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The Polar Controversy between Frederick Cook and Robert Peary (June 2021): Early analytical works

by Robert M. Bryce

Early Analytical Works

Analyzing the early newspaper accounts and periodical literature, a series of books began to emerge arguing that Peary never reached the North Pole in 1909. Of those, some even suggested Cook might actually have made the journey, but Peary’s claim received the most scrutiny overall as it was the accepted narrative. The very first of these publications to doubt Peary was W. Henry Lewin’s Did Peary Reach the Pole? published in England in 1911. Next came Edwin Balch’s The North Pole and Bradley Land, an attempt by a learned geographic dilettante to argue in favor of Cook’s claim by comparative analysis with Peary’s. His arguments largely hinge on the assumed existence of “Bradley Land,” new land Cook claimed to have discovered on his way to the Pole, which was later found not to exist. William Johnson’s slim booklet Did Commander Peary “Achieve” the North Pole? was the second of these early attempts to analyze Peary’s narrative using published sources.

Peary’s 1911 congressional testimony became available in the Appendix to the Congressional Record in 1916, which had already published several speeches written for Representative Henry Helgesen of North Dakota by Cook’s personal lobbyist, Ernest Rost, analyzing the conflicting elements between the narratives of Peary’s personal assistants and Peary’s own account. Helgeson’s speeches opened Peary’s story to a fresh wave of doubt, which continued to manifest in print. The most influential of such books doubting Peary was the first volume of Has the North Pole Been Discovered? by Thomas Hall, published in 1917. This brilliant but cantankerous analysis of the discrepancies in Peary’s claim had wide influence in later decades. Unfortunately, it failed to examine Cook’s claim with the same rigor, although it allowed for the possibility that he did not reach the Pole. Hall’s second volume, which was published privately in 1920, brought the subject up to date but was not as well argued as the original.