Mount McKinley

Dr. Frederick Cook’s North Pole Claim

A Fifty-Year Evaluation 1958-2008

Yale Club, New York City
April 5, 2008
By Ted Heckathorn

Vindication of Cook came in1998 and in 2008commemorations.

Etukishook and Ahwelah, Cook’s two Inuit companions, pictured on Arctic Ocean. 

Their initial accounts given to separate Danish and German expeditions, and the version which would be carried back to Etah by almost 40 fellow tribesmen, all gave credence to Cook’s story.

It’s a pleasure to be with many old friends and some new ones as well. In this room we have a diverse group of historians, scientists, physicians, business professionals, lawyers, mountain climbers and polar explorers. There are others who have a personal interest in the remarkable adventures of polar and mountain pioneer, Dr. Frederick Cook. For those in the medical field, you may read about Dr. Cook’s pioneering work in Dr. Ralph Myerson’s excellent presentation at the 1993 Ohio State Symposium [Myerson, 1998]. My remarks are directed to Dr. Cook’s explorations on Mount McKinley and his North Pole work, and why, after a century, they have not received proper recognition.

Historical Background 

In 1956, I first learned about Dr. Cook through a book, The North Pole, by Robert E. Peary. The books by Peary and his young assistant, George Borup, fostered a dislike of this scalawag explorer, Dr. Cook, who dared to tarnish Peary’s North Pole claim. As an aspiring naval ROTC cadet, I proudly carried around a volume, The Secrets of Polar Travel, by Rear-Admiral Robert E. Peary. Since Dr. Cook’s North Pole claim appeared to be such a flagrant lie, I expected that it would be a simple matter to disprove his assertion—or so I thought at the time. 

The university library’s rare book room provided my first direct experience with Dr. Cook when I read “Dr.Cook’s Confession” in Hampton’s Magazine. The article contained Cook’s comments suggesting that he might have been mentally unbalanced and that he might not have reached the pole. Strangely, the rest of the article described how he reached the pole, and the gigantic media war that ensued about his claim. 

Investigating further, I read articles and books by leading Arctic authorities such as Donald MacMillan, Vilhjalmur Stefansson and Peter Freuchen. The “Vagrant Viking” Freuchen had won $64,000 on a TV quiz show.1 Freuchen, MacMillan and Stefansson authored many books about the Arctic and had established reputations as polar experts. All three of these authorities rejected Cook’s claim, and strongly supported Peary. At the university bookstore I purchased the new edition of Belmore Browne’s book, The Conquest of Mount McKinley, which refuted Dr. Cook’s claim that he climbed the mountain in 1906. This evidence and the general historical opinion in the mid-1950’s appeared to be overwhelming against Cook and strongly in favor of Peary. Another scholarly new book, Arctic Frontiers by John Edward Caswell, also rejected Cook’s North Pole claim using Browne’s book as a deciding factor.2  

Searching further, I purchased copies of Cook’s My Attainment of the Pole, Thomas F. Hall’s, Has the North Pole Been Discovered? and several other books and magazines that supported Cook or raised questions about Peary’s claim. The most stunning was the September 1953 John Euller article in Bluebook with Peary’s picture on the cover with the caption, “This Man was a Liar.” In 1956, Russell W. Gibbons published his dissertation, “An Historical Evaluation of the Cook-Peary Controversy.” Gibbons disclosed that some leading polar authorities such as Col. Joseph O. Fletcher and Admiral Charles W. Thomas believed Dr. Cook. 

In a May 1958 college research paper, I analyzed the status of Cook’s North Pole claim, based upon the published evidence then available: 

Perhaps the Cook-Peary controversy should be forgotten after fifty years, but the Frederick A. Cook Society supported an expedition to follow Cook’s route to the North Pole and thereby prove that Cook’s claim of the discovery of the North Pole was possible. The Cook Society also is trying to prove that Cook was honest in his narratives before the discovery of the North Pole. If the Cook Society can prove these two things, the physical plausibility of Cook’s claim and Cook’s previous honesty, Dr. Cook’s claim to the discovery of the North Pole would be accepted by the public, despite the possible opposition by some famous explorers. Possibly in Dr. Cook, we have another Columbus. 

North Pole Claims 1958-2008

During the past fifty years a significant shift occurred in regards to Peary and Cook. Peary’s situation changed in stages. Euller’s article was the opening shot. In 1970,a college professor, Dennis Rawlins published an article in the US Naval Institute Proceedings that raised serious questions about Peary’s claim on a navigational basis. Rawlins subsequently published in 1973, Peary at the North Pole, Fact or Fiction?, that scientifically demolished Peary’s claim. During his research, Rawlins uncovered Henshaw Ward’s manuscript, The Peary Myth, which a Peary supporter, Dr. Isaiah Bowman, successfully suppressed in 1935. Bowman also had examined Peary’s private papers and recommended to the Peary family that the papers be sealed for 75 years. 

CBS TV’s airing of the 1983 docudrama, “The Race to the North Pole,”3 sparked a violent reaction from the National Geographic Society (NGS), a leading Peary supporter for nearly a century. Aware of the growing criticism about the secrecy of the Peary Papers in the National Archives, the NGS and the Peary family invited noted British polar explorer, Wally Herbert, to make an independent examination of the Peary records. 

Sir Wally spent three years examining in detail the Peary files and related material. While sympathetic to Peary’s work, he concluded that Peary did not reach the North Pole in 1909. Herbert also found that Peary had not set a new Farthest North record in 1906, and had made other false or dubious exploring claims. Meanwhile, the Peary family opened the Peary Papers to other historical researchers such as Rawlins and myself. The ultimate fall of Peary’s North Pole claim occurred at the 1991 US Naval Institute’s Symposium where Herbert, Rawlins and others presented their evidence before a large audience of experienced navigators, historians and explorers [US Naval Institute]. 

