In September 1909, two explorers returned from expeditions to the Arctic that had lasted several years. Both claimed to have been the first human to reach the North Pole. One of them was Robert Peary. We presented him and one of his books in our last article. The other one was Frederick Cook (1865-1940), who was actually a physician and, like Peary, an American. The two knew each other well because Cook had started his adventuring career as a doctor on one of Peary’s expeditions. Now they were fierce competitors.
Peary telegraphed home claiming to have reached the North Pole on 6 April 1909, while Cook announced that he had already been there on 21 April 1908. Could it be true that two men at once succeeded in what had long been an impossible endeavour? Did they conquer the North Pole? A heated argument broke out about which of the two men really was the first man to reach the North Pole. While Cook did not deny that Peary’s expedition reached the pole – but, of course, after he did – Peary vehemently attacked Cook’s claim to have conquered the North Pole because that was the only way for him to be the “first man to the North Pole”.
Both quickly began to seek advocates for their claim. Cook was mainly able to get the support of other polar explorers, such as Roald Amundsen, conqueror of the Northwest Passage and, a few years later, the first man to reach the South Pole. This may sound like solid support, but his competitor’s allies were far better: Robert Peary, who had an excellent network among the New York elite, had the press and the National Geographic Society on his side. And he did whatever he could to discredit Cook to push his own claim. Why? As stated in the last article, being the first man to reach the North Pole came with a lot of fame – but also with financial opportunities. A cartoon of the Puck magazine of 1909 shows Cook and Peary with the North Pole between them, depicted as a person. And there is a reason why the North Pole is holding up two bags of money that read “Book Royalties” and “Lecture Receipts”.
Peary’s attempts to discredit Cook were very successful. His big coup: he was able to reveal that Cook had made a crucial error on a past expedition. Cook had managed to be honoured with another “first” just a few years earlier: in 1906, he had been the first person to climb Mount McKinley (today’s name: Denali), the highest mountain in North America – and, of course, published a book about it. When searching for ways to destroy Cook’s credibility, his opponents took a close look at his past – little has changed here in the past 110 years. An examination of the report on the first ascent revealed that Cook had by no means reached the summit, but only a small secondary peak, which incidentally is why it still bears the name Fake Peak today. If it was an attempted fraud, it was a bad one for the false ascent route was precisely documented. This revelation was fatal for Cook’s reputation.
My Attainment of the Pole
With this in mind, let’s have a look at Frederick Cook’s book on his North Pole expedition. We have a first edition of Cook’s My Attainment of the Pole published in 1911 in our library. At first glance the 600-page book resembles Peary’s book presented in the last article. We read about routes, daily distances and all kinds of things the explorers experienced on the way. The book is illustrated with numerous expedition photos. Cook also provided the most important measurement data for determining the position at the pole. And he included corresponding sketches to explain to laypersons how the position of the North Pole can be determined through the course of the sun and the position of shadows.
All of this is just one part of his book. Cook dedicates about 100 pages to justifications, defences and counterattacks against Peary. This illustrates the dimensions of the dispute to today’s readers. Cook goes on at length about how Peary pulls him and other explorers to pieces. He complains about the attacks of the press, which he believes to have been orchestrated by Peary, and the dirty tricks used to discredit him. He accuses Peary of bribing and lying wherever he could. An entire chapter is dedicated to defending his claim to have climbed Mount McKinley. In another chapter, Cook attacks the National Geographic Society, which supported Peary. It bears the revealing title: How a Geographic Society Prostituted Its Name.
The Experts’ Opinion
At the same time, Cook emphasises that most polar explorers supported his claim. Twice – as an addendum and in the form of a separate supplement – we can read a short report by polar explorer Evelyn Briggs Baldwin. Unsurprisingly, he reaches the following conclusion: “the North Pole has been honestly reached by Dr. Cook 350 days before anyone else claimed to have been there.”
Cook himself finally ends his “defence” with the following sentences:
“My case rests, not with any body of armchair explorers or kitchen geographers, but with Arctic travelers who can see beyond the mist of selfish interests… In this book I have stated my case, presented my proofs. As to the relative merits of my claim, and Mr. Peary’s, place the two records side by side. Compare them. I shall be satisfied with your decision.“
The Public’s Opinion
None of this seems to have helped him. Peary was the victor of the debate. The Mount McKinley affair had discredited Cook so much that the public soon came to believe him to be a fraud and that Peary must have been the first man to reach the North Pole. Cook tried to rehabilitate his reputation for the rest of his life – without success. A congressional inquiry was initiated but then cancelled due to the outbreak of the First World War. For contemporaries, the crucial question was which country was entitled to claim to have conquered the North Pole. And since Peary and Cook were both from the USA, people were content with knowing that the first man to reach the North Pole had surely been an American. Most people thought it was Peary, and that’s what textbooks said until the end of the 20th century.
The Big Question at the End: So Who Was the First Man to Reach the North Pole?
Since the late 1980s, the reports of polar expeditions have been carefully reviewed by modern researchers. The result: we can now be quite sure that Peary did not reach the North Pole – and neither did Cook. Both reports present serious inconsistencies, measurement errors and gaps. Neither brought a witness along that was qualified to confirm the data. According to his expedition log, Peary travelled completely impossible daily distances in the final miles – about twice what he and others normally managed to do in Arctic conditions.
If neither Peary nor Cook were at the North Pole, then who was the first man to reach the North Pole? That depends on what is meant by that question. Does it count to have flown over the North Pole? Does it count to have landed there with an airplane? Does it count to have reached it by means of a snowmobile, or do you have to get there by dog sled? Depending on what you ask for, the answer is different. A single first man to the North Pole that could be mentioned in history books simply does not exist. And perhaps that’s just as well, as such a name would unfairly overshadow the achievements of all the explorers before him, who made his success possible in the first place.
By the way: even if Peary’s expedition had reached the North Pole, Peary would not have been the first man to the North Pole. This honour would then have gone to his companion Matthew Henson, who preceded the actual expedition as a scout. Of course this wasn’t really accounted for in the debates of the time since Henson was African American. This was precisely why Peary had kept him with him and not sent him back a few days before reaching his destination, as he had done with all the white members of the expedition, to ensure that he would be the first white man at the North Pole. And we don’t even have to start talking about the Inuit who also accompanied the expedition. Having said that, we’ve deconstructed enough heroes for today.
Other Things You Might Be Interested in:
Here you can find the first part of the article on Robert Peary.
We bought both books at Thomas Rezek’s antiquarian bookshop in Munich.
Here you can browse through the digital version of the entire book.
Find out more about Matthew Henson in this short video by National Geographic (yes, exactly, they are part of the National Geographic Society that backed Peary).