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February 17, 1997

Who Reached North Pole First? Historian's Solutions


WASHINGTON -- It has been a question debated in the annals of exploration for almost 90 years. Who was the first man to reach the North Pole, Adm. 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 studying the great polar controversy, says evidence gleaned from the journals and diaries of the explorers themselves, as well as unpublished papers and accounts of companions and others involved in the Arctic expeditions, prove that neither man actually stood at the top of the world, though each man claimed he had.

The expedition papers of both men show that they made genuine attempts to reach the pole by dogsled in 1908 and 1909, he said, but were thwarted by harsh Arctic conditions, like the moving ice packs on which they were forced to travel, as well as limitations of the navigational instruments of the time.

"Perhaps no one could have reached the true pole at that time, with the massive amounts of supplies that would have been needed, the instruments of the day and the conditions they encountered," Bryce said in an interview. "But neither man was willing to admit failure. So much was at stake."

In his book, "Cook & Peary: The Polar Controversy, Resolved," published this week by Stackpole Books, Bryce contends that neither explorer made his purportedly bogus claim based upon an honest mistake or misconception. "The evidence points to both claims as frauds, and knowing fraud," Bryce said, "not self-deception, but purposeful."

In the history of geographic exploration, conquering the polar regions was considered one of the last great prizes because of their inaccessibility 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, when Peary and Cook emerged from the Arctic within five days of one another and each man cabled backers that he had reached the pole. Peary said he, accompanied 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 almost a year earlier, on April 21, 1908.

Each of the veteran explorers, and his supporters, immediately attacked the credibility of the other's claim, a public battle that included assaults on the character and veracity of the opponent. Peary's financial and professional backers, including the National Geographic Society and The New York Times, supported his claim based on little more than his word and a cursory investigation of his records. Cook's advocates, including The New York Herald, weighed in on his behalf even though there were inconsistencies and gaps in his expedition logs. The debate has continued since, with generally more credence 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 led 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 Hurleyville, 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 Cook's claim. The author said he felt Peary, whom he described as aloof, cold and manipulative, and his influential backers, had been unfair to the more personable Cook. "I wanted Dr. Cook to win," he said. "Who would want Peary to win? He was so unlikable."

But the book does not prove to be Cook's vindication. In examining the explorer's journals and letters, as well as documents from other members 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 two missing notebooks. In making inquiries for his book, Bryce discovered that a photographic copy of one of these missing logs exists in the Danish National Archives.

Cook submitted a notebook to support his claim to the University of Copenhagen in January 1910, and it was returned to him a year later. But unknown to him, Bryce said, the Danes made a photographic copy of it that ended up forgotten in the Royal Astronomical Observation Library. The notebook full of erasures and crossovers, which Cook sent to Denmark with 17 of its 176 pages missing, contains no "smoking gun" proving fraud, Bryce said, but it reinforces doubts.

Bryce said missing and renumbered pages appear to coincide with reports 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 official account of his trip are based upon the earlier departure, Bryce said, which 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 observations, Bryce said, including the claimed sightings of Arctic land masses that do not exist.

Russell W. Gibbons, executive director of the Cook Society, said there 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 that the controversy was now resolved.

"I find it hard to believe that this is the final word," Gibbons said, "You'll never get a final word in any historical debate like this. I tend to be a Cook partisan and don't think much of the credibility of Peary."

Will Steger, who in 1986 led a team of six explorers who became the 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 is only so much you can learn from studying writings," Steger said in a telephone interview. "You need to experience ice with dogs to see what could or could not have been done."

The explorer, who studied the books of his predecessors, said a look at Cook's innovative sled design, one that could fold into a kayak, suggests 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 person 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 polar expedition because of an earlier claim that he was the first to climb Alaska's Mount McKinley in 1906. Critics attacked as fake photographs that Cook said had been taken at the summit and Ed Barrill, Cook's companion, later recanted his corroboration of the feat after being paid to do so.

Bryce said the recently recovered expedition diary of the climb, and his discovery of Barrill's original diary and finding an uncropped version of an important summit photograph that showed it was taken on another peak prove conclusively that Cook faked the Mount McKinley claim.

Peary's claim to have reached the North Pole fares little better than that of his rival, Bryce said. There have been five books in recent years casting doubts on whether the naval officer reached the pole, according to the author. Bryce said his reading of the evidence also concludes that Peary probably did not get within 100 miles of his target, despite a 1989 study by the Navigation Foundation, underwritten by the National Geographic Society, that concluded the explorer was no more than five miles from his goal, based upon a re-examination of photographs and ocean depth measurements taken in 1909.

Bryce said his book on Cook ended up dwelling a lot on Peary. "Peary and Cook are like Siamese twins," he said. "If you separate them, you lose some vital parts of each. You can't look at one and not the other."

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company

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