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The Polar Controversy between Frederick Cook and Robert Peary (June 2021): Eyewitness Accounts

by Robert M. Bryce

Eyewitness Accounts

The book-length eyewitness accounts by Cook and Peary  and those who accompanied them form another important body of literature from which comparisons could be drawn concerning the plausibility of each explorer’s story. Beyond the periodical literature, they were really the only primary sources on the subject available to early researchers. Complicating the matter, each explorer lacked any witness who could independently verify his claims scientifically, and neither ever presented convincing scientific evidence that he had actually reached the North Pole. Thus, many of the texts present conflicting accounts and details.

Peary’s account, The North Pole: Its Discovery in 1909 under the Auspices of the Peary Arctic Club, appeared first in 1910. The text was ghostwritten and has a very curious history, which is detailed in the introduction to the facsimile edition published in 2001 by Cooper Square Press. Its many discrepancies offered a field day for Peary doubters.

Published a year later, Cook’s account, My Attainment of the Pole, had the opposite effect. Although no more consistent or scientifically convincing, Cook’s enthralling adventure tale of his journey to the North Pole mesmerized readers and made many sympathetic to his claim of being robbed of glory by Peary’s “Arctic Trust” of wealthy backers, as Cook called them. Later editions of Cook’s book published in 1912 and 1913 attempted to correct errors in the original edition that had indicated he was incapable of making the astronomical observations necessary to verify his arrival at the North Pole. Like Peary’s, the account has many curious elements, which are discussed in the introduction to the facsimile version of the 1913 edition, also published in 2001 by Cooper Square Press.

Rudolph Franke, Cook’s only non-Inuit witness, published his own account of his time with the explorer, though it is only available in German as Erlebnisse eines Deutschen im hohen Norden. Franke’s testimony is most notable for unwittingly reporting several facts that undermine the credibility of Cook’s story in several key respects.

Similarly, each of Peary’s surviving assistants published an account of his 1909 expedition. The first to see print was George Borup’s A Tenderfoot with Peary, replete with college slang. Even though the text was sanitized by Peary’s lawyer, it contains some evidence that conflicts with Peary’s official story.

Matthew Henson, Peary’s Black servant since 1889, who was only given status as a full-fledged expedition member in 1898 because of his race, then published his account, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole, in 1912. Henson, who lacked formal education, most likely dictated his book to his wife and had the text embellished by a ghostwriter. Just as with Borup’s book, some of Henson’s statements directly conflict with Peary’s despite Peary’s lawyer having editorial control of the book’s content. For an analysis of this book and how it came to be written, readers should look to the introduction to the facsimile edition published by Cooper Square Press in 2001.

Robert A. Bartlett was the captain of Peary’s specially built ice ship, the Roosevelt, for both the 1905–6 and 1908–9 expeditions. His partisan account of the polar expedition in The Log of Bob Bartlett was written years after Peary’s death and is filled with many curious errors.

Donald Macmillan was the last of Peary’s team to publish an account. His 1934 apologia How Peary Reached the North Pole offers little to fulfill its titular promise, and in fact offers many reasons to doubt Peary’s achievement.

Because Peary had used much of his surgeon’s diary to fill out his own account, he prevented John Goodsell from sending his manuscript to a publisher until after 1915. By that time interest in the subject had waned and so the book was never published. It was only long after Goodsell’s death that a heavily abridged adaptation of his book On Polar Trails appeared, though the liberties taken with the original text limit its usefulness.

Harry Whitney, a paying passenger on Peary’s last expedition who stayed the winter of 1908–9 in Cook’s box house in Greenland, witnessed Cook’s return from his northern journey in April 1909. In his 1910 book Hunting with the Eskimos, Whitney describes this meeting and details some of his dealings with Peary.

Finally, Cook’s last account, Return from the Pole, which was written in the 1930s and published posthumously in 1951, details the winter of 1908–9, spent in a primitive dwelling on North Devon Island with only his two Inuit companions. It is another compelling example of Cook’s abilities as a writer of immense narrative power, through it contains little useful information for examining the veracity of his claims.

Although, taken together, these accounts offered contrasting views, they set the foundation for studies to come. They also laid the groundwork for building up cults of persona around each explorer that have at times led followers to disregard new information that has surfaced from new sources.