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Peary Polar Expedition Flags (U.S.)

Last modified: 2015-04-04 by rick wyatt
Keywords: united states | peary | north pole |
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flags at the North Pole
Source: Library of Congress American Memory Collection

See also:

A famous black and white photograph (original in the National Archives, Washington) shows five of Peary's companions holding staff-mounted flags on an ice hill--blocks piled up by a pressure ridge--at the pole. Other shots in this series show the flags being carried to the hill as well as the U.S. flag flying atop it. According to a letter of 9 December 1909 from Peary to Edward Trenchard of the U.S. Navy League, "The flags displayed at the Pole were displayed on poles consisting of a tent pole and the shafts of the ice lances, one of which was carried on each sledge."

The five flags are, from left to right in the photograph:

[Navy League of the United States flag] image by Joe McMillan, 2 January 2004

Navy League of the United States: Held by the Inuit Ooqueah. The flag, according to Peary's letter to Trenchard cited above, was provided by the ladies of the League. Since Annin & Co., the large New York flag company, is known to have provided flags for the Peary expedition, I have followed Annin's 1914 wholesale catalogue for the design of this flag: white with a yellow border and the Navy League emblem on the center--a blue disk with a yellow anchor surrounded by the white letters U, S, N, and L. However, I should note that the flag in the Peary black and white photos is a light shade of gray, and that the hand-colored version of the photograph that was prepared in 1910 for Peary's "The North Pole: Its Discovery" shows the flag as light blue with a yellow border and a copper-colored disk.

[U.S. fraternity flag - Delta Kappa Epsilon]

Delta Kappa Epsilon: Held by the Inuit Ootah; the flag of Peary's fraternity as an undergraduate at Bowdoin College in Maine. It is a vertical tricolor of light blue, yellow, and red with a lion rampant on the center stripe, although the rendering of the lion may have been somewhat different. This flag also appears in the Annin catalogue. After his return, Peary was feted at a dinner given by the DKE Club of New York and displayed this flag there.

[U.S. flag] image by Joe McMillan, 2 January 2004

United States: Held by Peary's long-time assistant and comrade, Matthew Henson. Peary wrote of this flag, "We planted five flags at the top of the world. The first one was a silk American flag which Mrs. Peary gave me fifteen years ago. That flag has done more traveling in high latitudes than any other ever made. I carried it wrapped about my body on every one of my expeditions northward after it came into my possession, and I left a fragment of it at each of my successive 'farthest norths'.... By the time it actually reached the Pole, it was somewhat worn and discolored. A broad diagonal section of this ensign would now mark the farthest goal of earth--the place where I and my dusky companions stood.... In a space between the ice blocks of a pressure ridge, I deposited a glass bottle containing a diagonal strip of my flag and records." An off-white diagonal band was sewn in place of the section Peary left at the Pole.

The U.S. flag with the diagonal band seemed to have been something of an obsession with Peary; a couple of sketches of this flag appear in his notebooks (at the National Archives), one dated April 7, the day after reaching the pole with the note "Flag with diagonal white bar to be my personal flag." Other entries refer to using the design on his letterhead, seal, and as a trademark to authenticate "all N.P. [North Pole] articles." A reproduction of this flag was made by Mrs. Peary for the explorer to display on the lecture circuit and is now in the collection of the Maine State Museum, complete with the patches on the areas where the various fragments were removed from the original; see The image above is based on the picture at the museum's site.

[U.S. flag] image by Joe McMillan, 2 January 2004

US peace flag circa 1891: Held by the Inuit Egingwah. Often described as the flag of the Daughters of the American Revolution, or as the DAR peace flag, Peary refers to it as the "'World's Ensign of Liberty and Peace,' with its red, white and blue in a field of white." The photograph bears out that it is not the DAR flag (a vertical triband of light blue, white, and light blue with the society insignia on the center). Since the design of the flag had nothing to do with the DAR, it was presumably provided to Peary by the society, since Peary's notes for March 28 do refer to a "D.A.R. flag," and he wrote after the expedition to the DAR discussing a flag he had displayed for them at the pole. Again, on the assumption that the flag was produced by Annin & Co., I've followed the pattern in their catalogue (granted that it was issued five years later), which includes the inscription in gold Old English lettering "Peace among all Nations" across the upper part of the white border. I've been unable to find a photograph of Peary's flag that is clear enough to tell for certain whether such lettering was present; it may well not have been. A circa US peace flag circa 1891, without the writing is seen here. Shown here is an image of the Annin pattern, but in the pre-1912 46-star version.

