Who Was Really First to the North Pole?

In 1909, two people, within a week of each other, declared to the world that they had been the first person to reach the location of the North Pole. Immediate controversy broke out, and the debate has raged ever since, revolving around charges and countercharges of fraud. So, who was really first to the North Pole?

Robert Peary and his team, who may or may not actually have been at the North Pole when this photo was taken

The North Pole presents a unique challenge to explorers. Unlike the South Pole, which is located in the middle of a land mass, the North Pole is located in the polar ocean, and the only way to reach it is on the ice sheet that floats on the sea’s surface. Since the ice sheet continuously breaks up and moves, there is no permanent location at the North Pole–the ice that was there one year may be miles away by the next. The only way to tell that one is actually at the Pole is by careful geographical measurement of latitude. And the only way to confirm that somebody else has been there is through a careful record of the trip, including detailed navigational data.

The first attempt to reach the North Pole was in 1827, by Royal Navy officer William E Parry. His team was forced to turn back short of their goal. Over the next 70 years over a dozen other attempts, by teams from America, Norway, and Italy, all failed.

In 1907, two separate teams were planning new attempts on the Pole. Robert E Peary had already made a number of unsuccessful tries. Frederick A Cook had been a member of several of Peary’s previous expeditions, but was now ready to set out on his own. Although both were Americans, the two men were very different in personality. Peary was a fame-seeker and was known to drive his team relentlessly. Cook was more of a scientist, whose interest was geological but also ethnographic–he knew several native languages and did detailed studies on the Arctic native people’s cultures.

Cook left first. In June 1907, he sailed to the tiny native village of Annoatok in northern Greenland, 700 miles from the Pole, and set up his base camp there. His team was small–just Cook and nine Inuit natives. After completing their preparations, they left for the Pole in February 1908. Cook planned to follow a new route that had never been tried before, only recently found by a Norwegian mapping team. His team also followed the musk oxen feeding grounds, and were able to obtain fresh meat during their journey. To cross the stretches of open water that often resulted when the ice cracked, they carried a collapsible boat with them.

At the halfway point in March, the support team turned back, as planned. The final dash to the Pole would be made by Cook and two Inuit natives.

According to Cook, the team reached the Pole at about noon on April 21, 1908, and confirmed their position with sextant readings. They spent two days there.

Upon their return, however, they ran into trouble. They had assumed that the pack ice at the Pole would be drifting eastward towards Greenland, as the ice that they had traveled across did. But instead they found a westward current at the Pole, which carried them almost 100 miles away from their pre-cached supplies. The extra distance meant that they did not make it off the ice before winter set in, and they were forced to huddle in a makeshift camp from November 1908 to February 1909. They finally reached Annoatok in April.

At Annoatok, Cook found an American hunter and adventurer, Harry Whitney, who told him that, during his 14-month disappearance, the world thought that Cook had died. Whitney also told him that a team led by Peary had left Annoatok eight months ago, in August 1908, on a quest for the Pole.

Peary’s team had over 50 men, and used a relay system of sleds that went ahead and deposited caches of supplies for the main party. Unlike Cook, Peary had no boat, and had to either take the long way around stretches of open water, or stop and wait for them to freeze over or close up. When they reached a point about 140 miles from the Pole, the support team turned back for Greenland. Peary went on, accompanied by four Inuit natives and by Matthew Henson. Henson, an African-American from Maryland, had been Peary’s assistant on several of his previous expeditions. Henson spoke the Inuit language, and it was he who took care of the team members, their dogs, and their sleds. In many ways, he was the real leader of the expedition.

On April 6, 1909, according to the later accounts of Peary and Henson, they reached the Pole. Peary’s version is that he had been taking detailed sextant readings and announced that they were at the Pole. He then planted an American flag in the ice. In Henson’s version, he had gone on ahead of the others, and when Peary reached him and took a sextant reading, Henson jokingly noted that he was there first, and jubilantly declared “I am standing at the top of the world!”–which, he later wrote, made Peary “hopping mad”. Peary had no desire to share his glory with a Black man and four natives.

But the word had not yet gotten out. Cook was not able to make it to a town with a wireless telegraph until September 1, 1909, when he announced that he had reached the Pole. Peary made it back a week later; his announcement went out on September 7. And the argument began that has still not been settled.

Peary, who was well-funded by the National Geographic Society, began an organized campaign in the press to dispute Cook’s claim. Charges and counter-charges were traded. Cook’s veracity was crippled when it turned out that a previous claim he had made–as the first to reach the summit of Mt McKinley (the highest peak in Alaska)–was unsupported and probably fraudulent. Cook also said that he had left his original notebook and navigational data behind in Greenland–it was never found. In 1923, Cook, now working in the oil business, was convicted of fraud in a stock market scheme and sentenced to 14 years in jail. It was the final nail in the coffin for his Pole story.

But Peary had his own problems. Henson’s published account declared that Peary himself had been unsure of their exact position. Analysis of the shadows in photos taken by Peary indicated that they could have been as much as 100 miles away from the Pole. Peary had taken no instruments with him to measure longitude, assuming he wouldn’t need them. But critics noted that he had claimed an extraordinarily good rate of travel to the Pole, completing the trip much faster than Cook had–and that would have been difficult to do without a longitudinal measurement to insure they were traveling in a straight line due north. Suspicions arose that Peary had not actually reached the pole.

So, what’s the final conclusion? Both men still have their supporters and detractors. And a sizable minority has concluded that neither man actually made it to the pole.

If indeed neither Peary nor Cook actually made the trip all the way to the Pole, that would leave US Navy pilot Richard Byrd as the next claimant. In May 1926, a Fokker Trimotor airplane named “Josephine Ford” took off from Norway with Floyd Bennett as pilot and Byrd as navigator. According to their log, they reached the Pole after about 8.5 hours, circled over it, and returned.

But there are questions about Byrd’s claim, too. The “Josephine Ford” would have had to have been traveling extraordinarily fast to have made the round trip in just 16 hours. And suspicions were strengthened when Byrd’s original flight diary was found in an archive with other papers–with several of the navigational measurements suspiciously erased out and replaced. For many historians, Byrd’s claim is also suspect.

The first person to unambiguously reach the North Pole was Norwegian arctic explorer Roald Amundsen, who flew over the pole in the airship “Norge” in 1926, just a short time after Byrd’s flight. Amundsen was already the first person to have reached the South Pole, in 1912.

The first person to unambiguously reach the North Pole by ground was Ralph Plaisted, who led a team on snowmobiles in 1968.

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