Who was first? US News revives the North Pole debate


`Who was first? Polar historians and those who know the Cook and Peary stories have been familiar with that for almost a century. This past year the question became part of a cover story on US News and World Report (August 14, 2006) and resulted in a letter from the Society in a subsequent issue.

Board member Marcia Hutchinson of Golden, CO, a great-grand-daughter of the explorer, alerted the Society of the advance issue and the resultant exchange. The US News summary included the following:

The first explorer to reach the North Pole was: 

   A. Robert Peary; 
   B. Frederick Cook; 
   C. Probably neither; 
   D. Definitely neither.

Ever since 1909-when first Cook, and then Peary returned from their northernmost journeys to banner headlines and international controversy-the answer has depended on whom you asked.

At its simplest, the debate over who got where when is the story of onetime gentlemen colleagues turned rivals in their quest for North Pole bragging rights.  Peary claimed that he reached the pole on April 6, 1909, after a 37-day dash across the ice pack from his base 413 miles away. But just five days before Peary could cable his news home, Cook scooped him with his claim to have arrived at the top of world in April, 1908.

The vituperative volleys of one side against the other haven't let up since.

Yet Cook still retains staunch defenders today in the form of the Frederick A. Cook Society. In True North, his 2005 examination of the case, journalist Bruce Henderson paints a sympathetic portrait of Cook as a brave explorer quite possibly denied his due. "I think that Cook's claim to have reached the pole is every bit as strong as Peary's," he says.

Moreover, says Susan Kaplan, director of the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum, the continued emphasis on the competition "warps" our understanding of Peary's innovations, designing equipment and travel strategies and forging ahead with the limited navigational instruments available at the time. Much the same could be said for Cook, whom many brand as a charlatan without examining, for instance, his humane treatment of the Inuit when others regarded them as savages. Will the issue ever be completely resolved? "I don't think the question can ever be answered, which is why it is still in the news 100 years later," says Laura Kissel, polar curator of the Byrd Polar Research Center Archival Program at Ohio State University.

US News published a letter from Society Executive Director Russell Gibbons on August 28:

"I agree that the debate will continue well into this century following the 2008-2009 centennial of the Cook and Peary claims to being the first at the geographical North Pole, but there is reason to believe additional evidence is being advanced for the onetime underdog.  Frederick A. Cook, that will ultimately vindicate his original attainment. Last year Canada's foremost Arctic archaeologist. Robert McGhee, the curator at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, said of Cook: "He was the most perceptive as well as the most vilified of Polar explorers. Cook had made a discovery that no amount of humiliation could take from him.

"Regardless of the endless discussion, the fact remains that the first physical description of the central Arctic basin was by Cook in 1908, and as Walter A. Wood, president of the American Geographical Society, declared: "The more we understand the Arctic...the more we recognize phenomena described by Cook but unknown at the time of his journey (a year before Robert Peary). "Incidentally, Cook was pardoned weeks before his death in 1940 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, after multi-millions were made from the oil lands he was convicted of promoting as 'worthless.'"

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