On the other hand, Cook’s fortunes steadily improved during this period. A leading mountaineer, Walt Gonnason, in 1956, attempted follow Cook’s route on Mount McKinley.4 He turned back when two of his party refused to continue up the East Ridge. In 1961, Andrew Freeman finally succeeded in publishing his book, The Case for Dr. Cook. He originally researched and wrote the manuscript in the 1930’s after extensive interviews with Dr. Cook. Freeman’s first publisher paid him an advance for the book, but subsequently refused to publish it. After nearly 25 years Freeman’s research finally reached print. This well-documented volume presented a powerful case in favor of Cook’s North Pole claim, and documented extensive efforts of his opponents to destroy Cook’s reputation. Two favorable biographies, Winner Lose All (1973) by Hugh Eames, and Hero in Disgrace (1991), by Howard Abramson, further bolstered Cook’s position. The previously cited CBS TV movie proved to be the most effective stimulus of all because it resulted in the opening of the Peary Papers to outside historical researchers. 

During my examination of the Peary Papers in 1989,Peary’s personal documents confirmed what Herbert and Rawlins had written, plus much more. Peary’s personal diaries and documents indicated that Peary did not reach the North Pole in 1909. They also revealed that Peary’s1906 Farthest North claim and the alleged discovery of Crocker Land were knowingly spurious. These documents also exposed Peary’s secret role in discrediting Dr. Cook’s 1906 Mount McKinley claim through bribery and media collusion. This material produced four historical options for our evaluation: 

Four North Pole Scenarios 

A. Peary reached the North Pole and Cook did not 

This was the only acceptable position for Peary and his supporters. In order to be the discoverer of the North Pole, Peary had to be the only explorer to reach it, because Cook had preceded him in the field by one year. This forced Peary to argue that Cook did not reach the pole, but Peary actually did so. Such a scenario was unacceptable to Cook and Cook advocates.

B. Both Peary and Cook reached the North Pole 

Cook preferred this situation, and endorsed it with his statement, “There is glory enough for all.” Peary totally rejected this option because it would damage his reputation and personal ego, along with greatly reducing profits from book sales, lectures and endorsements. Peary devoted nearly his whole adult life to his quest for wealth and the fame as a modern Columbus. Previously Peary exhibited nasty behavior toward actual or potential exploring rivals. Against Cook he faced his most dangerous rival of all. Also, his wealthy backers, like the New York Yankees owner, hated a second place finish in any contest. Had both explorers accepted this scenario, a critical examination of their North Pole records might never have occurred. Historically, however, Peary might have gained greater fame for his heroic failure as Captain Scott did when he lost the South Pole race.

C. Cook reached the North Pole and Peary did not 

Although Cook personally preferred Scenario B initially, he would have accepted this option. After the controversy exploded, Cook probably believed that this option was what actually occurred. Most Cook advocates hold this view today. Peary and his followers found Scenario C even more insulting than Scenario B, and again totally unacceptable. For this situation to exist it is necessary to establish that Cook reached the pole and that Peary did not.

D. Neither Cook nor Peary reached the North Pole 

Both Peary and Cook, along with their supporters rejected this position. In this case it is necessary to establish that neither reached the North Pole. Researchers such as Rawlins and some others currently support this view. If Peary intended to be the Discoverer of the North Pole then his only alternative was to establish Scenario A. Any other option would put him a poor second or completely and “out of the money.” Cook would be the Discoverer with Scenarios B or C, and out of the race with A or D. Which scenario best fits the evidence? 

Documentary evidence from Peary’s own records and other data strongly indicate that Peary did not reach the North Pole. A detailed examination of Peary’s claim is outside the scope of this symposium. For those interested in Peary and his claim, consult the research works by Rawlins, Herbert, J. Gordon Hayes, W. Henry Lewin, Thomas Hall, the US Naval Institute Symposium or my entry for Peary in American National Biography. Peary’s demise eliminates scenarios A and B, and leaves options C or D. 

The resulting issue then, is to prove or disprove that Cook reached the North Pole. In 1956, I set out to establish that Cook did not reach the pole. This task proved to be much more complex than I expected. Peary, his agents and those financially obligated to him had supplied virtually all of the most damaging evidence against Cook. Clearly these advocates were not neutral observers and they provided self-serving evidence. 

The 1909 Press barrage against Cook was a first

Review of the 1909 Media Barrage Against Cook

For those not familiar with the early details about the Peary-Cook Controversy, let’s briefly review the events of September through December of 1909. In order for Peary to establish his own North Pole priority, he had to discredit Cook’s claim. Peary vigorously rejected Cook’s position that there was glory enough for both at the pole, and launched an immediate “Gold Brick ”assault. When Peary returned from the Arctic in 1909,he had only his account of an interview with Cook’s Inuit companions to use against Cook. This “Eskimo Testimony” weapon quickly backfired and created a public backlash. Newspaper polls indicated strong support for Cook. 

At this point, General Thomas Hubbard, president of the Peary Arctic Club (PAC) assumed leadership of Peary’s strategy. He sent Peary to his secluded home in Maine, where he was not available to the media. Since there was no radio or TV, intense newspaper competition existed. Reporters and editors had to find or manufacture stories for the world’s hottest news event. Hubbard simply used proven political campaign tactics of timed releases of negative information to destroy Cook’s public popularity and isolate him from institutional support. This was not particularly difficult since PAC members owned two New York newspapers plus the powerful New York Times had an exclusive contract with Peary. Systematic attacks by surrogates bombarded Cook almost daily in the press. 

In a masterful three-month campaign Hubbard and his allies established Peary’s North Pole claim and drove Cook from the field. Surrogates such as George Kennan, George Melville, Belmore Browne, Ralph Tarr and others spearheaded an attack on nearly every aspect of Cook’s North Pole claim. This tactic forced Cook to defend himself on a daily basis from a host of wild charges, many of them totally irrelevant. These accusations ranged from stealing a missionary’s dictionary to bribing Inuit with gumdrops. While Peary and Hubbard distracted Cook with this approach, they quickly devised an even more effective strategy. 

