Skip to main content

Peary Or Cook: Who Discovered The North Pole?

July 2024
20min read

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

In the dim morning light of Sunday, February 28, 1909, two men stood on a snowy bluff at Cape Columbia, a bleak promontory at the extreme northern end of Ellesmere Island. With narrowed eyes they gazed northward, across the Arctic Ocean toward the Pole, 413 nautical miles away.

The ice was the object of their observations. Below them, it extended endlessly toward the horizon, with no sign of water. To most persons the sight would have been forbidding, but to the two men it brought a sense of relief: they could see no open water to hinder them during the early part of their journey toward the North Geographic Pole.

The two men thus occupied were Robert E. Peary, fifty-two, a commander in the United States Navy, and Robert A. Bartlett, thirty-three, a Newfoundlander who was master of Peary’s North Pole Expedition ship, the Roosevelt . This was the day for Bartlett’s advance party to begin its hazardous journey across the ice, breaking trail for Peary’s main group. Satisfied that no obstacle lay immediately ahead, Peary and Kartlett began the descent to their last land encampment, a cluster of half a dozen snowhouses at the foot of the bluff.

Peary had massed his men and supplies at this location, for Cape Columbia offered the fixed land base closest to the Pole. From it extended one of the most rigid ice packs in the Arctic Ocean. Peary’s plan was to divide his force of Eskimos, dogs, and sledges into five supporting parties—in addition to his own groupeach to be commanded by one of his assistants. These supporting divisions, after breaking trail and providing supplies, were to return to land one by one, leaving only Peary’s party, which would make the supreme effort to reach the North Pole.

This planning was the result of years of experience, for Peary’s current expedition was his eighth to the Far North during a period of almost twenty-three years. His interest in the arctic had considerably antedated his first expedition, however, for his curiosiu had been aroused while he was a child.

In those long-ago years young Peary, the only son of a widowed mother, had reveled in accounts of the adventures of the arctic explorer Elisha Kent Kane, often reading them before the fireplace while a blizzard whirled and shrieked outside his Maine home. Later, alter graduation from Bowdoin College and his commissioning as a lieutenant in the Civil Engineer Corps of the Navy, his interest in the arctic had persisted. One day in 1884, while bound for a tour of duty in Nicaragua, his ship had passed San Salvador. Entranced, Peary gazed toward the island that was said to be Columbus’ landfall in the New World. Then he made a significant entry in his diary. The birthplace of the New World, he wrote, was “purple against the yellow sunset, as it was almost four hundred years ago when it smiled a welcome to a man whose fame can be equalled only by him who shall one day stand with 360 degrees of longitude beneath his motionless feet and for whom the East and West shall have vanished— the discoverer of the North Pole.”

Many men before Peary had dreamed of reaching the Pole—ever since Robert Thorne, in the time of King Henry VIII, had offered “very weighty and substantial reasons to set forth a discoverie even to the North Pole.” Across four centuries, thousands of men in expeditions equipped by various nations had pushed their way northward—first with the hope of finding a northwest or northeast passage to China and the Indies, later with the desire of attaining the Pole simply to see what was at that elusive spot. During the first three centuries of this effort British explorers had led all others, consistently holding the “farthest north” records, except for the period 1594-1606 when they yielded temporarily to the Dutch. But in 1882 an American, James Booth Lockwood, had struggled farther north than any other man—to latitude 83 degrees 24 minutes—and had stolen the laurels from the British. By that time at least 750 men in forty-two expeditions representing many countries had died while engaged in northern explorations, but this dismal fact failed to rouse Peary from his dream.

In Nicaragua Peary served for the better part of one year as subchief of the Inter-Ocean Canal Survey, managing half-civilized workers, equipping expeditions, and traversing wild territory. Paradoxical as it seems in that climate, he must have envisioned himself doing the same sort of work in the arctic, for his interest in the Far North never waned during this time. But it was not until he returned to Washington in 1885 that he finally decided on a career of arctic exploration.

“One evening,” he remembered, in one of my favorite haunts, an old book-store in Washington, I came upon a fugitive paper on the Inland Ice of Greenland. A chord, which as a boy had vibrated intensely in me at the reading of Kane’s wonderful book [ Arctic Explorations , one of the great best sellers of the nineteenth century], was touched again. I read all I could on the subject, noted the conflicting experiences of Nordenskj’feld, Jensen, and the rest, and felt that I must see for myself what the truth was of this great mysterious interior.

After that, Peary’s curiosity about the arctic became insatiable. In 1886 he obtained a leave of absence from the Navy and led a ihree-month expedition to Greenland, reconnoitaring the icecap east of Disko Bay.

