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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Cook's expedition to the pole departed Gloucester, Massachusetts, in July 1907 on a schooner to northern Greenland. There, at Annoatok, a native settlement 700 miles from the pole, he established a base camp and wintered over. He left for the pole in February 1908 with a party of nine natives and 11 light sledges pulled by 103 dogs, planning to follow an untried but promising route described by Otto Sverdrup, the leader of an 1898-1902 Norwegian mapping party.

According to Cook's book My Attainment of the Pole, his party followed the musk ox feeding grounds that Sverdrup had observed, through Ellesmere and Axel Heiberg islands to Cape Stallworthy at the edge of the frozen Arctic Sea. The men had the advantage of eating fresh meat and conserving their stores of pemmican (a greasy mixture of fat and protein that was a staple for Arctic explorers) made of beef, ox tenderloin and walrus. As the party pushed northward, members of Cook's support team turned back as planned, leaving him with two native hunters, Etukishook and Ahwelah. In 24 days Cook's party went 360 miles—a daily average of 15 miles. Cook was the first to describe a frozen polar sea in continuous motion and, at 88 degrees north, an enormous, "flat-topped" ice island, higher and thicker than sea ice.

For days, Cook wrote, he and his companions struggled through a violent wind that made every breath painful. At noon on April 21, 1908, he used his custom-made French sextant to determine that they were "at a spot which was as near as possible" to the pole. At the time, speculation about what was at the pole ranged from an open sea to a lost civilization. Cook wrote that he and his men stayed there for two days, during which the doctor reported taking more observations with his sextant to confirm their position. Before leaving, he said, he deposited a note in a brass tube, which he buried in a crevasse.

The return trip almost did them in.

Cook, like other Arctic explorers of the day, had assumed that anyone returning from the pole would drift eastward with the polar ice. However, he would be the first to report a westerly drift—after he and his party were carried 100 miles west of their planned route, far from supplies they had cached on land. In many places the ice cracked, creating sections of open water. Without the collapsible boat they had brought along, Cook wrote, they would have been cut off any number of times. When winter's onslaught made travel impossible, the three men hunkered down for four months in a cave on Devon Island, south of Ellesmere Island. After they ran out of ammunition, they hunted with spears. In February 1909, the weather and ice improved enough to allow them to walk across frozen Smith Sound back to Annoatok, where they arrived—emaciated and arrayed in rags of fur—in April 1909, some 14 months after they had set out for the pole.

At Annoatok, Cook met Harry Whitney, an American sportsman on an Arctic hunting trip, who told him that many people believed Cook had disappeared and died. Whitney also told him that Peary had departed from a camp just south of Annoatok on his own North Pole expedition eight months earlier, in August 1908.

Peary had assembled his customary large party—50 men, nearly as many heavy sledges and 246 dogs to pull them—for use in a relay sledge train that would deposit supplies ahead of him. He called this the "Peary system" and was using it even though it had failed him in his 1906 attempt, when the ice split and open water kept him from his caches for long periods. On this try, Peary again faced stretches of open water that could extend for miles. He had no boat, so his party had to wait, sometimes for days, for the ice to close up.

Peary's party advanced 280 miles in a month. When adjusted for the days they were held up, their average progress came to about 13 miles a day. When they were some 134 miles from the pole, Peary sent everyone back except four natives and Matthew Henson, an African-American from Maryland who had accompanied him on his previous Arctic expeditions. A few days later—on April 6, 1909—at the end of an exhausting day's march, Henson, who could not use a sextant, had a "feeling" they were at the pole, he later told the Boston American.

"We are now at the Pole, are we not?" Henson said he asked Peary.

"I do not suppose that we can swear that we are exactly at the Pole," Peary replied, according to Henson.

He said Peary then reached into his outer garment and took out a folded American flag sewn by his wife and fastened it to a staff, which he stuck atop an igloo his native companions had built. Then everyone turned in for some much-needed sleep.


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