Mount McKinley as a factor in the Polar controversy

Alaska’s Mount McKinley (also called Denali) is about 1860 statute miles (2976 km) from the North Pole. It rises about 20,308 feet above sea level, whereas the North Pole’s location is near sea level. Ordinarily these two locations shared little in common. The North Pole controversy now linked these two places because of Dr. Cook’s 1906 and 1908 expeditions. In September 1906, Dr. Cook reported that he successfully ascended Mount McKinley. He reached the North Pole in April 1908.

Since Peary could not refute Cook’s North Pole claim directly, Hubbard elected to attack Cook’s Mount McKinley claim. During Cook’s 1906 expedition his major supporter reneged on his financial pledge. As a result, Cook could not pay his men, including his final climbing companion, Ed Barrill.5 Hubbard and the PAC retained Tacoma, Washington attorney James Ashton to deal with Barrill. The situation developed like the bidding war for a talented NFL or baseball free agent. When Barrill arrived in Seattle in late September 1909, the contest began in earnest. Apparently financial inducements from the Seattle Times and Dr. Cook failed to sway the man from Montana who had a large family to feed.6 Barrill then began to negotiate with Ashton in Tacoma. Ashton’s telegrams to Hubbard, outline the negotiations:

September 25—Encountering difficulties will report as soon as possible.
September 30—Difficulties account parties increasing claims. Make sure protect drafts which will run over amount stated. Many inferences causing continuous wild demands and indecision of parties.
October 1—Barrill and Printz here with me could get nothing definite or competent until today. Stenographer working hard having Barrill’s [sic] diary transcribed.  Have drawn five thousand covering everything. Impossible do better. Statements show great fake.
October 7—See Belmore Brown [sic] now with Professor Parker of Columbia. 

I leave tomorrow morning…

Peary not only bribed Barrill to obtain the affidavit, but he also financed Belmore Browne’s 1910 “factfinding” expedition to Mount McKinley as well. In1909, Browne and his partner, Herschel Parker, played a major role in Dr. Cook’s being dropped by the Explorer’s Club [Explorers Club Archives]. In 1910, Browne and Parker alleged that they found a peak on the lower Ruth Glacier that Cook had used for his 1906 summit photo. The Barrill affidavit and diary stated that he and Cook had continued from Browne’s “Fake Peak” up the Ruth Glacier to what is now called The Gateway, where the Ruth Glacier opens into a great amphitheater. At that point Barrill alleged that he and Cook turned back due to bad crevasses, and Cook named a nearby peak for him, Mt. Barrille. Also, Barrill included a sketch map of their route and turning point. Since Cook published a photo of Mt. Barrille in his book, there was no dispute that he and Barrill had gone at least to the Gateway and beyond the so-called Fake Peak. 

Mount McKinley (upper left) from our 1994 Base Camp near the Gateway. Note the mountain’s irregular south face and ridge blocking out the Harper Glacier. 

Pegasus Peak’s Twin Summits. The left summit’s irregular left side and glacier in the middle. Photo was taken to the left (west) of where this sketch was made by Cook.

Browne’s friend and protégé, Bradford Washburn continued to use Browne’s Fake Peak assertion and Barrill’s affidavit until recent years. Washburn developed a reputation as the leading expert on Mount McKinley dating back to his photographic work in the 1930’s, three ascents between 1942 and 1951, and many published articles. From the 1950’s onward, Washburn continued Browne’s attacks on Cook, with a host of new allegations: Cook couldn’t leave tracks in the snow on the summit, he lacked experience and essential equipment, he couldn’t see the “green of the Yukon” from the East Ridge, he used flowery language to describe his route, no one who ever climbed Mount McKinley believed Cook’s story, etc.7 For over 30 years, Washburn’s comments and reputation convinced me that Cook did not reach the summit of Mount McKinley. In 1989, while researching the recently-opened Peary Papers in the US National Archives, I was stunned to find Peary’s direct involvement in the Mount McKinley attack on Cook. There was the $5,000 bank draft used to bribe Barrill, along with the Ashton to Hubbard telegrams, and Belmore Browne’s financial ledger documenting payments Peary. Browne supposedly was a neutral party in the Peary-Cook dispute. Browne wrote in his book [Browne, 76] that Parker had financed their 1910 expedition. This new evidence in Browne’s own handwriting proved that he lied about the matter. Did he lie about other things as well? 

The Peary Papers confirmed that Peary and his supporters had indeed bribed Barrill. Cook alleged that Barrill was bribed, but most historians and mountaineers did not take Cook’s allegation seriously. Now, here was the documentary evidence, or historical “smoking gun” of the mountain world’s greatest controversy. Most legal affidavits contain a clause that the affiant’s statement was made with no financial consideration involved. Obviously attorney Ashton omitted that clause in Barrill’s affidavit for a very good reason. 

The two major pillars of evidence against Cook’s Mount McKinley ascent now collapsed. These data shook my long-held belief about Cook’s failure on the mountain. Was it possible that Cook did reach the summit? By 1991, I had completed most of my research about the Peary expeditions. I now turned my attention to Cook’s polar and alpine claims. The first step was to resolve what Cook did or did not do in 1906. If he did not reach the summit in 1906, it would be very difficult to establish that he reached the North Pole in 1908. North Pole claims depended primarily on the credibility of the explorer, since it was impossible to leave a permanent marker there. Peary ultimately failed his credibility test. With Peary eliminated from competition, Cook’s polar and alpine claims now could be judged on their own merits. In 1989, Cook’s Mount McKinley diary now became available in the Library of Congress. This diary provided additional information not contained in his book or magazine articles. 