Five years later, in 1891, he returned to Greenland. The lives of four of the seven members of this second expedition were to become permanently entwined. They were Peary; his wife, Josephine, whom he had married in 1888 and who, on lhis trip, became the first Caucasian woman to brave an arctic winter; Matthew Henson, a twenty-lhree-year-old Negro who was Peary’s general helper on all later explorations; and Dr. Frederick A. Cook, twenty-six, the expedition’s surgeon and ethnologist.

Of the four, the quiet but genial Cook was perhaps the least striking; and yet, in view of later events, he is worth attention. As a result of his work with Peary in the arctic, Cook became an explorer himself. A few years aller the Greenland venture, the Doctor joined a Belgian antarctic expedition as surgeon; in 1906 he served as co-leader of an expedition to scale then-unclimbed Mount McKinley and announced that he had reached the summit—a claim which many doubted, for Cook had never really substantiated it. And even as Peary and Captain Bob Bartlett stood observing the sea ice from the snowy bluff at Cape Columbia on February 28, 1909, Cook was also somewhere in the arctic. In 1907, one year before Peary’s eighth expedition departed, he had sailed from the United States for what was at the time described as a hunting trip. Later some persons had said that Cook was bound for the Pole, and Peary himself had heard this talk. He gave it little credence, however, for Cook possessed neither the experience nor the equipment necessary for such an undertaking. Peary felt certain he knew Cook’s whereabouts: the Doctor must be in Ellesmere Island, and he was either hunting or he was lost. In August of 1908, when Peary’s northbound expedition ship had visited Etah, an Eskimo settlement on the west coast of Greenland, he had come across Cook’s supply base and learned that Cook and some Eskimos had crossed frozen Smith Sound to Ellesmere Island.

But all this was years away in 1892, when Peary’s second Greenland expedition returned to the United States and Peary and Cook parted.

In 1893-95 Peary returned to Greenland; he made two other brief voyages there during the summers of 1896 and 1897, accumulating thousands of tidal and meteorological observations and mapping the unsurveyed areas he visited. But his eye was always on the Pole.

In 1898 he departed on a four-year expedition that was to represent his first serious effort to journey to the mythical point. Despite a heroic effort, he did not enjoy success, for the terrible pack ice of the Arctic Ocean defeated him.

In the spring of 1906 he failed once more, but during that expedition he reached a latitude of 87 degrees 6 minutes north—a point on the frozen ocean 174 miles from the Pole—before near-exhaustion, lack of supplies, a dwindling number of dogs, and frequent open water forced him to retreat.

Each of these failures had increased Peary’s determination and wisdom proportionately. They had also changed his appearance, although from a distance it was not evident. He stood erect, and this—in addition to his frank, commanding manner—made him seem taller than his six feet. No physical giant, he nevertheless appeared hard and slender. A long, thick mustache like Kaiser Wilhelm’s, along with wavy auburn hair and a high forehead, always made him easily distinguishable in a crowd. Only close up was it possible to see that the arctic had left its marks. Peary’s ruddy face had been drawn by the indescribably cold weather he had endured; its deep lines were indicative of many bitter years.

At the same time, those years had seen him become increasingly withdrawn and uncommunicative, though when he did speak, his words were pertinent and frank, sometimes to a fault. His tongue was sharp, his temper short, and his self-assurance so monumental that at moments it amounted to downright arrogance. As one close acquaintance commented: If Peary has ever erred in his leadership, it has been on the side of splendid self-sufficiency which needs no advice and seeks no sympathy. Having his purpose clearly in mind, he perhaps came to think of his men as instruments, to be used with cold precision to the accomplishment of certain purposes clearly perceived by the master mind.

Now, in 1909, as he prepared to set out again for the elusive Pole, Peary must have been painfully aware that time was running short. He was already well into middle age, and it seemed questionable whether even his hardy physique could stand the rigors ahead. Years later, Captain Bartlett described those final moments on the bluffs of Cape Columbia, as the two explorers surveyed the frozen ocean which they hoped to conquer.

“Peary said little,” Bartlett recalled. “I think he knew this was his last try …”

Bartlett’s “pioneer party” departed on February 28 as soon as there was enough daylight for traveling. Two hours later, George Borup, an athletic young Yale man, followed with another group. Borup had been instructed to make three marches north, drop his supplies, and return to the base camp for another load.

On the following morning, March i, the rest of the expedition was to move out. When Peary awoke, however, he heard the sound of a fierce wind blowing outside his igloo. Through a peephole he observed that the sky was clear, but that a powerful wind was blowing from the east.

Peary was fully aware of the dangers: wind would not only open “leads” of water in the fro/en sea; it usually meant bad weather. It also could indict acute distress on a traveler, hurling ice particles and snow against his flesh; under those conditions a man would often put his hand to his face and find blood.

Nevertheless, Peary ordered his men to dress—in the new furs especially prepared for the trip—and shortly after 6 A.M. the main party began the northward journey. Peary and his Eskimos were the last to leave.

