The Cook and Peary Expeditions: The History and Legacy of the Controversy over Who Reached the North Pole First

Written by Charles River Editors
Category: · History

*Includes pictures
*Includes contemporary accounts
*Includes online resources and a bibliography for further reading
*Includes a table of contents

“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.” – Frederick Albert Cook

“Whatever the truth is, the situation is as wonderful as the Pole, and whatever they found there, those explorers, they have left there a story as great as a continent.” – Lincoln Steffens

It is the dreamland of most children in Europe and the Americas, and the mysterious home of the mythical Santa Claus, his devoted wife Mrs. Claus, the reindeer and the many elves who make Christmas toys each year. In many ways, the North Pole is the first geographical location many kids learn, if only because children over the age of 3 can manage to tell any interested adult that Santa Claus lives there. In reality, of course, the North Pole proved to be as elusive for many brave explorers as jolly old Santa has been for children who wait up at night by the chimney.

The biggest problem, of course, is the North Pole’s unforgiving location, far from sunshine or any sort of natural warmth. Another problem, one that would only became obvious in the 20th Century, was that it is located not on any piece of stable land but in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, usually covered by ever shifting ice floes. Finally, without modern technological advances, it was nearly impossible to tell when one has actually reached the planet’s northernmost spot.

The controversy truly began on September 1, 1909, when the New York Herald printed a headline that told readers, “The North Pole is Discovered by Doctor Frederick A. Cook.” By mid-1909, almost everyone in the polar establishment believed that Frederick Cook was dead, since his expedition had not been seen or heard of for a year. Then, suddenly, the New York Herald broke the news – the indestructible Cook had returned to civilization, and what’s more, he had reached the North Pole. The newspapers hailed it as a great American achievement, and overnight Cook found himself a hero and a major celebrity. However, less than a week later, on September 7, 1909, a rival newspaper, the New York Times, published their own version: “Peary Discovers the North Pole After Eight Trials in 23 Years.”

Who was to be believed? The physical characteristics of the North Pole were known to none, so no viable comparisons could be made, and since the North Pole lay on a shifting continent of ice, its position might be in one place today and another tomorrow.

This has led to more than one argument about who actually made it and who did not; as historian E. Myles Standish put it, “Anyone who is acquainted with the facts and has any amount of logical reasoning can not avoid the conclusion that neither Cook, nor Peary, nor Byrd reached the North Pole; and they all knew it.” Those sentiments were echoed by Canadian explorer Richard Weber, who asserted, “We came to the conclusion that Peary never got anywhere near the Pole. On the ice, everything looks the same. I’m afraid we’d have been lost without a global positioning system.”

The Cook and Peary Expeditions: The History and Legacy of the Controversy over Who Reached the North Pole First chronicles the groundbreaking expeditions. Along with pictures of important people, places, and events, you will learn about the expeditions like never before.

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