"Red Cross" Flag: Held by the Inuit Seeglo. This one is a mystery. It is invariably referred to by Peary as a Red Cross flag, yet it clearly appears in the photographs as a dark field with a white (or very light) Maltese cross. The hand-colored photo in Peary's book shows it red with a white cross, apparently the same as the modern Maltese civil ensign. It is much smaller than the other flags present at the Pole. I had thought that perhaps the American Red Cross at the time used a flag other than the familiar Geneva Convention flag, but a look at an on-line exhibition of Red Cross flags at indicates not. Maybe a British or Canadian Knights of St. John ambulance flag, which, from the similarity of the organizations' medical relief roles, might be confused with the Red Cross?

There are also a couple of other Peary-related flags that may be of interest:

[U.S. flag] image by Joe McMillan, 2 January 2004

As explained on the website of the (now-closed) Robert E. Peary High School in Montgomary County, Maryland, Henson sewed a white diagonal band (like that on the flag planted at the pole) inscribed "NORTH POLE" on a standard U.S. national ensign, which Peary hoisted at the mizzen peak of his support ship, the Roosevelt, on his return to Nova Scotia in September 1909. The flag was presented to the school by Peary's family and returned to the family after the school was closed. See

[U.S. flag] image by Joe McMillan, 2 January 2004

Peary's personal flag carried during his expeditions, divided diagonally white over blue, with a blue P on the white and a white star on the blue. The Peary High School site shows a reproduction of this flag with the two sections reversed, but what is apparently the original flag is shown on the Maine State Museum site, and I've used that for the image.

Joe McMillan, 2 January 2004

I just ran across an article by Peary's daughter, Marie Peary Stafford, entitled "The Peary Flag Comes to Rest" in the October 1954 issue of National Geographic, pp. 519-532. It has some further info:

Regarding the American flag flown by Peary over the Pole:
Marie Peary Stafford says of silk American flag that her mother made it in 1898. The canton, stripes and fringe were sewn on by machine, the stars embroidered by hand. It was first carried on Peary's 1898-1902 expedition.

Peary wrote: "I left a fragment of it at each of my successive 'farthest norths'...."

According to Mrs. Stafford, these were:
1. (upper hoist) - Cape Morris Jessup (northern point of Greenland), May 1900
2. (upper fly) - Cape Morris Jessup, May 1900
3. (center) - Arctic Ocean ice near 87 deg 06 min N, April 1906
4. (middle hoist) - Cape Columbia, Ellesmere Island, June 1906
5. (upper center) - Cape Thomas Hubbard, June 1906
6. (diagonal band) - North Pole, April 1909

The 4th fragment was recovered by Canadian scientists in 1953 and returned to the Peary family. The 5th was recovered by Peary's erstwhile colleague, Commander Donald B. Macmillan, USN, in 1914, and also returned to the family.

Based on the picture at the Maine State Museum website, an off-white diagonal band was sewn in place of the section Peary left at the Pole. The color photograph of the original flag in the Stafford article shows the diagonal band as the same white color as the other patches on the flag.

The original flag and the two recovered fragments were donated by the family to the National Geographic Society in 1954.

Mrs. Stafford refers to the flag I identified as Peary's personal flag as a "sledge flag or guidon." Like the S&S placed at the Pole, it was made by Peary's wife using a large silk handkerchief and material from a silk gown. Peary first carried the flag on his 1892 crossing of the Greenland ice cap; Mrs. Stafford says he fastened it to a tall bamboo pole and carried it while breaking trail for his team.

In Mrs. Stafford's article, she says that Peary explained his practice of leaving fragments of the flag behind by saying that his one flag, made by his wife, was too personally precious to leave behind at any of his "farthest norths," even the North Pole itself. Thus, rather than leaving an entire flag of his country, as other explorers traditionally did, he left only pieces of the one flag.

It seems strange today, but apparently no one took any offense at this practice at the time. Peary and Henson were both obviously men of very strong patriotic feelings, but it seems to have occurred to neither of them that there was anything objectionable in Peary's way of marking his achievements.

Joe McMillan, 5 January 2004

Why cut a diagonal strip? Doesn't that leave you with two halves of a flag to handle? Why not just cut from the edge?
Nathan Lamm, 6 January 2004

Well, if you're Peary, you have Matthew Henson along to sew the thing back together again, so no problem. On earlier trips, Peary did leave pieces cut from the edges, one cut out of the center.

My guess why you'd do more than that at the pole would be that leaving a diagonal strip would establish beyond reasonable doubt what country's flag had been there, while just cutting a patch might not. Or maybe it's like breaking the glass after you drink a toast--the flag can no longer be used for lesser purposes. Of course, Peary had obviously thought out in advance the idea of having a US flag with a white diagonal band as a "personal flag" after the expedition was over, and cutting out the diagonal band to leave behind was consistent with that (witness the "NORTH POLE" ensign flown from the SS Roosevelt, which had not had part left behind in the Arctic but still was defaced with the diagonal stripe).
Joe McMillan, 7 January 2004

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