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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"Well, I don't want any of them aboard this ship," Peary replied, according to Whitney.

Believing that he had no choice, Whitney secreted Cook's possessions among some large rocks near the shoreline. The Roosevelt then sailed south with Whitney aboard.

On August 26, the vessel stopped at Cape York, in northwest Greenland, where a note from the skipper of an American whaler awaited Peary. It said that Cook was en route to Copenhagen to announce that he had discovered the North Pole on April 21, 1908. Native rumor was one thing; this was infuriating. Peary vented his rage to anyone who would listen, promising to tell the world a story that would puncture Cook's bubble. Peary ordered his ship to get underway immediately and make full speed for the nearest wireless station—1,500 miles away, at Indian Harbour, Labrador. Peary had an urgent announcement to make. On September 5, 1909, the Roosevelt dropped anchor at Indian Harbour. The next morning Peary wired the New York Times, to which he had sold the rights to his polar story for $4,000, subject to reimbursement if he did not achieve his goal. "Stars and Stripes nailed to North Pole," his message read.

Two days later, at Battle Harbour, farther down the Labrador coast, Peary sent the Times a 200-word summary and added: "Don't let Cook story worry you. Have him nailed." The next day, the Times ran his abbreviated account.

Arriving in Nova Scotia on September 21, Peary left the Roosevelt to take a train to Maine. At one stop en route, he met with Thomas Hubbard and Herbert Bridgman, officers of the Peary Arctic Club, a group of wealthy businessmen who financed Peary's expeditions in exchange for having his discoveries named for them on maps. The three men began to shape a strategy to undermine Cook's claim to the pole.

When they reached Bar Harbor, Maine, Hubbard had a statement for the press on Peary's behalf: "Concerning Dr. Cook...let him submit his records and data to some competent authority, and let that authority draw its own conclusions from the notes and records....What proof Commander Peary has that Dr. Cook was not at the pole may be submitted later."

The same day that Peary arrived in Nova Scotia, September 21, Cook arrived in New York to the cheers of hundreds of thousands of people lining the streets. He issued a statement that began, "I have come from the Pole." The next day he met with some 40 reporters for two hours at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. Asked if he objected to showing his polar diary, Cook "showed freely" a notebook of 176 pages, each filled with "fifty or sixty lines of penciled writing in the most minute characters," according to accounts in two Philadelphia papers, the Evening Bulletin and the Public Ledger. Asked how he fixed his position at the pole, Cook said by measuring the sun's altitude in the sky. Would he produce his sextant? Cook said his instruments and records were en route to New York and that arrangements had been made for experts to verify their accuracy.

Four days later, he received a wire from Harry Whitney. "Peary would allow nothing belonging to you on board," it read. "...See you soon. Explain all."

Cook would later write that he was seized by "heartsickness" as he realized the implications of Whitney's message. Still, he kept giving interviews about his trek, providing details on his final dash to the pole and his year-long struggle to survive the return journey. Peary had told an Associated Press reporter in Battle Harbour that he would wait for Cook to "issue a complete authorized version of his journey" before making his own details public. Peary's strategy of withholding information gave him the advantage of seeing what Cook had by way of polar descriptions before offering his own.

In the short term, however, Cook's fuller accounts helped him. With the two battling claims for the pole, newspapers polled their readers on which explorer they favored. Pittsburgh Press readers supported Cook, 73,238 to 2,814. Watertown (N.Y.) Times readers favored Cook by a ratio of three to one. The Toledo Blade counted 550 votes for Cook, 10 for Peary. But as September turned to October, Peary's campaign against Cook picked up momentum.

First, the Peary Arctic Club questioned Cook's claim to have scaled Mount McKinley in 1906. For years a blacksmith named Edward Barrill, who had accompanied Cook on the climb, had been telling friends, neighbors and reporters about their historic ascent. But the Peary Arctic Club released an affidavit signed by Barrill and notarized on October 4 saying the pair had never made it all the way to the top. The document was published in the New York Globe—which was owned by Peary Arctic Club president Thomas Hubbard, who declared that the McKinley affair cast doubt on Cook's polar claim.


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