history of Arctic exploration.
The purpose of the 1894 Peary Auxilliary Expedition was to resupply Lieutenant Peary’s expedition that had over-wintered in Greenland during the winter of 1893-94, and to bring Peary’s wife, Josephine, their infant daughter, Marie, and several of their colleagues back to Philadelphia. A group of natural historians attached to the auxiliary expedition were to make collections and conduct scientific research in the Arctic.
The auxiliary expedition was officially sponsored by the Geographical Society of Philadelphia, whose founder and president was the Academy’s curator of geology and invertebrate paleontology, Angelo Heilprin (1853-1907). Heilprin, an enthusiastic Peary supporter, had accompanied Peary and Henson on part of their 1891 expedition to Greenland and arranged for a “relief” expedition to bring them back to Philadelphia after they had over-wintered on the island.
The 1894 expedition, flying the flag that is now owned by the Academy, sailed from New York, aboard the S.S. Falcon, the same ship that had transported Peary’s expedition members to Greenland in 1893. The auxiliary expedition left Brooklyn on June 20, 1894. Among others, the party included Herbert L. Bridgman, a journalist serving as historian, to whom Heilprin had ceded leadership of the expedition, civil engineer Emil Diebitsch (brother of Josephine Peary); and several Geographical Society members and Academy scientists who had volunteered their services and later published reports on the geology, zoology, and botany of the areas visited.
Many of the scientific collections made during the expedition are still housed at the Academy.
Tragically, after completing its voyage to Greenland and returning the auxiliary expedition to Philadelphia, the Falcon and its crew were lost at sea on its return trip to St. John’s. Fortunately, the expedition flag had been removed from the ship in Philadelphia. It was returned to the Geographical Society which retained it for 75 years. Then, in 1969, the Society gave the flag to the Philadelphia Maritime Museum, predecessor to the current Independence Seaport Museum, which gave the flag to the Academy in 2021.
Although it was in surprisingly good condition for its age and the harsh conditions under which it had been used, the flag still required significant conservation. This was carried out by textile conservator Virginia Whelan with financial support from an Academy friend.
Beautifully restored and framed, the 1894 Peary Auxiliary Expedition flag is now ready to join the Peary Greenland Expedition flag of 1891-92 to help commemorate two history-making expeditions to Greenland with which the Academy was intimately involved.
By Robert McCracken Peck, Senior Fellow and Curator of Art and Artifacts