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The Polar Controversy between Frederick Cook and Robert Peary (June 2021): Opening the Explorers’ Papers: A New Phase

by Robert M. Bryce

Opening the Explorers’ Papers: A New Phase

What was the result of all these efforts to separate the truth from the fabrications in each explorer’s narrative? At first, very little came of it. After the Polar Controversy had faded from daily headlines, the outcome remained unchanged for many years—Peary was credited as the discoverer of the North Pole and Cook, if he was remembered at all, was considered little more than an audacious impostor. Encyclopedias followed suit, seemingly ignoring the contributions of Lewin, Hall, and Hayes. Despite the additional books published between 1935 and 1982, this situation did not change much until 1983, when Peary’s personal papers were opened to the public and the National Geographic Society (NGS), a long-time Peary ally, commissioned Wally Herbert to investigate them in order to refute a made-for-TV miniseries that took a decidedly pro-Cook stance.

Published in 1989, Herbert’s The Noose of Laurels is a distinguished polar explorer’s reluctant debunking of Peary’s polar claim. While most of Herbert’s text draws on Weems’s and Freeman’s earlier works, it also adds some important new revelations from Peary’s papers. It obliquely discounts Cook as a serious contender but does not analyze his claim in any detail. The book was influential far beyond its actual scholarly merits in reviving the polar dispute.

Despite appointing Herbert to the task, the NGS was not happy with his conclusion that Peary, through navigational error, had missed the North Pole by about 60 miles to the left. The society’s 1909 certification of Peary’s claim, despite lacking any critical examination of his “proofs,” had crucially influenced the broader public to accept Peary as the discoverer of the North Pole, and the NGS feared its own credibility would be damaged if Peary’s was in question. As a result, the NGS then commissioned The Navigation Foundation to refute Herbert’s findings, leading to the publication of Robert E. Peary at the North Pole in 1989. Although presented as a scientific study, the book is filled with lacunae and proves nothing much but the ends to which Peary partisans would go to preserve his claims. It is notable, however, as one of the more blatant attempts to manipulate public opinion on the subject in recent years. A slim supplement was published in 1991 with interesting new photographic evidence discovered in Peary’s papers by another researcher, which raised new discussions about Peary’s claim. All of this led to unwanted publicity, and the inevitable questioning of Peary’s claims, long buried by conventional wisdom, resurfaced.

With Peary’s claims then in doubt, Cook’s were given new life. In 1989, the same year Herbert’s book was published, Cook’s granddaughter Janet Cook Vetter died, leaving her estate to the Frederick A. Cook Society, a small group of family members and enthusiasts favoring Cook’s claim, who took the opportunity to use her bequest to promote it. Through her will, Vetter also donated Cook’s papers, which had never before been available to scholars, to the Library of Congress.

Around the same time, a new Cook biography was published in 1991, Howard Abramson’s Hero in Disgrace, although it was written before Cook’s papers became available. Because of this, the text was almost exclusively derived from previous writers’ efforts, especially Freeman’s The Case for Doctor Cook, and it contains little original research, except for incorporating documentation regarding Cook’s mail fraud prosecution, which is housed in the National Archives.

The first study to make use of Cook’s papers was Cook and Peary: The Polar Controversy, Resolved, a thousand-page tome by this author (Robert Bryce) that appeared in 1997. The book, which historian William Barr called “a very important contribution” in his 1998 review for the journal Polar Record, is a massive assessment of the entire Polar Controversy and a thorough biography of Cook. Beyond the Vetter bequest, the author located many other crucial documents, including Cook’s original polar diary, which indicates Cook fell short of reaching the North Pole by more than 400 miles. The book also examines many previously unknown documents from the Peary papers, revealing new details about the campaign by Peary’s backers to discredit Cook. In his 1997 review of the book for The New York Times, James Vescovi noted the author’s “meticulous scrutiny” and “zeal to leave no stone unturned.” The author not only concludes that neither Cook nor Peary reached the North Pole and that both claims were knowingly fraudulent, but also uses the controversy to consider the more important question of the role of human belief in shaping history. Unfortunately, the index is practically useless.

After Cook and Peary, journalist Bruce Henderson published True North: Peary, Cook and the Race to the Pole in 2005. The book repeats Cook’s original arguments for his priority over Peary in reaching the North Pole, as well as most of the positive evidence presented in Freeman’s earlier work. Ultimately, True North adds no new facts or evidence to the subject.

Of more recent titles, John McCannon’s 2012 book, A History of the Arctic, offers an inaccurate two-page treatment of the controversy, making it too brief to be of any use. However, historian Edward Larson’s much fuller treatment occupies about a third of his 2019 book To the Edges of the Earth. His nearly flawless account of the major incidents of the Polar Controversy, aided by the book’s full documentation, notes, and helpful index, make this account a reliable and balanced summary of the arguments both for and against each explorer’s claims.

In 2013, Bryce published The Lost Polar Notebook of Dr. Frederick A. Cook, a scholarly addendum to his first book, containing a complete annotated transcription of the actual notebook kept by Cook on his attempt to reach the North Pole in 1908. The original notebook remains lost, but a photographic copy was recovered by the author in Copenhagen in 1991. The information it provided makes available the first documented record of where Cook actually went instead of the North Pole and demonstrates conclusively that Cook could not possibly have reached his goal. A 2016 review of the book for the International Journal of Maritime History noted that “the meticulous transcription … and the careful analysis of the … text … serve to make this invaluable source readily available to the researcher for the first time.” The book also contains a number of useful appendixes related to the subject, including a full index to the author’s previous book, Cook and Peary.