Recalling a Century Old Controversy: Did Cook or Peary Reach the North Pole First?


The wording of a sign erected by scientists near their North Pole camp in 2003 had to be changed because the ice was drifting 400 yards an hour. (Credit: Andrew C. Revkin/The New York Times)

The wording of a sign erected by scientists near their North Pole camp in 2003 had to be changed because the ice was drifting 400 yards an hour. (Credit: Andrew C. Revkin/The New York Times)

The short answer is, probably neither. I have argued for years that exploration has been driven by the three “G’s”: God, gold, and glory (not necessarily in that order). The search for resources, in some cases literally gold, sparked much of the European expansion beginning in the fifteenth century and at a personal level it prompted considerable individual initiative. But glory, either geopolitical or personal, and the quest for converts to whatever the religion of the explorers also fueled the effort.

Except for the God part, the quest for gold and glory certainly sparked the efforts of two Americans, Robert E. Peary and Frederick A. Cook, to reach the geographical North Pole in the first decade of the twentieth century. Both sought fame and with it wealth.

Robert E. Peary at Cape Sheridan, Ellesmere Island, Northwest Territories, Canada, in 1909.

Robert E. Peary at Cape Sheridan, Ellesmere Island, Northwest Territories, Canada, in 1909.

Peary and Cook started out as friends, not unlike Sir Richard Burton and Sir John Speke in Africa a half century earlier. Peary was the older of the two, a veteran of earlier Arctic expeditions, and the leader of the 1891-1892 northern Greenland expedition where Cook served as physician and ethnographer. When Peary shattered his leg on the expedition Cook set it and ensured that it healed properly. Cook also undertook systematic investigation of the native population, still some of the earliest efforts to study the Inuit of Greenland.

Cook went on thereafter to participate in Adrien de Gerlache’s 1897-1899 Belgian Antarctic Expedition, the first expedition to winter over at the Antarctic continent. Cook and Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen became friends on this expedition. Cook led two expeditions to Mt. McKinley (Mt. Denali) in 1903 and again in 1906; during that later expedition he claimed to have made the first ascent to the summit of the mountain. Subsequent analysis has determined that visual and navigational evidence from the 1906 Cook ascent does not support a conclusion that he reached the summit.

For his part, Robert Peary, a U.S. naval officer on leave from active duty undertook several expeditions to the Arctic after the Greenland expedition. He undertook an 1898–1902 expedition to the northwestern tip of Greenland where he explored parts of Ellesmere Island. In a 1905-1906 expedition Peary sported a new Arctic exploring vessel, the SS Roosevelt, which established a record by reaching the “farthest north by ship.” Peary claimed on this expedition that he achieved a latitude of 87°06′. In the summer of 1906 Peary also claimed to have sighted a far-north “Crocker Land,” later overturned when another expedition in 1914 found that Crocker Land did not exist.

By the first part of the twentieth century, therefore, both Cook and Peary established themselves as seasoned and renowned explorers—albeit ones with a checkered record of accomplishment—and had set their sights on reaching the geographical North Pole. Frederick Cook began his assault on the Pole in 1908 and after having been gone for nearly two years announced in September 1909 that he and two Inuit guides had reached the geographical North Pole on April 21, 1908. Since the Pole constantly shifts with its ice drift, he was a bit cagey with how he characterized this success. His delay in returning had been caused by bad weather, the problem of drifting ice, and the late season that required him to overwinter in the Arctic.

Admiral Robert E. Peary’s crew, pictured here in the vicinity of the North Pole, included Inuits Ooqeah, Ootah, Egingwah, and Seeglo and fellow American Matthew Henson.

Admiral Robert E. Peary’s crew, pictured here in the vicinity of the North Pole, included Inuits Ooqeah, Ootah, Egingwah, and Seeglo and fellow American Matthew Henson.

Robert Peary undertook his expedition in 1908; wintering at Ellesmere Island and assaulting the geographical North Pole the next spring. He claimed to have reached there on April 6, 1909, establishing “Camp Jesup” within 5 miles of the drifting North Pole. When he heard of Cook’s announcement Peary as livid and denounced Cook as a fraud. Peary’s claims were largely supported, while Cook’s were dismissed. Each published their own versions of these expeditions, and in the years since supporters, detractors, and historians have continued to debate the quality of their accounts. Most people at the time and since have credited Peary as the first to reach the North Pole, and much criticism has been aimed at Cook for fabricating his story. Because of this controversy Roald Amundsen took special care to document every aspect of his expedition to reach the South Pole in December 1911.

Frederick Cook in arctic gear, 1909.

Frederick Cook in arctic gear, 1909.

Each had their cases to make, but neither succeeded in documenting to everyone’s satisfaction that they had reached the North Pole. Cook claimed that his documentation had been lost in Greenland, in no small measure because of Peary’s refusal to bring it back on the Roosevelt when one of his colleagues had asked for Peary’s assistance. Peary, for his part, refused to allow anyone to see the majority of his records; something that the National Geographical Society continued to do until long after his death in 1920. In the second half of the twentieth century arguments on both sides of the cases continue to fuel book sales. It seems that probably neither explorer reached “True North” in the 1908-1909 time frame.

Both got close, no doubt; both claimed to reach it either through oversight/error or fraud/subterfuge. Both were driven to be the first and it is easy to see how they could have fudged readings and overstated positions. On the other hand, I have no doubt from what I have learned about both that they would willingly alter the truth for their benefit. They did so many other times that it is impossible not believe them capable of it here. Based upon modern analysis and an expedition that sought to recreate the Peary route, it now seems dubious that Peary could have achieved the distances per day that he claimed, and it is equally doubtful that Cooke, with a record of fraud in other settings, reached the North Pole.

There is no dearth of books on this subject, and everyone has an opinion. Some are better informed than others. Many believe that Cook’s claims are more legitimate; those who questioned them initially were motivated either by friendship of Peary or seduced by the prospect of economic gain. There is undoubtedly a measure of truth in that position. But Cook’s reputation as a bit of snake oil salesman, his now debunked Mt. Denali climb to the summit and his being jailed for an oil scam after his exploration days were over are primary evidence, suggests that he may not have been honest in his claims.

What is clear is that Peary is one of the most driven and megalomaniacal people of the twentieth century. His campaign to destroy Cook is legendary. For his part, Cook was a natural ethnographer and student of science. He is without question the most vilified of all polar explorers, but how fair are criticisms of him?

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