Annie Smith Peck

Inducted: 2009
Born: 1850
Died: 1935

Annie Smith Peck was an American mountaineer and adventurer. She was an ardent suffragist and noted speaker, lecturing extensively for many years throughout the world, and writing four books encouraging travel and exploration. Peck was born on October 19, 1850, in ProvidenceRhode Island. She was the youngest of five children born to Ann Power Smith Peck and George Bacheler Peck. Her brothers included George, a doctor, William, principal of Providence Classical High School, and John, an engineer. Her brothers instilled a sense of competitiveness in Peck at a young age. Her sister, Emily Smith Peck, died in infancy.

Peck grew up in Providence, attending Dr. Stockbridge’s School for Young Ladies and Providence High School. She graduated in 1872 from Rhode Island Normal School (present-day Rhode Island College), a preparatory school for teachers. Peck briefly taught Latin at Providence High School but wanted to attend Brown University as her father and three brothers had; however, she was refused admission to the university based on gender. After being declined by Brown, Peck moved to Saginaw, Michigan, intending to live independently and support herself. She found work as a teacher of languages and mathematics at Saginaw High School, where she remained until 1874. While teaching in Saginaw, Peck decided to further her education by earning an undergraduate degree. When she wrote home to tell her family about her plans, they thought it was “perfect folly” for her to want to attend college and graduate at the age of twenty-seven. In a letter to her father, Peck argued, “Why you should recommend for me a course so different from that which you pursue or recommend to your boys is what I can see no reason for except the example of our great grandfathers, and times are changing rapidly in that respect. I certainly cannot change. I have wanted it for years and hesitated on account of age, but 27 does not seem as old now as it did. I should hope for 20 years of good work afterward.” After learning that she insisted on earning the same education as her brothers, Peck’s father agreed to support her education. In 1874, Peck enrolled at the University of Michigan, which opened its doors to women in 1871. 

Peck earned an undergraduate degree with honors from the University of Michigan in 1878 with a major in Greek and classical languages and a master’s degree in Greek from the university in 1881. She taught Latin and speech at Purdue University from 1881 to 1883. In 1884, Peck traveled to Europe, where she continued her education at Hannover, Germany, and Athens, Greece. In 1885, Peck became the first woman to attend the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, where she studied archeology. Although Peck initially worked as a teacher, she took up the sport of mountaineering while studying in the mid-1880s. Beginning in 1892, she made her living as a public lecturer, mountaineer, and author of travel guides. As Peck began to climb, lecture, and explore Latin America, she also promoted peace between the Americas and geographic education through her lectures and publications.

Peck worked as a schoolteacher in Providence, Rhode Island, as well as Saginaw, MichiganCincinnatiOhio; and Montclair, New Jersey. From 1881 to 1883, Peck was a professor of Latin and speech at Purdue University, and after returning from a two-year stay in Europe, she briefly taught Latin at Smith College from 1886 to 1887. By 1892, she had given up teaching and made her living by lecturing and writing about archeology, mountaineering, and her travels. In 1885, while pursuing her European education, Peck discovered her enthusiasm for mountaineering. She ascended moderate-sized mountains in Europe, and in the United States, including California’s 14,380-foot Mount Shasta in 1888, the 300-foot summit of Cape Misenum in Italy, and small mountain passes in Switzerland. While in Greece, she climbed Mount Hymettus and Mount Pentecus, which ranged between 3,000 and 4,000 feet.

 In 1895, Peck followed British mountaineer Lucy Walker’s ascent of the Matterhorn, but her accomplishment was overshadowed by what she wore during the climb. Her hiking attire included:

  • A hip-length tunic.
  • Tall climbing boots.
  • Baggy kneed knickerbockers trousers.
  • A felt hat she secured with a veil.

Peck’s unusual climbing costume attracted the press’s attention at the time. It prompted public discussion and debate in the New York Times, for example, on what women should do and what they can aspire to become. The controversy didn’t rattle Peck in the least. If anything, it may have added fuel to the fire of a woman who fought for the life she wanted at a time when women were expected to be grateful for the life they were given. 

Peck climbed 18,406-foot Pico de Orizaba, the highest ascent in the Americas ever made by a woman. Three years later, in 1900, she climbed Monte Cristillo in the Italian Dolomites, the Jungfrau in Switzerland’s Bernese Alps, and the Fünffingerspitze in Austria. Peck also helped found the American Alpine Club in 1902. 

Although already over fifty years old, Peck wanted to make a record-setting climb. She traveled to South America in 1903, looking for a mountain taller than the 22,830 ft. Aconcagua in Argentina. Accompanied by two Swiss mountain guides in 1908, her expedition was the first to climb the north peak of the 22,205 ft. Huascarán in Peru. The northern peak of the Peruvian mountain chain was named Cumbre Aña Peck in her honor.

