Who REALLY Discovered the North Pole First?

Arctic Explores Robert Peary and Matthew Hensen
Arctic Explorers Robert Peary and Matthew Hensen

Most of us were taught in history class that Commander Robert Peary was the first to reach the North Pole in 1909.  But in fact, another American, Dr. Frederick Cook, claimed to have reached the pole an entire year earlier.  Ever heard of Cook?  Probably not. 

On September 7, 1909, the New York Times announced with a front-page headline: “Peary Discovers the North Pole.” The North Pole was one of the last remaining unexplored prizes on earth, for which a number of explorers had failed or died trying.  American Robert Peary sent word from Indian Harbour in Labrador, that he had reached the pole in April 1909. One small problem – just a week earlier, the New York Herald had its own front-page headline: “The North Pole is Discovered by Dr. Frederick Cook.” Dr. Cook had returned after more than a year lost in the Arctic and feared dead.  He claimed to have reached the pole in April 1908—a full year before Peary.

In classrooms and textbooks, Peary is given credit for discovering the North Pole.

So the question isn’t who, but how?  How did Peary’s claim to the North Pole win out over Cook’s?  The two men had once been colleagues, but ended as bitter competitors. Humans have always been competitive. We want to be the best, the first, the fastest.  For explorers, this meant the tallest mountains, the deepest sea or the vastness of space. By the 1900s, the North Pole was still wide open. But finding the North Pole is not as simple as it sounds, and is extremely difficult to reach. You must first cross miles of dangerous, unpredictable sea ice in subzero temperatures. Every attempt before 1908 by the British, Americans, and Norwegians had failed.

Unlike the South Pole, which sits atop Antarctica, the North Pole floats atop the Arctic Ocean, surrounded by thick sheets of moving ice. So how would one even know, or prove, that they had reached the North Pole? In 1908, it required a chronometer, a sextant, and some careful navigational calculations. Compasses are useless due to magnetic field fluctuations at the pole. And since the ice is constantly shifting, planting a flag there is pointless. Radio transmission was still in its infancy and very limited for communication.

Our two candidates, Peary and Cook, were also very different men. Peary was born in 1856, and had travelled the world as a civil engineer in the U.S. Navy.  He had never lost his wanderlust and throughout his life was laser focused on achieving fame at all costs. His Arctic expeditions relied heavily on the assistance of Eskimos/Inuits, but he treated them more like pawns than people. Peary was a driven man, and this was his 3rd attempt at the North Pole, having fallen short in 1886 and 1905.

My last trip brought my name before the world; my next will give me a standing in the world.

Robert Peary

Cook, born a decade later in 1865, was an ambitious, young doctor from New York. He had just graduated from NYU Medical School when his wife and baby both died in childbirth. Emotionally shattered, the 25-year-old doctor sought escape in Artic exploration and joined one of Peary’s early expeditions.  Cook had a far different approach than Peary. He was genuinely interested in the Arctic’s indigenous people who helped them and learned their language and culture.  

The two explored Greenland together, but Cook turned down a second opportunity. Peary wanted him to sign a contract agreeing that Peary alone would get credit and first publishing rights. Cook disagreed and left Peary’s team for several years. They were reunited when Peary was lost in the Arctic and Cook was called in to help rescue him, treating him for scurvy and frostbite.  On a later expedition, Peary fractured both bones in his leg and Cook treated this injury as well.

Nevertheless, instead of colleagues, they became fierce competitors. 

Doctor Cook set off on his attempt from Annoatok in Greenland, 700 miles from the pole.  He left in early February 1908 with two Intuit guides, Etukishook and Ahwelah. He claimed to have arrived at the pole on April 21st. The return trip almost did them in though.  They didn’t make it back to Annoatok for 14 months, until the next spring of 1909. He claimed bad weather conditions and drifting ice had prevented their return.  They were forced to winter in an ice cave, nearly starving to death.

Peary had assembled a large party for his attempt in August 1908—50 men, 50 sleds and 246 dogs. He claimed to have made it to the North Pole on April 6th, 1909, along with four Inuit men and his assistant, Matthew Henson. He placed and American flag in the ice, along with a tin with a note of his achievement. Henson, a black American, had traveled with Peary on all of his Artic expeditions. Though Peary recognized Henson’s contribution, he also minimized Henson’s role.

Once the two competing claims were made in the press, barely a week apart, a long feud ignited between Cook and Peary.  Cook at first welcomed Peary’s announcement and was willing to share the fame.  Peary however, was furious at Cook’s attempt to “steal” his victory and publicly condemned Frederick Cook as a fraud.

