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100 Years Since Peary Reached the North Pole, if He Did

April 2, 2009 by Reader's Connection

On April 6, 1909, Robert Edward Peary and his team became the first human beings to visit the North Pole. Or so said Peary. There has been much dispute as to whether they were at the North Pole; and Doctor Frederick Cook claimed to have beat him out, anyway, by reaching the pole in 1908.

If you read just one of these books, you may feel that the controversies have been settled. But gathered together like this, they give the impression that the arguments are raging on. Indeed, different reviewers of these books can’t agree. For example, I have chosen an anti-Cook review for this first (pro-Cook, anti-Peary) book, True North. But if you click on the title or the cover art and go to the library’s record, and then click on Reviews, you’ll find some opinions that are more favorable.

True North

True North: Peary, Cook, and the Race to the Pole by Bruce Henderson (2005)

Henderson uses the same arguments Frederick Cook advanced in 1911 to support his claim to have beaten Robert Peary to the North Pole in 1908, and repeats the substance of Andrew Freeman’s The Case for Doctor Cook (1961), which has set the pattern for pro-Cook advocacy ever since. Henderson makes no reference to the scholarly examination of Cook’s personal papers, available since 1990, which revealed doctored diaries and faked photographs that show that Cook’s claims to attaining the Pole and climbing Mount McKinley were conscious frauds made possible by embellishing his genuine experiences as a pioneer explorer of Alaska and the Polar Regions. Except for material derived from Cook’s unpublished memoirs, which introduce many completely false recollections into Henderson’s narrative, nearly every primary source cited here has appeared verbatim in previous secondary accounts. Furthermore, some of Henderson’s citations are pure fabrications. Worst, Cook’s baffling mentality as one of the world’s greatest fabulists goes virtually unexamined, even though it lies at the heart of the Polar Controversy and the arguments that have surrounded it for nearly 100 years. Uninformed and out-of-date, True North contains many statements and implications already proven false. — Choice

Hero in Disgrace: The Life of Arctic Explorer Frederick A. Cook by Howard S. Abramson, was published in 1991, which may mean that its author, while working on the book, didn’t have access to the above-mentioned “personal papers” which according to Choice’s critic were made available in 1990. In any case, this is another pro-Cook, anti-Peary book. I’ve chosen a more-or-less pro-Cook review, this time, but other, sometimes scathing, views are available. An intensely emotional biography of one of America’s foremost polar explorers. Not only was Cook the first person to reach the peak of Mt. Denali (formerly Mt. McKinley), but according to an analysis of old and new evidence, also the first to plant a flag at the North Pole, in the year 1908. Abramson details the bitterly fought controversy between Cook and popular claimant Admiral Robert E. Peary who was, until very recently, hailed by long-time supporters at National Geographic as the first to reach the North Pole. Were it not so convincingly documented by the author, it would be hard to believe the calculating way in which Cook’s claim was ripped apart by Peary’s powerful backers, including the New York Times . The narrative moves along quickly, and the documentation seems to be solid. Abramson, however, makes little attempt to be impartial, and his disdain for Peary becomes more and more apparent as he unfolds the drama of Cook’s life. The point is that history tends to remember not the victor but the man with the best press. This book is an attempt to set the record straight.–School Library Journal


 And now a new pro-Peary book (2009, currently on order), which critics seem to enjoy, even if they aren’t sure that author Avery has really vindicated Peary. 

To the End of the Earth

To the End of the Earth: Our Epic Journey to the North Pole and the Legend of Peary and Henson by Tom Avery

 A British explorer follows the path to True North and runs into a still-raging polar controversy.In 1909, Commander Robert E. Peary capped his brilliant exploring career by reaching the North Pole in a remarkable 37 days, only to return home to find his American countryman, Frederick Cook, a member of previous Peary expeditions, claiming priority. Newspapers and the fractious polar community quickly took sides and, though Cook’s claim was eventually discredited, controversy surrounding Peary’s achievement has yet to evaporate. Sir Wally Herbert, the first man to make a surface crossing of the Arctic Ocean, in 1969, dealt a seemingly mortal blow to Peary’s title as conqueror of the North Pole with his publication of The Noose of Laurels (1988), in which he argued the impossibility of reaching the Pole in the time Peary claimed. Replicating nearly every aspect of the Peary journey–copying, for example, his design for dog sleds–Avery . . . , four companions and 16 dogs set out in 2005 to determine whether the legendary explorer could have accomplished what he said he did. One hundred years after Peary’s expedition, the obstacles and dangers of an arctic passage remain the same: open water, pressure ridges, polar bears, blizzards, frostbite, hunger, etc. How Avery dealt with these, how he mastered the dogs and how he blended the strengths and handled the differing personalities of his team in extreme conditions are all the stuff of a journey sufficiently amazing to require no special prose to narrate it. Deeply respectful of the arctic environment and of the polar explorers who preceded him, Avery comes across as a modest, amiable man who manages to conceal the steely drive his arduous expedition so obviously required. As his conclusion makes clear, the author may need that stamina to withstand the attacks from those still convinced that Peary was a fraud. A fine blend of history and adventure. — Kirkus Reviews

North Pole Legacy: Black, White & Eskimo by Allen S. Counter (1991) is another pro-Peary book–or I should say, pro-Peary and Henson. Matthew Henson, the African-American who accompanied Peary on his voyage, is given his due. In 1986 the author, a neuroscience professor at Harvard, went to northern Greenland to conduct a study of ear disease in Eskimos as well as to interview them about early American explorations in that area. And he had yet another goal: black himself, Counter had long admired black explorer Matthew Henson, who accompanied Robert Peary to the Pole. Familiar with rumors that each had fathered children in Greenland, the author traced “dark-skinned” Eskimos to two remote settlements, where he found Anaukaq Henson and Kali Peary, octogenarians who had never met their American relatives. Counter, who subsequently arranged a three-month trip to the U.S. for both men, here offers a charming account of their meetings with kinfolk in Massachusetts, New York and Maine, visits to their fathers’ gravesites–Henson’s in Brooklyn, N.Y., Peary’s in Arlington, Va.–and tours of national monuments. The book, an intriguing postscript to polar exploration, also examines the Peary-Henson collaboration and supports the claim that they indeed reached the Pole. — Publishers Weekly


 Don’t let the publication dates of these next two fool you. They are both reprints of material originally published between 1899 and 1920. 

The North Pole

The North Pole: Its Discovery in 1909 under the Auspices of the Peary Arctic Club by Robert E. Peary












Robert E. Peary and the Rush to the North Pole

Robert E. Peary and the Rush to the North Pole: Chronicles from National Geographic








So who really got there first? Did Peary get there at all? As it says on the cover of The North Pole: You decide!