Peck’s accomplishment would have bested Fanny Bullock Workman’s ascent of the Himalayan Pinnacle Peak. At 22,740 ft, it was the world record for highest altitude climb. Workman, however, challenged Peck’s claim of the new world’s highest altitude record during her Huascarán climb. To validate her challenge, Workman paid engineers to recalculate Peck’s altitude by triangulating the peak. The engineers established that Peck’s Huascarán calculations had been wrong; she had misjudged the altitude by about 2,000 ft, calculating it as 24,000 ft due to broken altimeters, meaning that Peck had obtained the American record in the Western Hemisphere. At the same time, Workman remained the world record holder for the highest altitude climb. 

 In 1911, at 61, Peck climbed one of the five peaks on the 21,083-foot Coropuna in Peru. An ardent suffragist, when she reached the top of Coropuna, Peck placed a “Votes for Women” banner at the summit. Peck later wrote a book about her experiences called A Search for the Apex of America: High Mountain Climbing in Peru and Bolivia, including the Conquest of Huascaran, with Some Observations on the Country and People Below (1911). Her famous quote, “My home is where my trunk is,” originated from this book. 

In 1929–30, Peck made a seven-month trip, “mostly by airplane,” around South America to demonstrate the ease and safety of commercial flights for airline passengers. Her journey was the longest by air by a North American traveler at the time. After returning to the United States, she published her fourth and final book, Flying Over South America: Twenty Thousand Miles by Air (1932). Peck also continued to scale mountains into her old age. She climbed New Hampshire’s 5,374 ft) Mount Madison, her final mountain, at the age of eighty-two. Peck liked to say that her feet had gone where Lindbergh never flew. 

Peck wrote two additional books about her travels, The South American Tour: A Descriptive Guide (1913) and Industrial and Commercial South America (1922). Both books were popular with diplomats, businessmen, corporations, politicians, and tourists. Peck became president of the Joan of Arc Suffrage League in 1914 and a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in 1917. She was also admitted to the Society of Woman Geographers. Peck, who never married, started a world tour in 1935 at the age of eighty-four but became ill while climbing the Acropolis of Athens. She returned to her home in New York City and died of bronchial pneumonia on July 18, 1935.  Peck was remembered for her “adventurous spirit” in mountaineering, but her climbing accomplishments are not well known today. No less an adventurer than Amelia Earhart once said of Peck, “I felt myself an upstart beside her.”

In 1924, the Alumnae Council mailed out over 10,000 surveys to women who attended the University of Michigan between the years of 1870 and 1924.The purpose of this survey was to gain a broader understanding of the accomplishments of the alumnae, and to raise funds for the Michigan League building (then known as the Women’s Building). A collection of excerpts of these surveys are compiled in a book entitled Women’s Voices: Early Years at the University of Michigan, edited by Doris E. Attaway and Marjorie Rabe Barritt and published by the Bentley Historical Library. The book contains excerpts of the thousands of women who responded to the surveys, organized in terms of subject and time. The women discuss their careers, their accomplishments, their role models, their families, and so much more. One woman who stands out is Annie Peck, who attended the University as both an undergraduate and a graduate student. While many women answered the survey questions briefly and concisely, Peck chose another route. Peck’s responses filled the entire document, showcasing her personality. 

The words chosen to describe Peck’s accomplishments within Women’s Voices were as follows:

Annie Peck was frequently mentioned on the list of outstanding women submitted by the alumnae. Her accomplishments were many and varied. She taught (primarily mathematics, Greek, and Latin) at preparatory schools and later at both Purdue University and Smith College. She lectured for some years on Greek Archaeology; she also lectured on the United States and American industries in the chief cities in South America. She was the author of three books about South America, as well as magazine and newspaper articles. Peck was an accomplished mountain climber, having reached the highest point on the hemisphere that had been attained by any North or South American man or woman (21,812 feet on Mt. Huascaran, Peru on September 2, 1908). 

In one paragraph in the survey, Annie Peck described the philosophy that guided her life. “I decided as a teenager that I was just as intelligent as my three brothers and, if given the same opportunities, could be just as accomplished. I also realized I would have a lifelong struggle in one area, starting when Brown University refused to accept me because of my gender. When opportunities did not present themselves, I went searching for them and refused to let anything stand in my way. Whether climbing, teaching, or writing, I knew my successes or failures were up to me and not some antiquated male rules.”

Annie Smith Peck was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2009. 

Additional reading:

  • Kimberley, Hannah (2017). A Woman’s Place Is at the Top: A Biography of Annie Smith Peck, Queen of the Climbers. St. Martin’s Press.
  • “New England’s Mountain Adventuress: Annie Smith Peck, New England Outdoors, May 1981.
  • Waterman, Laura, and Guy Waterman (1981). “The Indomitable Annie Smith Peck: Conqueror of Mountains, New England Outdoors, June 1981. 
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