February 17, 1997
Who Reached North Pole First? Historian's Solutions
By WARREN E. LEARY
WASHINGTON -- It has been a question debated in the annals of
for almost 90 years. Who was the first man to reach the North Pole,
Robert E. Peary or Dr. Frederick A. Cook?
The answer may be neither of the above.
Robert M. Bryce, a historical researcher who spent 20 years
the great polar controversy, says evidence gleaned from the journals
diaries of the explorers themselves, as well as unpublished papers and
accounts of companions and others involved in the Arctic expeditions,
that neither man actually stood at the top of the world, though each
claimed he had.
The expedition papers of both men show that they made genuine
to reach the pole by dogsled in 1908 and 1909, he said, but were
by harsh Arctic conditions, like the moving ice packs on which they
forced to travel, as well as limitations of the navigational
of the time.
"Perhaps no one could have reached the true pole at that time,
the massive amounts of supplies that would have been needed, the
of the day and the conditions they encountered," Bryce said in an
"But neither man was willing to admit failure. So much was at stake."
In his book, "Cook & Peary: The Polar Controversy,
this week by Stackpole Books, Bryce contends that neither explorer made
his purportedly bogus claim based upon an honest mistake or
"The evidence points to both claims as frauds, and knowing fraud,"
said, "not self-deception, but purposeful."
In the history of geographic exploration, conquering the polar
was considered one of the last great prizes because of their
and the difficulty of the task. Those who dared became instant heroes,
with the promise of more fame and fortune for the successful.
The controversy over the North Pole began in September 1909,
and Cook emerged from the Arctic within five days of one another and
man cabled backers that he had reached the pole. Peary said he,
by two Eskimos and his assistant, Matthew Henson, attained the pole on
April 6, 1909. Cook, whose message got out to the world days before his
rival's, claimed he had reached the goal with two Eskimo companions
a year earlier, on April 21, 1908.
Each of the veteran explorers, and his supporters, immediately
the credibility of the other's claim, a public battle that included
on the character and veracity of the opponent. Peary's financial and
backers, including the National Geographic Society and The New York
supported his claim based on little more than his word and a cursory
of his records. Cook's advocates, including The New York Herald,
in on his behalf even though there were inconsistencies and gaps in his
expedition logs. The debate has continued since, with generally more
given to Peary's claim.
Bryce, a 50-year-old librarian and document preservation
expert at Montgomery
College in Germantown, Md., said his long interest in the controversy
him to begin work eight years ago on a Cook biography, which grew into
the current work. Several years ago, the Frederick A. Cook Society in
N.Y., asked Bryce to evaluate its document collection and report on its
preservation. The author was given access to Cook's personal papers and
the unrestricted right to publish excerpts from unpublished diaries and
papers, he said.
Bryce said he started out hoping to find evidence supporting
claim. The author said he felt Peary, whom he described as aloof, cold
and manipulative, and his influential backers, had been unfair to the
personable Cook. "I wanted Dr. Cook to win," he said. "Who would want
to win? He was so unlikable."
But the book does not prove to be Cook's vindication. In
explorer's journals and letters, as well as documents from other
of his polar expedition, Bryce found evidence that Cook had erased and
doctored entries. Four of Cook's surviving notebooks, preserved in the
Library of Congress, contained cross-referenced entries that refer to
missing notebooks. In making inquiries for his book, Bryce discovered
a photographic copy of one of these missing logs exists in the Danish
Cook submitted a notebook to support his claim to the
Copenhagen in January 1910, and it was returned to him a year later.
unknown to him, Bryce said, the Danes made a photographic copy of it
ended up forgotten in the Royal Astronomical Observation Library. The
full of erasures and crossovers, which Cook sent to Denmark with 17 of
its 176 pages missing, contains no "smoking gun" proving fraud, Bryce
but it reinforces doubts.
Bryce said missing and renumbered pages appear to coincide
by Cook's colleagues that he departed his Greenland base for his run to
the pole a week later than he later said he left. All dates in Cook's
account of his trip are based upon the earlier departure, Bryce said,
was necessary to support the explorer's claim that he returned from the
pole before the winter ice broke and made travel impossible.
Cook apparently was adjusting dates to match purported
Bryce said, including the claimed sightings of Arctic land masses that
do not exist.
Russell W. Gibbons, executive director of the Cook Society,
are many Arctic experts who have not completely ruled out Cook's polar
claim, and find the account of his expedition more convincing than the
one by Peary. Gibbons said he had seen some advanced pages from Bryce's
book and not the final version, but questioned the author's assertion
the controversy was now resolved.
"I find it hard to believe that this is the final word,"
"You'll never get a final word in any historical debate like this. I
to be a Cook partisan and don't think much of the credibility of
Will Steger, who in 1986 led a team of six explorers who
first since the Cook-Peary era to reach the North Pole assisted only by
dogs, also said the controversy never will be resolved.
"You see a book like this every decade or so and realize there
so much you can learn from studying writings," Steger said in a
interview. "You need to experience ice with dogs to see what could or
not have been done."
The explorer, who studied the books of his predecessors, said
at Cook's innovative sled design, one that could fold into a kayak,
that it never would have held up with the loads it was supposed to have
carried. Peary, who Steger said did himself an injustice by failing to
disclose enough details about his trip, probably could have come close
to the pole in the way he described, he said.
If neither Peary nor Cook made it to the pole, then the first
to actually set foot there was Joseph Fletcher, who stepped off an Air
Force C-47 plane that landed at the pole in 1952.
Supporters of Peary also attacked Cook's credibility about the
expedition because of an earlier claim that he was the first to climb
Mount McKinley in 1906. Critics attacked as fake photographs that Cook
said had been taken at the summit and Ed Barrill, Cook's companion,
recanted his corroboration of the feat after being paid to do so.
Bryce said the recently recovered expedition diary of the
his discovery of Barrill's original diary and finding an uncropped
of an important summit photograph that showed it was taken on another
prove conclusively that Cook faked the Mount McKinley claim.
Peary's claim to have reached the North Pole fares little
that of his rival, Bryce said. There have been five books in recent
casting doubts on whether the naval officer reached the pole, according
to the author. Bryce said his reading of the evidence also concludes
Peary probably did not get within 100 miles of his target, despite a
study by the Navigation Foundation, underwritten by the National
Society, that concluded the explorer was no more than five miles from
goal, based upon a re-examination of photographs and ocean depth
taken in 1909.
Bryce said his book on Cook ended up dwelling a lot on Peary.
and Cook are like Siamese twins," he said. "If you separate them, you
some vital parts of each. You can't look at one and not the other."
Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company