‘True North’ study favorable to Cook claims

They had started out as friends and shipmates, with Cook, a doctor, accompanying Peary, a civil engineer, on an expedition to northern Greenland in 1891. Peary’s leg was shattered in an accident, and without Cook’s care he might never have walked again. But by the fall of 1909, all the goodwill was gone. Peary said he had reached the Pole in April 1909; Cook scooped him, presenting evidence that he had gotten there in 1908. 
~ True North

Bruce Henderson, a non-fiction writer whose books have appeared on the New York Times best-seller lists, and who was previously acclaimed for his work on the ill-fated Polaris expedition, has authored a new work on the Cook-Peary expedition. True North: Peary, Cook and the Race to the Pole (W.W. Norton) will be published in February 2005.

Henderson’s narrative, which is reviewed in this issue of the journal on page 46, is conclusive toward a favorable assessment of the North Pole priority of Frederick A. Cook with six specific arguments:

  • Experience and readiness for the journey

  • Proven ice traveler

  • Original descriptions

  • Unknown westerly drift

  • Ice islands

  • Credible and consistent narrative.

     Henderson writes that while Cook acknowledged being “uncertain as to having reached the exact mathematical Pole,” he believed he had gotten as close as any man of his day could intelligently claim. “Given the ever-drifting ice pack, placing the toe of one’s boot on the exact spot was rather like hitting a constantly moving target with a dart. Just how close did one have to come in order to claim the Pole? Within a hundred feet? A mile? More than simply reaching that pinpoint spot on the ice at 90-degree North for a moment in time before it drifted away, Cook yearned to be judged on the accuracy of his Polar descriptions, while being recognized for having been the first to offer them in detail to the world – days, even weeks, ahead of Peary, who had the opportunity to read Cook’s narrative before releasing his own.”

Those points supporting Cook’s claim of reaching the Pole in 1908:

Experience and readiness for the journey: Cook had adopted many Eskimo methods of travel, and designed his own sledges and other equipment. He believed in the importance of a smaller party that traveled as light as possible, and lived off the land whenever possible. Experienced in Arctic travel, Cook was forty-three, in excellent shape, and had in his company for the trek to the Pole two of the most capable native hunters and sledge drivers in the region.

Proven ice traveler: For Cook to have traveled to and from the Pole, he would have gone approximately 2,680 miles. The uncontested part of the journey – that which Peary contended Cook’s natives confirmed – amounted to 1,640 miles. As Cook’s capacity for making a long, sustained journey in the Arctic cannot be in doubt, it could be concluded that he had the ability to travel the additional 1,040 miles to reach the Pole and return.

Original descriptions: With the passage of time, Cook’s original Polar descriptions have held up. At the time of his journey no one had seen the region between 87 degrees and 90 degrees North, and there was much speculation as to what would be found at the Pole, ranging from an open polar sea to land, even a new race of people. Upon his return, Cook described what he had seen; no land, a continuation of the Polar ice pack, a frozen ocean in a state of continuous motion and upheaval. Future accounts, including Peary’s narrative, agreed with Cook’s original descriptions.
Unknown westerly drift: Caught in heavy fog on his return from the Pole, Cook navigated by dead reckoning, allowing for what he anticipated would be a slight castward drift of the ice (previously reported in pack-ice north of Ellesmere). It was not then known that the drift in the area he was passing through was westerly. As a result, Cook and his companions were carried one hundred miles west of their plannedl andfall near their caches, and the resultant delay meant they were trapped by winter. This westward drift first reported by Cook – between thePole and 80 degrees North roughly along 100 degrees longitude - was confirmed by later explorers.

'With the passage of time, Cook’s original Polar descriptions have held up'

Ice islands: Cook reported seeing at 88 degrees North an unusual ice structure he described as flat-topped, and higher and thicker than sea ice, with an upper surface marked by undulations or waves. What Cook probably observed was an ice island, an Arctic feature never before reported. It was later discovered that ice islands are tabular masses of ice originating from the ice shelves that rim parts of the north coast of Ellesmere; when they break off, they drift into the Arctic Ocean between Alaska and the North Pole in a slow clockwise motion. Cook’s description of the “flat-topped” mass was largely forgotten until forty years later when several large ice islands of the same description were discovered during an aerial reconnaissance.

Credible and consistent narrative: Cook’s descriptions of his Polar trip have never been refuted, other than his reported sighting of Bradley Land. Some modern Arctic experts believed that in reporting Bradley Land and Crocker Land (about 150 miles apart), Cook and Peary, respectively, may have seen drifting ice islands. “Neither investigated their find at close range, “ reported Rear Admiral C. W. Thomas, a veteran of scientific work in the Arctic, some fifty years after the reported sightings in 1908 and 1909. Thomas thought it possible Cook and Peary had spotted the same ice island – “it is significant that no one has since seen either island.” Other than that exception, no other original Arctic description provided by Cook has ever been disproved.

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Copyright 2005 - The Frederick A. Cook Society