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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 two principals could scarcely have been more dissimilar. Peary, forthright to a fault, radiated superiority and antagonized many strangers at first meeting. Cook, retiring though friendly, seemed self-effacing to a degree remarkable for an explorer who had just been to the Pole. Many persons who met Cook found themselves attracted to him and immediately wanted to help him.
Peary did not share this friendly sentiment. When he heard about Cook’s claim and the widespread acceptance given it, he was furious. In his usual blunt manner he declared that Cook was a liar; years of experience, of trial and failure, had demonstrated the impossibility of getting anywhere near the Pole with as few assistants and as little equipment as Cook said he had taken on his journey. Cook must have been on a hunting trip, Peary asserted, and the fact that the Doctor had been away from his Greenland base for fourteen months either meant that Cook had planned it that way or that he had indeed become lost, as he claimed.
Cook’s two Eskimo companions corroborated Peary. Before Peary left Greenland he had somehow learned of Cook’s claim and had instructed his assistants to question the two natives about their recent journey; both had declared they were never out of sight of land.
Peary now fired another dispatch to friends in the United States: Do not trouble about Cook’s story or attempt to explain any discrepancies in his installments. The affair will settle itself. He has not been to the Pole on April 21st, 1908, or at any other time. He has simply handed the public a gold brick …
Peary’s fierce tactics served only to shock and to antagonize most Americans. To them, calling a man a liar before he had been given a chance to submit proof seemed unfair. Besides, Cook was obviously a gentleman, for he had earlier congratulated his rival, saying, “That is good news. I hope Peary did get to the Pole. His observations and reports on that region will confirm mine.”
While the irate Peary continued to take violent verbal whacks at Cook—blows that in the public eye harmed the Commander more than his antagonistsome authorities began to study the Doctor’s story carefully, and they discovered weaknesses in it.
John Stockwell, a professor of astronomy, was one of the first to notice a flaw. He observed that in Cook’s original account, which appeared in the New York Herald , the Doctor had stated, “The night of April 7  was made notable by the swinging of the sun at midnight over the northern ice.” In the same article the Doctor gave his latitudinal position on April 6 as 86 degrees 36 minutes north.
Stockwell, using the Nautical Almanac and tables in Bowditch’s American Practical Navigator , showed that in the latitude Cook mentioned, the midnight sun would have been visible on April i and that if he really saw it first on April 7, he would have been at 82 degrees 5 minutes.
Cook, queried by reporters, calmly declared that he first noticed the midnight sun on April 7, but that it might have appeared several days previously, unnoticed because clouds and haze had obscured the horizon. In his book, My Attainment of the Pole , published later, Cook altered the part about the midnight sun: “The night of April 7,” he wrote, “was made notable by the swing of the sun at midnight, above the usual obscuring mist, behind which it had, during previous days, sunk with its night dip of splendor.”
Still another man expressed skepticism of Cook’s New York Herald story. He was journalist George Kennan, himself an experienced explorer whose travels in the arctic wastes of Siberia made him competent to render a knowledgeable opinion (see “A Year in Hell,” A MERICAN H ERITAGE , August, 1961). Distrusting the length of time Cook claimed to have been without supporting parties, Kennan began calculating. He noted that the Doctor said he had spent at least eightyfour days on the polar sea ice with the only food available having been carried on his two sledges.
Kennan also observed that in Cook’s fifth Herald article he had stated that he left land with 805 pounds of pemmican and 218 pounds of other foodstuffs. In the sixth installment Cook had said that he rationed men and dogs in his party to one pound of pemmican a day. Later, in My Attainment of the Pole , Cook was to revise these figures, but by using the original statistics Kennan estimated that this food supply would have lasted only forty-two days, even allowing for a reduction in the number of dogs as reported by Cook.
Cook also failed to take notice of the fact that there were (and still are) seals beneath the drifting ice of the polar sea. Had he done this, he could have answered Kennan by saying that his men and dogs ate seal meat. Instead, he did not answer Kennan at all and continued instead to rely on his strangely charming personality to win him support.