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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
The main party had been on the ice about two weeks when the supporting divisions finally began turning back. First to return was a party commanded by Dr. J. W. Goodsell, expedition surgeon, which on March 14 had reached latitude 84 degrees 29 minutes north. Another assistant, Donald B. MacMillan, proceeded only a short distance farther before turning back on March 15. Five days later, Borup, who had rejoined Peary with additional supplies, led a party back from 85 degrees 23 minutes north. On March 26, a party commanded by a young Cornell professor, Ross Marvin, returned from 86 degrees 38 minutes.
The last supporting group to turn back was Bartlett’s. At 3 P.M. on April 1 it departed for land from 87 degrees 46 minutes 49 seconds—farther north than anyone else had yet traveled. As he left, Bartlett called out to Peary, “Good-by, good luck.”
Peary watched the captain and his two Eskimos start southward and finally disappear behind ice hummocks. Then he turned again toward the north. This was the moment for which he had been waiting: the Pole was apparently within reach, and he had with him a picked group—the Negro Henson, four Eskimos, forty of the best dogs, and five sledges. After a short sleep and a generous breakfast Peary departed soon after midnight, leaving the others to load the sleds and catch up.
The morning of April a was superb for traveling. The sky was a clear, brilliant blue, the temperature minus twenty-five degrees. The journey now turned into a dash. The nearer Peary got to the Pole the more possessed he became, rousing his men after brief naps and urging them to quicken their pace.
Then, on April 4, Peary encountered a lead 100 yards wide, bridged only by young ice. He observed it bend slightly underfoot, as salt-water ice will do, but he decided to risk a crossing. He himself went first, sliding his feet, keeping them far apart to distribute his weight. The others sent their sledges and dog teams across alone; then they followed. The last two men crossed on all fours. Peary later wrote: I watched them from the other side with my heart in my mouth—watched the ice bending under the weight of the sledges and the men. As one of the sledges neared the north side a runner cut clear through the ice, and I expected every moment that the whole thing, dogs and all, would go through … and down to the bottom.
They all crossed safely, however, and by 10 A.M. April 6, 1909, Peary estimated that he had reached his destination. While Henson and the Eskimos secured the dogs and commenced building igloos Peary began unloading and unpacking several bundles. Henson saw him pull out a small package from under his coat, open it, and unfurl the silk taffeta United States flag made by Mrs. Peary in 1898, which he always carried.
Peary fastened the flag to a staff and planted it firmly on top of his igloo. Then he took an observation of the sun and calculated his latitude—89 degrees 57 minutes ii seconds, about three nautical miles from the Pole. Henson saw him square his jaw.
“I was sure that he was satisfied,” Henson wrote. “Feeling that the time had come, I ungloved my right hand and went forward to congratulate him.”
At that moment, however, Peary pressed his hands over his eyes. He did not see Henson’s extended hand. “The accumulated weariness of all those days and nights of forced marches and insufficient sleep, constant peril and anxiety, seemed to roll across me all at once,” Peary remembered. “I was actually too exhausted to realize at the moment that my life’s purpose had been achieved.”
Later, he and Henson corroborated the first finding, and in his diary Peary could finally exult: The Pole at last. The prize of three centuries. My dream and goal for twenty years. Mine at last! I cannot bring myself to realize it. It seems all so simple and commonplace.
On September 1, 1909, Americans thrilled to some surprising news telegraphed from Lerwick, in the Shetland Islands. “ REACHED NORTH POLE APRIL 21, 1908 …” it announced. The telegram was not signed by Robert E. Peary but by Frederick A. Cookthe quiet, pleasant surgeon of Peary’s 1891 expedition. Apparently, if his telegram was to be believed, Cook had not only reached the North Pole, but had beaten the famous Peary to the goal—by almost a year.
In later messages Cook described his journey and explained his sixteen-month delay in announcing his feat to the world. From the northern tip of Axel Heiberg Island, 520 miles from the Pole, he had set out across the ice on March 18, 1908, with four Eskimos (two of whom accompanied him for only three marches), twenty-six dogs, and two sledges. After arriving at the Pole he raced southward. He said he reached land again on June 13, but that he lost his way and was forced to winter at Cape Sparbo, on Devon Island, living off the bleak country. Finally, in April, 1909—about the time Peary was reaching the Pole—he and the two Eskimos returned to their base in Greenland, traveled southward to Upernavik, and there arranged sea transportation to Copenhagen.
World adulation was still being showered on Cook when, on September 6, 1909, five days after the first message, another startling telegram came, this time from Indian Harbor, Labrador. “ STARS AND STRIPES NAILED TO THE POLE ,” the dispatch announced. It was signed, “ PEARY .”
Headlines proclaimed the astounding news: within five days of each other, two men had claimed discovery of the North Pole. So erupted one of the most vicious controversies in the annals of exploration.