Cook versus Peary: Writings on the Controversy

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)

Several people suggested that I offer some comments on the state of literature on the Robert Peary/Frederick Cook controversy of who reached the North Pole first. Of course, I am of the opinion that the evidence for either of them reaching there in either 1908 or 1909 is flimsy.

Each of the explorers published their own accounts of the effort. Frederick A. Cook, My Attainment of the Pole: Being the Record of the Expedition That First Reached the Boreal Center, 1907-1909 (New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1912), with many subsequent editions offers his assessment. The Peary case is made in Rear Adm. Robert E. Peary, The North Pole: Its Discovery in 1909 under the auspices of the Peary Arctic Club (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Co., 1910). The account of Peary’s longtime associate, an African American named Matthew Henson, is detailed in A Black Explorer at the North Pole, foreword by Robert E., Peary and Introduction by Booker T. Washington (New York, 1912, reprint Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989).

True North: Peary, Cook, and the Race to the Pole (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2005), by Bruce Henderson, tells the story of intense hatred and jealousy between Americans Robert E. Peary, the supposed discoverer of the North Pole in 1909, and his former colleague, Frederick A. Cook, who claimed to have reached there a year earlier. Attacks on the generally accepted Peary account began in 1911 with a book by the rival claimant, Frederick Cook, in his My Attainment of The Pole, and has been played out ever since.

In True North the author marshals evidence to support the claim of Cook that he reached the pole in April 1908, a full year before Peary. There have been many other books dealing with the debate over who was the first to the reach the North Pole, all of them making a case for one or the other of the rival explorers. Sometimes the prose is laced with vitriol.

Some of those other works include: John Edward Weems, Peary: The Explorer and the Man (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1967); Theon Wright, The Big Nail: The Story of the Cook-Peary Feud (New York: John Day Company, 1970); Dennis Rawlins, Peary at the North Pole, Fact or Fiction? (Washington, DC: Robert B. Luce, 1973); William R. Hunt, To Stand at the Pole: The Dr. Cook—Admiral Peary North Pole Controversy (New York: Stein & Day, 1981); Wally Herbert, The Noose of Laurels: The Discovery of the North Pole (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co., 1989); and Fergus Fleming, Ninety Degrees North: The Quest for the North Pole (London: Granta Books, 2001)

I especially enjoyed Robert M. Bryce, Cook & Peary: The Polar Controversy, Resolved (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1997). At more than 1,000 pages, it may be used a door stop if needed, but I recommend it as by far the most detailed and comprehensive, as well as exhaustive and exhausting, discussion of the controversy every undertaken. Larry Schweikart’s “Polar Revisionism and the Peary Claim: The Diary of Robert E. Peary,” The Historian 48 (May 1986): 341-58 is an interesting sidelight to the story. Clive Holland, ed., Fartherest North: The Quest for the North Pole, 1818-1909 (New York: MacLelland and Stewart, 1988) tries to place the controversy in the context of other explorations.

I also found helpful these books: Pierre Berton, The Arctic Grail The Quest for the North West Passage and the North Pole, 1818-1909 (New York: Penguin Books, 1988), with many reprints. Perhaps the most entertaining of all stories about the quest for the North Pole is Chauncy Loomis, Weird and Tragic Shores: The Story of Charles Francis Hall, Explorer (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971).

Definitively concluding which explorer, if either, was first to reach the North Pole continues to be debated in the popular media. Although Peary received great acclamation in his lifetime for his polar exploits, most current observers view the claims of both Peary and Cook to have reached the North Pole with skepticism. More than a century after the controversy first erupted it seems that neither claim holds up well.

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