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 September 7, 1909, readers of the New York Times awakened to a stunning front-page headline: "Peary Discovers the North Pole After Eight Trials in 23 Years." The North Pole was one of the last remaining laurels of earthly exploration, a prize for which countless explorers from many nations had suffered and died for 300 years. And here was the American explorer Robert E. Peary sending word from Indian Harbour, Labrador, that he had reached the pole in April 1909, one hundred years ago this month. The Times story alone would have been astounding. But it wasn't alone.

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A week earlier, the New York Herald had printed its own front-page headline: "The North Pole is Discovered by Dr. Frederick A. Cook." Cook, an American explorer who had seemingly returned from the dead after more than a year in the Arctic, claimed to have reached the pole in April 1908—a full year before Peary.

Anyone who read the two headlines would know that the North Pole could be "discovered" only once. The question then was: Who had done it? In classrooms and textbooks, Peary was long anointed the discoverer of the North Pole—until 1988, when a re-examination of his records commissioned by the National Geographic Society, a major sponsor of his expeditions, concluded that Peary's evidence never proved his claim and suggested that he knew he might have fallen short. Cook's claim, meanwhile, has come to rest in a sort of polar twilight, neither proved nor disproved, although his descriptions of the Arctic region—made public before Peary's—were verified by later explorers. Today, on the centennial of Peary's claimed arrival, the bigger question isn't so much who as how: How did Peary's claim to the North Pole trump Cook's?

In 1909, the journalist Lincoln Steffens hailed the battle over Peary's and Cook's competing claims as the story of the century. "Whatever the truth is, the situation is as wonderful as the Pole," he wrote. "And whatever they found there, those explorers, they have left there a story as great as a continent."

They started out as friends and shipmates. Cook had graduated from New York University Medical School in 1890; just before he received his exam results, his wife and baby died in childbirth. Emotionally shattered, the 25-year-old doctor sought escape in articles and books on exploration, and the next year he read that Peary, a civil engineer with a U.S. Navy commission, was seeking volunteers, including a physician, for an expedition to Greenland. "It was as if a door to a prison cell had opened," Cook would later write. "I felt the first indomitable, commanding call of the Northland." After Cook joined Peary's 1891 Greenland expedition, Peary shattered his leg in a shipboard accident; Cook set Peary's two broken bones. Peary would credit the doctor's "unruffled patience and coolness in an emergency" in his book Northward Over the Great Ice.

For his part, Peary had come by his wanderlust after completing naval assignments overseeing pier construction in Key West, Florida, and surveying in Nicaragua for a proposed ship canal (later built in Panama) in the 1880s. Reading an account of a Swedish explorer's failed attempt to become the first person to cross the Greenland ice cap, Peary borrowed $500 from his mother, outfitted himself and bought passage on a ship that left Sydney, Nova Scotia, in May 1886. But his attempt to cross the cap, during a summer-long sledge trip, ended when uncertain ice conditions and dwindling supplies forced him back. Upon returning to a new Navy assignment in Washington, D.C., he wrote his mother, "My last trip brought my name before the world; my next will give me a standing in the world....I will be foremost in the highest circles in the capital, and make powerful friends with whom I can shape my future instead of letting it come as it will....Remember, mother, I must have fame."

Peary, born in 1856, was one of the last of the imperialistic explorers, chasing fame at any cost and caring for the local people's well-being only to the extent that it might affect their usefulness to him. (In Greenland in 1897, he ordered his men to open the graves of several natives who had died in an epidemic the previous year—then sold their remains to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City as anthropological specimens. He also brought back living natives—two men, a woman and three youngsters—and dropped them off for study at the museum; within a year four of them were dead from a strain of influenza to which they had no resistance.)

Cook, born in 1865, would join a new wave of explorers who took a keen interest in the indigenous peoples they came across. For years, in both the Arctic and the Antarctic, he learned their dialects and adopted their diet.

Differences between the two men began to surface after their first trip to Greenland. In 1893, Cook backed out of another Arctic journey because of a contract prohibiting any expedition member from publishing anything about the trip before Peary published his account of it. Cook wanted to publish the results of an ethnological study of Arctic natives, but Peary said it would set "a bad precedent." They went their separate ways—until 1901, when Peary was believed to be lost in the Arctic and his family and supporters turned to Cook for help. Cook sailed north on a rescue ship, found Peary and treated him for ailments ranging from scurvy to heart problems.

Cook also traveled on his own to the Antarctic and made two attempts to scale Alaska's Mount McKinley, claiming to be the first to succeed in 1906. Peary, for his part, made another attempt to reach the North Pole in 1905-06, his sixth Arctic expedition. By then, he had come to think of the pole as his birthright.

Any endeavor to reach the pole is complicated by this fact: unlike the South Pole, which lies on a landmass, the North Pole lies on drifting sea ice. After fixing your position at 90 degrees north—where all directions point south—there is no way to mark the spot, because the ice is constantly moving.


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