Both men stuck to their stories.   Shortly after they returned, Cook and Peary each published their version of the truth in books that discussed their expeditions. Both became bestsellers and fueled a public debate. Two of Peary’s powerful sponsors were the New York Times and the National Geographic Society. With that weight behind him, it didn’t take long for Peary’s claim to overshadow that of the unknown Cook.

Whether either truly made it to the pole or not is unknown. 

Neither explorer’s evidence was very convincing, and the burden of proof lies with them. Cook was never able to produce complete navigational records. He left them, along with his instruments, in a crate at Annoatok, to be shipped home later, while he went on to Copenhagen with only his diary.  The only available ship was The Roosevelt, Peary’s own ship.  When Peary later arrived from the pole and learned of Cook’s claim from the Inuits, he forbid the crate to be loaded aboard his ship. The crate and it contents were lost and never seen again. Experts in Copenhagen determined Cook’s records were insufficient to prove he had reached the pole.

Whether Peary made it all the way is also questionable.  He refused to share definitive proof. No one else on his expedition had the navigational skills to confirm or deny Peary’s claim.  Henson was a skilled explorer, alongside Peary on 7 expeditions. Peary considered himself superior to Henson, and was unwilling to give credit.  He was livid that anyone dare share HIS North Pole victory.  It wasn’t until Henson published his own book in 1947, that he began receiving recognition for his achievements alongside Peary. Henson claimed HE was the first person to reach the North Pole because he was walking ahead of Peary. They later realized they’d overshot the pole, which meant Henson was in fact first!

Peary handed in ‘proof’ of his expedition’s success, which included unbelievable accounts of speeds and distances covered. Today, experts are still debating whether Peary could have reached the North Pole given the route he took, at the speed and time he claimed. Peary’s feat has not been reproduced by anyone over the last 100 years. Cook’s claim was neither proved nor disproved, although his detailed descriptions of the polar region were verified by later explorers.  

“I have stated my case, presented my proofs. Place Mr. Peary’s and my records side by side. Compare them. I shall be satisfied with your decision.

Dr. Frederick Cook

Nevertheless, having sponsors like the National Geographic Society and New York Times meant Peary’s claim was lent much heavier credence. Despite all the doubts over his account, Peary basked in the glory of being the first person believed to reach the North Pole. 

Robert Peary had finally gotten the fame he so vehemently desired.

Cook’s claim was taken less seriously because 3 years earlier, he claimed to have summited Alaska’s Mt Kinley (Denali) in 1906.  However, the photos he provided as proof later came under question. Not only was his reputation wobbly by the time of his North Pole claim, he simply didn’t have the prominence of Peary. Cook’s claim sadly came to be disregarded as one of the world’s greatest exploratory fakes.

Arctic explorer Dr. Frederick Cook
Arctic explorer Dr. Frederick Cook

In 1926, Norwegian Roald Amundsen (who discovered the South Pole in 1911), flew to the North Pole aboard the airship Norge. 40 years later, American Ralph Plaisted and three others, were the first to reach the pole, by snowmobile, in 1968.  Other adventurers have succeeded as well by plane and submarine.  The notes that Peary and Cook reported to have left at the pole buried in tins have never been found.  However, researchers have since noted that Cook’s account described the polar landscape with remarkable accuracy. If he was a fraud and didn’t reach the pole, how could he have known this? 

Some researchers have concluded that NEITHER one actually got to the North Pole. In 1989, a re-examination of Peary’s account was commissioned by none other than the National Geographic Society.  The commission concluded that Peary’s evidence did NOT prove his claim, and suggested that he knew all along that he had have fallen short by 8 km / 5 miles.

After what he perceived to be a hostile examination of his work by a 1911 U.S. Navy Congressional Subcommittee, Robert Peary never again showed his polar diary, field papers, or other data to anyone. In fact, he rarely spoke publicly of the North Pole thereafter.  He retired from the Navy and died of pernicious anemia in Washington D.C. in 1920, at the age of 63.

Dr. Frederick Cook went into the oil business in Texas. In 1923, he was convicted of mail-fraud charges related to the stock price of his company, and sentenced 14 years, nine months in prison. Paroled in March 1930, he spent his last decade living quietly with his two daughters from a second marriage. President Franklin D. Roosevelt formally pardoned Dr. Cook a few months before he died from a stroke in 1940, at the age of 75.

So we may never know who was really first to reach the North Pole – Cook, Peary, Hensen, … or Amundsen?

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LOST IN HISTORY Blog/Podcast about key forgotten history still relevant in today's world. Paul Andrews also has 5 historical adventure novels, all available on Amazon.

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