In late 1993, I organized an expedition to the Ruth Glacier to determine exactly where Cook went and reached his farthest point. As I explained to the Cook Society board members when I submitted a research grant request, this expedition might be a two-edged sword. If we found that Dr. Cook did not or could not have climbed the mountain on his stated route then we would report it. This would seriously damage the credibility for his North Pole claim. On the other hand, not many believed his North Pole claim anyway. Even fewer believed his Mount McKinley ascent. After over 80 years of media attacks and ridicule, Cook’s reputation had little to lose. The Cook Society backed their convictions with their financial support for our climbing team. 

What the 1994 expedition on the Ruth Glacier found

Looking back after 14 years, I have pleasant memories about our team and what we accomplished. You may read the details in the 1994 issue of Polar Priorities and the 1996 edition of To the Top of the Continent. We had an outstanding climbing team with world-famous climbers Scott Fischer8 and Vern Tejas9. Doug Nixon, Jim Garlinghouse, and Walt Gonnason also had considerable experience. Matry Raney had climbed McKinley before and had fine skill with as guitar as well. Sheldon Cook-Dorough accompanied us to base camp, as the Cook Society Historian. 

Our main objective was to determine if Cook and Barrill went beyond The Gateway. Cook said they went forward and Barrill and all Cook alpine opponents said they turned back at that point. If we found they had gone forward, then the whole case against Cook would collapse. This would render irrelevant the elaborate arguments by Browne and Washburn about what happened on the lower Ruth Glacier. 

We set up our base camp on the edge of the great Ruth Amphitheater that Dr. Cook discovered in 1906. We then proceeded up the North Fork of the Ruth Glacier to the East Ridge. Our key breakthrough occurred several days later as I recorded in my diary :

At 3:45 AM on July 14th, I got up to have breakfast with Vern and Scott before they headed through Tejas Pass into the Traleika. About 8:15, Marty shouted that he could see them coming back. They arrived at 9:00AM, and Vern reported, “We’ve got good news and we got pictures that seem to match Cook’s sketch. From the ridge we saw the green [patch] looking down the glacier. ”Scott and Vern had crossed into the Traleika Glacier, but they did not descend all the way to the floor because of the avalanche danger. From the top of the ridge they had to warm the cameras before they could take pictures. 

A few moments later I spread out Dr. Cook’s sketches from the East Ridge along with our maps. One of Dr. Cook’s sketches appeared to be Pegasus Peak. The angle seemed slightly different, so we moved our camp to Traleika Col to get a picture from that angle. Scott was elated about what they found and had a good time climbing with Vern. From the ridge, Vern could see the route to the top just as Dr. Cook described it. 

When we moved our camp back down the west branch of the North Fork of the Ruth Glacier, we not only had Pegasus Peak in the correct alignment with Cook’s diary sketch, but we also discovered Cook’s Gunsight Peak just below us. We were camped very close to where Cook and Barrill had camped, and we heard and saw frequent and loud avalanches just as they had in1906. We now had identified the route Cook had taken from The Gateway and both Cook’s diary and book descriptions matched what we saw. We now knew where they ascended the East Ridge. From there they had a clear route to the summit. It was not an easy route, but Dr. Cook never said it was. The East Ridge is heavily corniced, and it has a steep ascent to the Thayer Basin. This is exactly how Cook described it, without any offlowery language that Washburn had alleged. Most ofthe features Cook described could not be seen from The Gateway, such as Gunsight and Pegasus Peaks. Gunsight Peak looks entirely different from The Gateway, and Pegasus Peak is invisible from that spot.

The four ‘EskimoTestimony’ versions that were argued

We had determined the Cook had proceeded beyond The Gateway, ascended the East Ridge and had a doable route from there to the summit. We now could consign the Barrill Affidavit and Browne’s various allegations to the historical rubbish heap. Summarizing our 1994 accomplishments: 

[1] We were the first or one of the first to cross from the Ruth Glacier to the Traleika Glacier. 

[2] We located the 1906 pioneer route of Dr. Cook on the East Ridge. 

[3] We identified a doable route by which Dr. Cook could have reached the summit. 

[4] We refuted the 1909 affidavit of Ed Barrill and the contention that Dr. Cook did not pass the Gateway to ascend above about 5,500 feet. 

[5] We refuted Barrill’s claim that the Gateway had bad crevasses that forced a return. No photos from 1906,1910 or 1994 showed any such crevasses. 

[6] We took over 2,000 photos and a video of eastern slopes of Mount McKinley. 

Revisiting the North Pole 

Had the 1909 public known the information that we found about Mount McKinley, the case against Cook’s ascent would have imploded. Peary and his associates would have faced serious media and legal problems. The North Pole controversy would have been determined on the explorers’ merits and documentation rather than on apolitical type of campaign featuring character assassination. 

But back in 1909, Peary and Hubbard had the Mount McKinley affidavits in hand, and intensified their media barrage. They forced Cook out of the Explorers Club and seriously weakened his support by the New York Herald. Peary supporters also instigated a flood of letters to discourage the University of Copenhagen from making a favorable ruling about Cook’s North Pole claim [PPC,1909]. By late 1909, Peary devised an ugly scheme to force Cook into an “insanity plea” [PPC, 1909]. These daily personal smears soon created a media feeding frenzy that totally demoralized Cook. He did not know that Peary and his supporters orchestrated nearly every one of them [PPC, 1909]. Overwhelmed by these negative stories and hounded by the 1909 media version of paparazzi, Cook disappeared from the United States in December. 

After Dr. Cook recovered his composure a few months later, he planned a triumphant return home bolstered by the publication of his story in Hampton’s Magazine and his new book. Unfortunately for Cook, Peary’s forces sabotaged the magazine articles in such a fashion as to make Cook appear mentally unbalanced [Cook, 1911]. Cook experienced better success with his book and his public lectures. Soon he regained sufficient public political support to seek congressional recognition of his North Pole claim. 

