Who Discovered the North Pole?

A century ago, explorer Robert Peary earned fame for discovering the North Pole, but did Frederick Cook get there first?

Frederick Cook and Robert Peary both claimed they discovered the North Pole. (AGIP / Rue des Archives / The Granger Collection, New York)
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On October 24, the New York Herald reported that before the affidavit was signed, Barrill had met with Peary's representatives to discuss financial compensation for calling Cook a liar. The paper quoted Barrill's business partner, C. C. Bridgeford, as saying Barrill had told him, "This means from $5,000 to $10,000 to me." (Later, Cook's McKinley claim would be challenged by others and in more detail. Now, many members of the mountaineering community dismiss the notion that he reached the summit.)

A week after Barrill's affidavit appeared in the Globe, Peary released a transcript of the interrogation of Etukishook and Ahwelah aboard the Roosevelt. The men were quoted as saying they and Cook had traveled only a few days north on the ice cap, and a map on which they were said to have marked their route was offered as evidence.

Also in October, the National Geographic Society—which had long supported Peary's work and put up $1,000 for the latest polar expedition—appointed a three-man committee to examine his data. One member was a friend of Peary's; another was head of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, to which Peary had been officially assigned for his final expedition, and the third had been quoted in the New York Times as "a skeptic on the question of the discovery of the Pole by Cook."

On the afternoon of November 1, the three men met with Peary and examined some records from his journey; that evening, they looked at—but according to Peary's own account did not carefully examine—the explorer's instruments in a trunk in the poorly lit baggage room of a train station in Washington, D.C. Two days later, the committee announced that Peary had indeed reached the North Pole.

By then, Cook had to cancel a lecture tour that he had just begun because of laryngitis and what he called "mental depression." In late November, drawing on his diary, he completed his promised report to the University of Copenhagen. (He chose not to send his diary to Denmark for fear of losing it.) In December, the university—whose experts had been expecting original records—announced that Cook's claim was "not proven." Many U.S. newspapers and readers took that finding to mean "disproved."

"The decision of the university is, of course, final," the U.S. minister to Denmark, Maurice Egan, told the Associated Press on December 22, 1909, "unless the matter should be reopened by the presentation of the material belonging to Cook which Harry Whitney was compelled to leave."

By then, the news coverage, along with the public feting of Peary by his supporters, began to swing the public to his side. Cook did not help his cause when he left for a yearlong exile in Europe, during which he wrote his book about the expedition, My Attainment of the Pole. Though he never returned to the Arctic, Whitney did, reaching northern Greenland in 1910. Reports conflict on how thoroughly he searched for Cook's instruments and records, but in any case he never recovered them. Nor has anyone else in the years since.

In January 1911, Peary appeared before the Naval Affairs Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives to receive what he hoped would be the government's official recognition as the discoverer of the North Pole. He brought along his diary of his journey. Several congressmen were surprised by what they saw—or didn't see—on its pages.

"A very clean kept book," noted Representative Henry T. Helgesen of North Dakota, wondering aloud how that could be, considering the nature of pemmican. "How was it possible to handle this greasy food and without washing write in a diary daily and at the end of two months have that same diary show no finger marks or rough usage?"

To this and other questions Peary gave answers that several subcommittee members would deem wanting. The subcommittee chairman, Representative Thomas S. Butler of Pennsylvania, concluded, "We have your word for it....your word and your proofs. To me, as a member of this committee, I accept your word. But your proofs I know nothing at all about."

The subcommittee approved a bill honoring Peary by a vote of 4 to 3; the minority placed on the record "deep-rooted doubts" about his claim. The bill that passed the House and Senate, and which President William Howard Taft signed that March, eschewed the word "discovery," crediting Peary only with "Arctic exploration resulting in [his] reaching the North Pole." But he was placed on the retired list of the Navy's Corps of Civil Engineers with the rank of rear admiral and given a pension of $6,000 annually.


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