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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After what he perceived to be a hostile examination of his work, Peary never again showed his polar diary, field papers or other data. (His family consented to the examination of the records that led to the 1988 National Geographic article concluding that he likely missed his mark.) In fact, he rarely spoke publicly of the North Pole to the day he died of pernicious anemia, on February 20, 1920, at the age of 63.

The early doubts about Cook's claim, most of which emanated from the Peary camp, came to overshadow any contemporaneous doubts about Peary's claim. After Cook returned to the United States in 1911, some members of Congress tried in 1914 and 1915 to reopen the question of who discovered the North Pole, but their efforts faded with the approach of World War I. Cook went into the oil business in Wyoming and Texas, where in 1923 he was indicted on mail-fraud charges related to the pricing of stock in his company. After a trial that saw 283 witnesses—including a bank examiner who testified that Cook's books were in good order—a jury convicted him. "You have at last got to the point where you can't bunco anybody," District Court Judge John Killits berated Cook before he sentenced him to 14 years and nine months in prison.

While Cook was at the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas, some of the land his now-dissolved oil company had leased was found to be part of the Yates Pool, the largest oil find of the century in the continental United States. Paroled in March 1930, Cook told reporters, "I am tired and I am going to rest." He spent his last decade living with his two daughters from his second marriage and their families. President Franklin D. Roosevelt pardoned Cook a few months before he died of complications from a stroke, on August 5, 1940, at the age of 75.

The notes that Peary and Cook reported leaving at the pole have never been found. The first undisputed overland trek to the North Pole wasn't made until 1968, when a party led by a Minnesotan named Ralph Plaisted arrived by snowmobile. But other explorers preceded Plaisted, arriving by air and by sea, and confirmed Cook's original descriptions of the polar sea, ice islands and the westward drift of the polar ice. So the question persists: How did Cook get so much right if he never got to the North Pole in 1908?

Bruce Henderson is the author of True North: Peary, Cook and the Race to the Pole. He teaches writing at Stanford University.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article featured a photograph that was misidentified as Robert Peary. This version has been updated with a new photograph of Peary.


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