At this point Peary resumed the offensive by using private investigators and saboteurs to torment and disrupt Cook lectures [PPC, 1914]. Rather than present his case against Cook in Congress, Peary used his political agents and a professional congressional lobbyist to block Congressional legislation to honor Cook [PPC, 1914,1915].

As with the Barrill Affidavit about the mountain claim, Peary’s Eskimo Testimony continued to be Peary’s primary weapon against Cook on the North Pole matter. Both documents were hastily prepared at Peary’s instigation. Each contained fatal flaws, but oddly enough, neither piece of evidence experienced any meaningful analysis by alpine or geographical societies. For decades Peary, with his supporting organizations, and influential friends effectively stifled criticism of Peary and discouraged support for Cook. 

There are at least five versions of the so-called “Eskimo Testimony.” The first is what Cook’s two Inuit companions, Etukishook and Ahwelah10, related about their 1908 journey with the doctor across the Arctic Ocean and their southbound travel. The pertinent 1908 time period is from March to September, when they arrived at Cape Sparbo (now Cape Hardy) on Devon Island.11

Peary’s Purported “Eskimo Testimony” Route for Dr. Cook’s Journey. Had Cook actually followed such a route, he would have made five new geographical discoveries: (1) Cape Stallworthy, (2) Rens Fiord, (3) Perley Island, (4) Meighen Island, (5) Haig-Thomas Island. None of these discoveries would have precluded Cook from making a North Pole claim.  Dr. Cook had no credible reason to deny the discoveries. How did Peary know that Meighen Island was there? Had he seen it in 1906 from Cape Hubbard? (Map: Peary Papers! Wally Herbert, Noose of Laurels, p. 277, captions added.)

The four ‘Eskimo Testimony’ versions that were argued

Eskimo Testimony A:

This was what Cook’s companions told other their trip. They confirmed Cook’s account. Various1909 Greenland visitors reported this information. Sheldon Cook-Dorough researched this subject in great depth. We recommend that you read Sheldon’s detailed articles on the subject in past issues of Polar Priorities; the latest was in 2007 and in Frederick Albert Cook, Discoverer of the North Pole. 

Eskimo Testimony B: 

When Peary returned to the Inuit settlements in August 1909, he discovered that Dr. Cook had arrived three months earlier, and then sledged to South Greenland [Peary, 1910, 333]. From Ross Marvin’s12 questioning of the Inuit in July 1908, Peary knew that Cook reached the Arctic Ocean. How much further north did Cook go? Harry Whitney innocently reported that Cook had exceeded Peary’s 1906 record [Cook Papers]. This statement rattled Peary. Was Cook suggesting that he knew about Peary’s 1906 hoaxes? From Peary’s perspective, Cook’s statement implied blackmail. If Cook had reached the North Pole why didn’t he say so? In Peary’s own case in 1909, he declined to tell his own men if he had reached the pole [Goodsell, 400]. The Inuit did discuss Cook’s journey with some of Peary’s men. Koolootingwah, who had worked for both Peary and Cook, told Bartlett that Cook said he had reached the pole [Bartlett, August 19, 1909].

Peary instigated his own inquiry into Cook’s northern trip. Apparently Peary assigned Henson, MacMillan and Borup to question Etukishook, Ahwelah and Panikpa,13 Etukishook’s father. At the same time he denied Dr.Goodsell, the expedition’s physician, permission to question the Inuit about Dr. Cook’s trip. The good doctor was most irate about his exclusion. In view of his study of the Inuit language, Goodsell did not understand his exclusion in favor of less qualified MacMillan and Borup [Goodsell, 534-535].

In addition to excluding Goodsell, Peary made conflicting statements about his own personal participation in these Inuit interrogations. In material Peary sent to General Thomas Hubbard on October 12,1909, he wrote, “...I talked with the Eskimos there and with the two boys and asked them to describe Dr. Cook’s journey to members of my party and to myself.” [PPC,1909]. In the same Hubbard file, Peary included an account of the questioning which stated, “The bulk of the boys’ testimony was not taken by Commander Peary, nor in his presence...”

After extensive research, this writer has not located the full transcript of Peary’s interrogation of the Inuit. In Peary’s 1909 Hubbard correspondence file, a typewritten narrative outlines the questioning of the three Inuit. Borup’s diary contains nearly a full blank page for the date of the interrogation. Borup’s notes in the Peary Papers show: 

Itookishoo says he did not see Crocker Land...From Cape Hubbard they went Northwest. They did not go out of sight of land. Itookishoo who knows the sea ice from his experiences in Matt Ryan’s party says they did not go as far as Ryan went.14 States that Cook said he went a long way but he lost (“he lost” changed to “that”) he lied. They went for a short distance and made poor progress...

Aukpillar’s statement: Says they saw no land out on the sea ice. Dr. Cook “shag la-hutee shutee shutee.” They only built two igloos on the ice...Aavelah said they met a lead of open water & turned back. This was at the edge of the glacial fringe.15 Both boys say they saw cairn built by Peary (in 1906). Cook says they did not see it. Said Peary had never been there. 

These last three sentences suggest that Borup wrote some or all of these entries after he returned to civilization and read about Cook’s failure to see Peary’s 1906 cairn. If the Inuit did say this, then it is a mystery why Etukishook and MacMillan had so much trouble finding the same Peary cairn in 1915? [MacMillan 1915].

The diaries of Peary’s other men shed little light on the subject. The Bartlett and MacMillan diaries provide few details about what the Inuit said. Bartlett obliterated part of one page of his diary relating to Dr. Cook [Bartlett, August 25, 1909]. The Henson diary, if it existed, disappeared after 1912, but in an October 7, 1909 letter to Bridgman, a worried Peary wrote, “If Henson’s version of the Eskimo narrative is kept absolutely quiet until our statement is out there is no harm, but every person who becomes familiar with the substance of that statement, increases the chance of either the Herald or Cook’s friends getting hold of it and making it public.” [PPC, 1909].Will we ever learn what disturbing information Henson knew about the Inuit narrative, and what data Bartlett deleted from his own journal? 

