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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
But now three other developments contributed to the discrediting of Cook. Ed Barrille, the guide who the Doctor claimed had accompanied him to the summit of Mount McKinley, asserted that he and Cook had not gone near the top, after all. Two other men, George Dunkle and August W. Loose, confessed to a representative of the New York Times that they had helped Cook concoct navigational data for the polar trip. Finally, a committee of experts appointed by the University of Copenhagen—to which Cook had submitted his polar “proof”—concluded that the documents sent by the Doctor were insufficient evidence for his claim.
At this juncture, Maurice F. Egan, the United States Minister to Denmark who had earlier expressed much confidence in Cook, became disenchanted.
“I am disappointed in the man,” he commented. “My daughter and other women who had seen him gained the greatest confidence in him, and we all felt chagrined when his records were discredited.”
Cook was not available for comment on Egan’s remarks. Shortly before the University of Copenhagen announced its decision, the Doctor disappeared—an action not to be expected from a man who had made an honest claim.
Peary, meanwhile, won general support, especially among geographical societies. He still had doubters, however, and he does to this day.
The most common argument against him concerned his speed across the ice. The average distance covered by Peary each day from Cape Columbia to the spot where Bob Bartlett turned back was 12.8 nautical miles. After that, Peary, accompanied only by Matthew Henson and the four Eskimos, increased the average to 26 nautical miles—or more. Average for the return from the Pole was 25.6 miles.
It seemed impossible that Peary could have done it. His speed brought him back to the Roosevelt within two days of Bartlett; yet after leaving Bartlett, Peary had been to the Pole and had remained in that vicinity for thirty hours before commencing the return journey.
To Peary’s credit, his plan had called for just such a dash from the most advanced base. The men who were to make it, especially Peary himself, had been spared much of the grueling earlier work. Other factors were the condition of the sea ice, which invariably improves as the distance from land increases; access to a broken trail, with igloos already constructed, for the return journey; and the services of a small, picked party with light sledges for the last part of the trip.
That still fails to answer the question of why Bartlett, who also led a small party, was so much slower on the return trip. Bartlett, however, did not have the pick of the Eskimos and the dogs that Peary enjoyed, and he was not an outstanding sledger anyway.
Vilhjalmur Stefansson, one of the foremost arctic experts living today, commented in 1958, “I see nothing fabulous about Peary’s speeds. I could have made them. Many others could have made them, and under the circumstances given.”
Peary himself had previously recorded faster sledging speeds, but most of his critics chose to ignore this. They also scoffed at the claim of a fifty-two-year-old man who reported accomplishing such an endurance feat; yet one year later he passed a Navy fitness test by walking twenty-five miles in six hours and—on the following day—twenty-five miles in seven and one half hours.
But the ridiculous controversy in which Peary became involved tarnished his polar triumph forever. For the rest of his life he was to be subjected to personal taunts by die-hard Cook supporters and by the numerous persons Peary had antagonized. Even worse was the widespread doubt expressed about his feat. But the explorer never gave any public indication of the distress this must have caused him, and he even strove to hide his feelings from his family. His last quoted declaration on the controversy came immediately after Cook’s records had been discredited by the University of Copenhagen.
“I have known the outcome of this since weeks before I reached this country on my return from the Pole,” Peary said, unsmilingly. “It was not a matter of beliefs with me but of absolute knowledge.”
Thereafter he was silent about Cook—even when, toward the end of 1910, the Doctor reappeared in the United States still maintaining that he had reached the Pole first. (Later, in 1923, Cook was convicted in United States District Court at Fort Worth, Texas, of mail fraud in connection with an oil promotion scheme,‣ but even that failed to silence him about the Pole.)
‣Cook’s defenders claimed that the oil lands eventually proved their worth. In any case, he served four years of a fourteen-year sentence, was paroled in 1929, and, during his final illness in 1940, received a full pardon from President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
After Congress in 1911 passed a bill retiring Peary as a rear admiral, he talked little about his arctic accomplishment and turned his interest to aviation. He advocated an emphasis on air power a full decade before General Billy Mitchell, its most publicized early exponent, made headlines. When Peary was tendered speaking engagements in those years, he frequently refused to discuss his trip to the North Pole, choosing instead to talk about airplanes.
During World War I he pursued his new interest by organizing the National Aerial Coast Patrol Commission, which led to the establishment of the first patrol unit at Huntington, Long Island. Through that agency more than three hundred aviators were also trained for war service.