Peary Or Cook: Who Discovered The North Pole?

PrintPrintEmailEmail

In the dim morning light of Sunday, February 28, 1909, two men stood on a snowy bluff at Cape Columbia, a bleak promontory at the extreme northern end of Ellesmere Island. With narrowed eyes they gazed northward, across the Arctic Ocean toward the Pole, 413 nautical miles away.

The ice was the object of their observations. Below them, it extended endlessly toward the horizon, with no sign of water. To most persons the sight would have been forbidding, but to the two men it brought a sense of relief: they could see no open water to hinder them during the early part of their journey toward the North Geographic Pole.

The two men thus occupied were Robert E. Peary, fifty-two, a commander in the United States Navy, and Robert A. Bartlett, thirty-three, a Newfoundlander who was master of Peary’s North Pole Expedition ship, the Roosevelt . This was the day for Bartlett’s advance party to begin its hazardous journey across the ice, breaking trail for Peary’s main group. Satisfied that no obstacle lay immediately ahead, Peary and Kartlett began the descent to their last land encampment, a cluster of half a dozen snowhouses at the foot of the bluff.

Peary had massed his men and supplies at this location, for Cape Columbia offered the fixed land base closest to the Pole. From it extended one of the most rigid ice packs in the Arctic Ocean. Peary’s plan was to divide his force of Eskimos, dogs, and sledges into five supporting parties—in addition to his own groupeach to be commanded by one of his assistants. These supporting divisions, after breaking trail and providing supplies, were to return to land one by one, leaving only Peary’s party, which would make the supreme effort to reach the North Pole.

This planning was the result of years of experience, for Peary’s current expedition was his eighth to the Far North during a period of almost twenty-three years. His interest in the arctic had considerably antedated his first expedition, however, for his curiosiu had been aroused while he was a child.

In those long-ago years young Peary, the only son of a widowed mother, had reveled in accounts of the adventures of the arctic explorer Elisha Kent Kane, often reading them before the fireplace while a blizzard whirled and shrieked outside his Maine home. Later, alter graduation from Bowdoin College and his commissioning as a lieutenant in the Civil Engineer Corps of the Navy, his interest in the arctic had persisted. One day in 1884, while bound for a tour of duty in Nicaragua, his ship had passed San Salvador. Entranced, Peary gazed toward the island that was said to be Columbus’ landfall in the New World. Then he made a significant entry in his diary. The birthplace of the New World, he wrote, was “purple against the yellow sunset, as it was almost four hundred years ago when it smiled a welcome to a man whose fame can be equalled only by him who shall one day stand with 360 degrees of longitude beneath his motionless feet and for whom the East and West shall have vanished— the discoverer of the North Pole.”

Many men before Peary had dreamed of reaching the Pole—ever since Robert Thorne, in the time of King Henry VIII, had offered “very weighty and substantial reasons to set forth a discoverie even to the North Pole.” Across four centuries, thousands of men in expeditions equipped by various nations had pushed their way northward—first with the hope of finding a northwest or northeast passage to China and the Indies, later with the desire of attaining the Pole simply to see what was at that elusive spot. During the first three centuries of this effort British explorers had led all others, consistently holding the “farthest north” records, except for the period 1594-1606 when they yielded temporarily to the Dutch. But in 1882 an American, James Booth Lockwood, had struggled farther north than any other man—to latitude 83 degrees 24 minutes—and had stolen the laurels from the British. By that time at least 750 men in forty-two expeditions representing many countries had died while engaged in northern explorations, but this dismal fact failed to rouse Peary from his dream.

In Nicaragua Peary served for the better part of one year as subchief of the Inter-Ocean Canal Survey, managing half-civilized workers, equipping expeditions, and traversing wild territory. Paradoxical as it seems in that climate, he must have envisioned himself doing the same sort of work in the arctic, for his interest in the Far North never waned during this time. But it was not until he returned to Washington in 1885 that he finally decided on a career of arctic exploration.

“One evening,” he remembered, in one of my favorite haunts, an old book-store in Washington, I came upon a fugitive paper on the Inland Ice of Greenland. A chord, which as a boy had vibrated intensely in me at the reading of Kane’s wonderful book [ Arctic Explorations , one of the great best sellers of the nineteenth century], was touched again. I read all I could on the subject, noted the conflicting experiences of Nordenskj’feld, Jensen, and the rest, and felt that I must see for myself what the truth was of this great mysterious interior.

After that, Peary’s curiosity about the arctic became insatiable. In 1886 he obtained a leave of absence from the Navy and led a ihree-month expedition to Greenland, reconnoitaring the icecap east of Disko Bay.