Eskimo Testimony C

Eskimo Testimony D

This “C” version was the account that the Peary and the PAC released to the media after returning to the US.

This account asserted that Cook and his companion never went out of sight of land and went only a short distance on the Arctic Ocean before returning. A sketch map was furnished that showed Cook as traveling down the west coast of Axel Heiberg Island, meandering around the southern coast before going to Cape Sparbo. 

The “D” version originated with by Donald B.MacMillan during his 1913-1917 Crocker Land Expedition, where he expunged Peary’s greatest geographical discovery from the map. Since MacMillan had signed the “C” version in 1909, his new 1918 report created some interesting conflicts. 

Captain Hall pointed out major discrepancies between the PAC’s 1909 version of the Inuit testimony and the “new evidence” that MacMillan supplied in 1918[Hall, 1920, 5-26]. Had Hall known about Borup’s field notes in Peary’s files and Goodsell’s comments, he might have exploded the Inuit Testimony argument 70 years ago. Other than Hall, few polar historians made the effort to investigate or analyze Peary’s version of the Inuit testimony. As a result, many historians naïvely discounted Cook’s claim without checking what the Inuit really said, and ignored the self-serving aspect of the information that Peary provided. 

Polar historians also seemed oblivious to the fact that at least two independent observers reported that Etukishook and Awelah supported Cook’s North Pole claim. They were Mene (Minik) Wallace, a North Greenland Inuit who was educated in New York, and Edward S. Brooke of MacMillan’s Crocker Land Expedition [Cook Papers]. Wallace wrote: 

“No one up here believes that Peary got much farther than when he left his [Bartlett] party. His name up here is hated for his cruelty. Cook made a great trip North. He has nothing in the way of proofs here that I can find. I believe that he went as near as anyone, but the pole has yet to be found [Harper, 159].

Eskimo Testimony E:

This latest account was based upon Inuit oral history and a written statement made by Innuutersuaq Ulloriaqwho died in 1986 at the age of 80. This elderly Inuit had known both Etukishook and Ahwelah, and he provided this additional Inuit Testimony that he said came from Cook’s two companions, their families and the old people of Thule. Rolf Gilberg published the original account in 1984 in Denmark and Herbert included a part of it as Appendix I, in The Noose of Laurels. The relevant parts relating to Cook’s 1908 journey: 

When they reached the ice in Bay Fjord they traveled across it for some time before they set a course northwards skirting Axel Heiberg Land. As was usual Daagitkoorsuaq (Dr. Cook) went ahead on skis…When the reached the northern tip of Axel Heiberg Land the accompanying sledges turned around to go hunting…Only three people remained, and they spent many days at the northern tip of Axel Heiberg Land with an abundance of provisions and equipment…One day at last the leader said it was time to move on. So they set off for the North Pole…They traveled for a long time towards the north on the two dog sledges with the leader out in front on his skis as usual. The whole time they could make out faintly some of the coast of Grant Land. 

Presently they came to large expanses of drift ice and after having traveled through this for some time ice packs came into sight. The leader stopped then and wanted to go no further. He did nothing but write, as usual. I do not doubt that their leader was good to them. Daagitkoorsuaq had a remarkable command of the polar Eskimo language. He had after all been along the doctor and ethnographer during Piulersuaq’s (Peary) winter stay in Cape Cleveland 1891-92.

Eventually they turned around and traveled south through the enormous ice packs between which there were also large holes in the ice with tracts of open water. They continued down along side Axel Heiberg Land directly towards the sound [Hassel Sound and Penny Strait] before the end of the shady side of Ellesmere Land…

Back home in Anoritooq the two young men…were interrogated thoroughly as to what the North Pole looked like and whether they had actually reached the North Pole. The polar Eskimos had of course been given to understand by Daagitkoorsuaq that he had reached the North Pole! But when the two young men were asked whether they really reached the North Pole they just laughed…Although they knew they had looked at the map with their leader’s invented route to the North Pole, they never dreamed of going along with the joke. I am saying this because I know that later they were interrogated very thoroughly about the North Pole, by Piulersuaq himself. They of course admitted that he had lied. 

Daagitkoorsuaq never let the two young men Aapilaq and Itukusuk, know anything of his lie about them reaching the North Pole. He was able to do this because they did not know where the North Pole lay, or so he thought then. I have already said that they stopped for a long time in an area where there was enormous drift ice and pack ice which had broken loose from the polar ice. They reached the place in the middle of their most hopeless struggle and camped there. When I asked them if there was any land, they said they were not so far from land. They of course meant that they could see some of Cape Columbia on the north coast of Ellesmere Land the whole time. It was moreover the place which Piulersuaq used as a depot and starting point for his trips in 1907 and 1909, when he was on his way to the North Pole. It was not difficult to guess Daagitkoorsuaq’sthoughts:16

  1. Daagitkoorsuaq was clear in his mind that he could not reach the North Pole. He therefore concentrated persistently on the trip in the large drift ice instead.

  2. The two ignorant young men did not know where the North Pole lay.

  3. To be able to do what he did, he did not want any adults with him. 

After several days in the pack ice they would naturally have turned back because their provisions and equipment would not be sufficient for a trip to the North Pole…I know that the polar Eskimos have nothing bad to say about Daagitkoorsuaq. Nor about his earlier stay in 1891-92.