Talking was futile: voices could not be heard over the roaring arctic wind. Still, traveling was fairly easy for the first quarter of a mile, until men and dogs plunged into ice so rough that Peary’s Eskimos were forced to chop a path with pickaxes, even though all other divisions of the main party had just preceded them through the same area.

One hour after Peary’s division had left camp the entire expedition was on the Arctic Ocean ice—24 men, 19 sledges, and 133 dogs. When they left the shelter of land they felt the wind at its fullest intensity—and a temperature of fifty degrees below zero, Fahrenheit. Brandy in a bottle under Peary’s deerskin coal froze solid. The trail was visible, however, and with heads bowed and eyes half-closed the men followed it. Frequently they were forced to push the sledges over huge pressure ridges until their muscles ached and exhaustion seemed imminent. As Peary pushed forward, he met one Eskimo, then another, hurrying back to his base camp with empty sledges smashed so badly on the rough ice that it was considered easier to send back for replacements than to repair them. Peary admonished both Eskimos not to waste a moment.

Soon Peary came upon men who had been forced to halt to repair other sledges. Matthew Henson, his Negro assistant, had been especially plagued by this difficulty. Henson discovered that working on his sledge in the arctic weather was a dreadful experience, for part of the job required bare hands. When Henson felt his fingers beginning to freeze he pulled his hand up through the sleeve and held it in his armpit until a burning sensation told him his fingers were thawing. Then he resumed his work until he had to repeat the process a ICMV minutes later.

After a full day of such interruptions the main parly readied Bart let l’s first (amp. The men fed the dogs and retired Io their igloos for a supper of frozen pemmican and hot tea. Once inside, they discovered that their breath had condensed and frozen Io their fur hoods. Cheeks and noses had to be carefully thawed. The igloos were comparatively snug, but outside the wind continued to shriek over the dark, rugged ice.

The second day began cold and cloudy. The wind continued to blow furiously from the east. Hot tea lotbreakfast provided some cheer for the men, but the frozen pcmmican cut their mouths. At (6:30 A.M. Henson’s division departed, Peary’s group again leaving last. This was according to plan: from the rear he could determine whether the expedition was making normal progress, and he could watch for stragglers. Moreover, in this way he could also save himself for the final dash.

Three quarters of the second day’s march had been completed when Peary observed on the northern horizon a dark cloud—the kind which in that far northern latitude always means open water, for it is created by vapor rising from the warmer water into a frigid atmosphere. As Peary approached, he could make out black s])ots on the ice: they were the men. dogs, and sledges of his various divisions. When he joined (hem he found a lane of open water about a quarter of a mile wide. The wind had been doing its mischief. Bart lett and Borup were not there. They had been able Io traverse the area before the lead appeared.

The Eskimos built four igloos, one for each division, and Peary settled down to a restless sleep. When, he asked himself, would the lead close? Before daylight the next morning he had his answer. A frightful grinding noise told him that the lead was crushing together. He grabbed a hatchet and pounded the ice floor of his igloo, signaling division leaders in the other three snowhouses to get their men up at once. After bolting a meager breakfast they were out, at first daylight, hurrying sledges across the narrowing lead on young ice that was moving, crushing, and piling up. It was like crossing a river on a succession of giant shingles, all alloat and moving.

On the following day Peary observed, ten or filteen miles ahead, another ominous black band of vapor extending across his course. But the trail was easy to follow, and the main party made good progress.

Peary’s concern increased with each mile covered. The cloud on the northern horizon grew larger until it seemed almost overhead. At that point the main party came upon Barlett’s camp, near the edge of a wide lead. Borup, after dumping his supplies, had returned to the base camp but had lost the trail temporarily and thus had missed meeting Peary.

From an ice pinnacle Peary studied the lead. At least a quarter of a mile wide, it extended east and west as far as he could see. The next morning, March 5, Peary observed the lead narrowing somewhat. Then it opened wider than ever, leaving a ribbon of water in the center of the young ice that had begun forming. Two days passed. Three. Four. Five. Still the lead blocked advance. But finally, on March 11, the lead froze sufficiently to afford a crossing, and Peary rushed his men across.

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.

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 [1908] 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.

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.

After the armistice Peary’s health failed. His final public appearance came in January, 1919, at a National Geographic Society program honoring Stefansson for his arctic explorations. Later that year Peary wrote his last article; in it he stated, “The next war will be fought and won in the air.”

He died on February 20, 1920, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Covering the casket on its trip to the place of burial was the flag that Mrs. Peary had made for her husband years before—the flag he had carried on all his arctic trips and the one he had planted on top of the igloo at the North Pole.

John Edward Weems is associated with the University of Texas Press. He is the author of a book on the Peary-Cook controversy, Race for the Pole, published by Henry Holt.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.