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Peary Or Cook: Who Discovered The North Pole?
Almost simultaneously two men claimed to have attained a goal that explorers had striven toward for centuries. There were strong hints that one of them was an impostor
April 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 3
Five years later, in 1891, he returned to Greenland. The lives of four of the seven members of this second expedition were to become permanently entwined. They were Peary; his wife, Josephine, whom he had married in 1888 and who, on lhis trip, became the first Caucasian woman to brave an arctic winter; Matthew Henson, a twenty-lhree-year-old Negro who was Peary’s general helper on all later explorations; and Dr. Frederick A. Cook, twenty-six, the expedition’s surgeon and ethnologist.
Of the four, the quiet but genial Cook was perhaps the least striking; and yet, in view of later events, he is worth attention. As a result of his work with Peary in the arctic, Cook became an explorer himself. A few years aller the Greenland venture, the Doctor joined a Belgian antarctic expedition as surgeon; in 1906 he served as co-leader of an expedition to scale then-unclimbed Mount McKinley and announced that he had reached the summit—a claim which many doubted, for Cook had never really substantiated it. And even as Peary and Captain Bob Bartlett stood observing the sea ice from the snowy bluff at Cape Columbia on February 28, 1909, Cook was also somewhere in the arctic. In 1907, one year before Peary’s eighth expedition departed, he had sailed from the United States for what was at the time described as a hunting trip. Later some persons had said that Cook was bound for the Pole, and Peary himself had heard this talk. He gave it little credence, however, for Cook possessed neither the experience nor the equipment necessary for such an undertaking. Peary felt certain he knew Cook’s whereabouts: the Doctor must be in Ellesmere Island, and he was either hunting or he was lost. In August of 1908, when Peary’s northbound expedition ship had visited Etah, an Eskimo settlement on the west coast of Greenland, he had come across Cook’s supply base and learned that Cook and some Eskimos had crossed frozen Smith Sound to Ellesmere Island.
But all this was years away in 1892, when Peary’s second Greenland expedition returned to the United States and Peary and Cook parted.
In 1893-95 Peary returned to Greenland; he made two other brief voyages there during the summers of 1896 and 1897, accumulating thousands of tidal and meteorological observations and mapping the unsurveyed areas he visited. But his eye was always on the Pole.
In 1898 he departed on a four-year expedition that was to represent his first serious effort to journey to the mythical point. Despite a heroic effort, he did not enjoy success, for the terrible pack ice of the Arctic Ocean defeated him.
In the spring of 1906 he failed once more, but during that expedition he reached a latitude of 87 degrees 6 minutes north—a point on the frozen ocean 174 miles from the Pole—before near-exhaustion, lack of supplies, a dwindling number of dogs, and frequent open water forced him to retreat.
Each of these failures had increased Peary’s determination and wisdom proportionately. They had also changed his appearance, although from a distance it was not evident. He stood erect, and this—in addition to his frank, commanding manner—made him seem taller than his six feet. No physical giant, he nevertheless appeared hard and slender. A long, thick mustache like Kaiser Wilhelm’s, along with wavy auburn hair and a high forehead, always made him easily distinguishable in a crowd. Only close up was it possible to see that the arctic had left its marks. Peary’s ruddy face had been drawn by the indescribably cold weather he had endured; its deep lines were indicative of many bitter years.
At the same time, those years had seen him become increasingly withdrawn and uncommunicative, though when he did speak, his words were pertinent and frank, sometimes to a fault. His tongue was sharp, his temper short, and his self-assurance so monumental that at moments it amounted to downright arrogance. As one close acquaintance commented: If Peary has ever erred in his leadership, it has been on the side of splendid self-sufficiency which needs no advice and seeks no sympathy. Having his purpose clearly in mind, he perhaps came to think of his men as instruments, to be used with cold precision to the accomplishment of certain purposes clearly perceived by the master mind.
Now, in 1909, as he prepared to set out again for the elusive Pole, Peary must have been painfully aware that time was running short. He was already well into middle age, and it seemed questionable whether even his hardy physique could stand the rigors ahead. Years later, Captain Bartlett described those final moments on the bluffs of Cape Columbia, as the two explorers surveyed the frozen ocean which they hoped to conquer.
“Peary said little,” Bartlett recalled. “I think he knew this was his last try …”
Bartlett’s “pioneer party” departed on February 28 as soon as there was enough daylight for traveling. Two hours later, George Borup, an athletic young Yale man, followed with another group. Borup had been instructed to make three marches north, drop his supplies, and return to the base camp for another load.
On the following morning, March i, the rest of the expedition was to move out. When Peary awoke, however, he heard the sound of a fierce wind blowing outside his igloo. Through a peephole he observed that the sky was clear, but that a powerful wind was blowing from the east.