Oral history and folklore often contain interesting information. As Professor Austin Fife, an expert on folklore pointed out, “it may not be true, but people think that it is.”17

Ulloriaq’s statement falls into this category. A careful analysis reveals strange contradictions that he may not have realized. On the one hand he said that Cook’s party left Axel Heiberg Land with an abundance of supplies and equipment, traveled north for a long time, came to large expanses of drift ice and traveled through this for some time until the leader decided to stop and wanted to go no further. Ulloriaq commented, “…they stopped for a long time in an area where there was enormous drift ice and pack ice which had broken loose from the polar ice…The leader then did nothing but write.” This basically agrees with Dr. Cook’s narrative, comments by Minik Wallace’s and Edward Brooke, and Eskimo Testimony A. It refutes the Eskimo Testimony C and D that Peary and MacMillan created in their attempt to discredit Cook. 

The internal contradictions with Ulloriaq’ statement are readily apparent. If Cook left Axel Heiberg with such an abundance of supplies and equipment why would they have to turn back after only a few days because they lacked supplies? Additionally, he said that Cook traveled
north for a “long time” and through large expanses of drift for “some time.” Obviously a “long time” plus “some time” would be substantially more than a “few” days. 

Sifting through Ulloriaq’s lengthy statement, about the only tangible evidence he presents that Cook’s team did not get to the pole, was the two companions telling him that they were not so far from land, meaning they could see Cape Columbia. That clearly was a geographical impossibility unless they had an airplane available. Since the Peary Papers were not open in 1984, Ulloriaq did not know what Cook’s two companions had told the Peary inquisitors in 1909. If you recall in Eskimo Testimony B, they both said they saw no land out on the sea ice. Cape Columbia is a distinctive landmark and Etukishook would have recognized it from his work on Peary’s 1906 expedition. 

This statement also contains a number of other flagrant errors of fact such as Cook using skis on his1908 journey, going to the Arctic in 1891-1892, they were at Cape Sparbo in mid-summer, and at age 20, Cook’s companions were not adults. Both were skilled hunters and Etukishoo had been a member of Peary’s 1906expedition.

The author of this statement, Inuutersua1 Ulloriaq18, was a small boy in 1909, and did not have a personal knowledge of Cook or Peary, but he did know the Inuit members of the Cook and Peary expeditions, Peary’s children and posterity, Peary protégés, Robert Bartlett and Donald MacMillan. Since he also was the brother-in-law of Peter Freuchen, a leading Cook critic, we would not expect him to take a pro-Cook position. Surprisingly, after filtering out the opinion segments of his statement, the basics of Cook’s actual journey substantially agree with Cook’s account and refute Eskimo Testimony C and D.19 

The Lessons that have emerged since the 1950s

During 1998, in an attempt to determine which version of the Eskimo Testimony was correct, I visited Etukishook’s eldest son, Ole Petersen in North Greenland. Ole was born 15 years after his father’s trip with Dr. Cook, and his father did not discuss the details with him other that to tell him about trapping musk oxen with nooses at Cape Sparbo. Unfortunately we had no other living sources to resolve these conflicting accounts. 

In evaluating the different versions of Cook’s journey, Version “E” contains contradictions and is hearsay evidence, but does have some factual elements as discussed above. Versions “C” and “D” not only contain fundamental contradictions as pointed out by Hall, but obviously Peary filtered them. They are clearly self-serving statements. Peary’s exclusion of Dr. Goodsell from the 1909 interviews creates even greater doubts about their probative value. The most damning factor of all was Peary’s vigorous objection to MacMillan’s 1915offer to bring Etukishook and Ahwelah to the US for questioning. Peary’s comment, “Who knows what they might say,” [Peary Papers] was most revealing about the probative value of version “C.” This leaves versions “A”and “B.” Both indicate that Cook and his companions went far out on the Arctic Ocean, as does the written comment by Minik (Mene) Wallace and part of “E.”Etukishook and Ahwelah might well relate to American baseball philosopher, Yogi Berra, when he wrote, “I never really said all that they said I said.” [Berra]

In 1998, I traveled over much of Dr. Cook’s 1908 route, and confirmed key land points along the way. The1909 map that the Peary party prepared was grossly incorrect and contained numerous geographical absurdities such as launching a canvas boat at Hell Gate, ignoring the discoveries of Rens Fiord, Perley, Meighenand Haig-Thomas Islands and other features as I discussed in the 1998 edition of Polar Priorities

My 1998 trip conclusively removed Stefansson’s Meighen Island as a valid objection to Cook’s North Pole claim. In 1920, Hall pointed out Stefansson’s gross geographical distortion. Since Hall’s volume was privately printed, few polar historians read it and a number did not know about it. As I discovered, Cook could not have seen Meighen Island from his observation point even if he wanted to do so. 

Cook’s Navigation on the Arctic Ocean 

Since 1958, excellent analysis has been done regarding Cook’s journey across the frozen ocean. US Navy Captain Brian Shoemaker, former commander of the US Naval Research Center at Barrow, Alaska and Operation Deepfreeze in Antarctica, prepared a detailed analysis of Cook’s travel from March to May 1908. He reviewed Cook’s navigation in relation to the ocean currents along Cook’s route, and how this caused Cook to overcompensate for what he mistakenly thought was an eastward drift. Shoemaker also discussed with me a huge north-south lead west of Axel Heiberg Island that prevented Cook to his line of food caches on Nansen Sound. In 1998, I saw and photographed this same lead. This huge belt of crushed ice made it impossible for Cook to cross eastward back to land. 

Other researchers have confirmed Cook’s 1908 solar observations at the North Pole. In 1996, Richard Reaney from New Zealand verified Cook’s sun altitude and shadow measurements. Wayne Davidson from Resolute Bay, Nunavut, made a detailed study of the polar observations of both Peary and Cook regarding their observations and refraction data. Using computer refraction models, Davidson found that Cook passed both tests and Peary failed both. 20

What Have We Learned Since 1958?

When I began my North Pole research in 1956, Peary’s claim was firmly entrenched in nearly all history and reference books. On the other hand, Cook was almost universally regarded as an imposter for the North Pole and his reputation was even worse in regards to Mount McKinley. 

Today the Peary claim has been discredited to all but members of his family and a few diehard followers. The more data I collected, the shakier his claim became. Ultimately, Peary’s downfall came from his own records and his own hand. Once the Peary Papers were opened, they removed any remaining doubt. 

In Cook’s case, as I analyzed additional data, his North Pole claim increased in strength. Most people knew little about Cook other than prominent people in the exploring community who had branded him a liar. They simply parroted Peter Freuchen, “Cook was a liar and a gentleman. Peary was neither.” Author Laurell Hamilton aptly described Cook’s situation when she wrote [Hamilton, 321], “If people will not believe the truth, and you don’t want to lie, then you’re out of options.” Some of those that I admired 50 years ago have plummeted in my estimation. As it turned out, many of Cook’s harshest critics had secret flaws in the integrity, honesty and/or moral character.21 Dr. Frederick A. Cook himself passed the major tests of adversity, and it is unfortunate that he did not live to see this day where his accomplishments are finally recognized both in the US and other countries. 

Now, after more than 50 years of research and analysis, I have found many of the answers to questions of my youth. This required thousands of hours of study, thought and reflection. In this search for facts and truth, I found myself in my mid-50’s, out on the ice like Peary. Arctic fieldwork provided a better understanding of how Peary dealt with the cold and physical demands of the Arctic Ocean when he was past middle age. 

This polar experience also provided a better understanding of Cook. I saw the same fantastic scenes on the Ruth Glacier that he discovered, the crevasses, avalanches and the mighty mountain that he climbed. In the Arctic, there were black cliffs of Svartevaeg, the limitless white field of ice of the Arctic Ocean, the low sandy island where he returned to land, and rocky cape where he survived the Arctic winter. And I photographed the two islands that Cook discovered on the east coast of Ellesmere Island. These he named for his two faithful Inuit companions. 

It is my hope that this half-century of archival research, alpine and Arctic fieldwork has been helpful to senior scholars and adds new details and insights about Polar History and the Great North Pole Controversy.


  1. We now know that this TV quiz show was rigged with answers provided to the contestants
  2. Caswell’s statements in his book indicate that he never read Cook’s narrative. The bibliography relating to Cook has serious omissions. His mentor was William Herbert Hobbs, a fanatical Peary supporter.
  3. This film presented a favorable view of Cook and included a scene of Peary presenting evasive answers to a Congressional committee about his own North Pole records. In 1989, while seeking data about Peary at the NGS, their staff declined to supply them, but instead furnished copies of their press release about the CBS production and another with an attack on Dr. Cook. 
  4. Gonnason previously led an expedition to the summit of McKinley in1948. 
  5. In 1906 he was spelling his name as Barrille.
  6. Barrill used his sudden windfall to build a new five-bedroom home in Montana and became the first man in town to buy an automobile according to his daughter.
  7. These and other Washburn assertions are refuted in the 1996 edition of To the Top of the Continent. As with many attacks, Washburn knew or should have known that they were false. I personally pointed out a number of them to him, and he had no rebuttal.
  8. Scott Fischer was an owner of Mountain Madness and led many expeditions to the world’s highest peaks. He died on Mt. Everest in the deadly May 1996 blizzard. He was photographer on our 1994expedition. Originally a skeptic before the expedition, he became a strong advocate of Dr. Cook despite pressure and threats from influential people in the mountaineering establishment.
  9. Vern Tejas was the leading guide on Mount McKinley and had climbed to the summit numerous times. He also had used different routes and was familiar with the Ruth Glacier. He is best known for his amazing solo winter ascent of the peak, as well as his work in the Arctic and Antarctic.
  10. The names of Cook’s two Inuit companions have been spelled many different ways. I left the spellings from the original sources without making them uniform in this paper.
  11. Devon Island is the world’s largest uninhabited island and is about the size of West Virginia.
  12. Ross Marvin from Cornell University served as a scientist and navigator on Peary’s 1905-06 and 1908-09 expeditions. An Inuit murdered him in April 1909 while returning from the Arctic Ocean. Years later Peary’s Inuit foster son confessed, but Dr Cook and others believed that a different Inuit committed the crime. One of Marvin’s close friends stated that he was murdered because he “knew too much.” In1991, the TV show, “Unsolved Mysteries” did the filming for a program about Marvin based on my proposal, but suddenly decided not to release the show and declined to give any explanation.
  13. Panikpa was a remarkable hunter, traveler and intellectual. As a boy he had been on Captain Hall’s ship, Polaris and had helped Peary on several expeditions. He accompanied Cook in 1908 until they reached northern Axel Heiberg Island. Then he went with Peary later in 1908.Panikpa was his own man and not intimidated by Peary. He had defied Peary on several occasions over the years especially in March1909, when he refused to cross the “Big Lead.” Panikpa may have tried to protect his son from Peary’s wrath during the interrogation by diverting the questioners with misinformation about Axel Heibergand western Ellesmere Islands. Panikpa was one of the few Inuit who was familiar with that region.
  14. Ryan went to about 84º 17’ in 1906.
  15. This sentence was written with a different pen.
  16. These thoughts attributed to Cook might be more appropriate for Peary
  17. Austin Fife, “Mormon Folklore,” Utah and the West History Workshop, University of Utah, June, 1962
  18. In conjunction with Rolf Gilberg, in 1985 he published Qillarsuaq, an account of the Inuit migration from Baffin Island to North Greenland.
  19. Also see Wayne Davidson’s 2002 article on evaluating Inuit Oral History, in PP
  20. See Polar Priorities 2002 to present and Frederick A. Cook Membership News for the same period
  21. Such as Peary, Belmore Browne, Herschel Parker, Hudson Stuck, Vilhjalmur Stefansson and Peter Freuchen

Read about previous Mount McKinley/Denali topics.

Copyright 2009 - The Frederick A. Cook Society