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The Polar Controversy between Frederick Cook and Robert Peary (June 2021): Encyclopedias and General Works

by Robert M. Bryce

Encyclopedias and General Works

In the wake of the books published since 1973, general reference works touching on this subject have changed in tone from unquestioned acceptance to open doubt of Peary’s claim, as in the case of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which offered the first doubts in its fifteenth edition, following the publication of Rawlins’s book. Before then, Cook’s claim had always been treated with more skepticism than Peary’s.

General histories of polar exploration gradually took the same turn, though Pierre Berton’s The Arctic Grail, perhaps the best of them, was ahead of the curve. His masterful analysis and dismissal of Peary’s claim was based on study of Peary’s then-recently opened papers and remains an unchallenged achievement. However, Berton was unable to make use of the Cook papers, which had not yet been opened, and although he correctly discounts Cook’s polar claim as a fraud, he also takes many of Cook’s other claims at face value, such as Cook’s account of surviving the winter of 1908–9 using Stone Age techniques, which his diary entries have proved equally mythical.

In A History of Arctic Exploration, an oversized, illustrated, and reasonably accurate history, Matti Lainema and Juha Nurminen present ample evidence that Peary likely never reached the Pole, but insist he came close enough to have the credit. Cook gets short shrift, and the controversy between the two gets even less attention than that.

Specialized works of recent years are generally more expansive and well informed. William James Mills’s Exploring Polar Frontiers remains the best compact encyclopedia on polar exploration. It also gives a detailed accounting of the Polar Controversy, drawing balanced pictures of each explorer’s career and fair conclusions about their achievements and failures.

The third volume of Raymond Howgego’s Encyclopedia of Exploration is an impressive attempt to chronicle polar exploration with very detailed articles and bibliographies followed by useful indexes. The Polar Controversy is mostly embodied in articles on Cook and Peary in this largely biographical work. Outlining the details of the controversy and citing the doubts regarding each claim, Howgego concludes that it “remains to this day a major subject of debate among polar historians.” In such an ambitious work as this, many small errors of fact and nuance will inevitably creep in, but the text overall is still useful. 

Mark Nuttall’s three-volume Encyclopedia of the Arctic is much broader in scope, so the individual articles vary in quality by contributor. Those on Peary and the “Race for the North Pole,” both by Lyle Dick, lack any substantive discussion of the dispute, come to no definite conclusion as to the validity of the explorers’ claims, and ultimately mischaracterize Peary’s methods. By contrast, the article on Cook by Michael Robinson is far better in reporting on the controversy, concluding that Cook lacked the navigational skills necessary to reach the North Pole, even if he had the physical means to do so.

Certainly, the best summary of the Polar Controversy in a one-volume general reference is Richard Sale’s The Arctic: The Complete Story. Sale’s account is compact yet richly detailed, and shows an unusual mastery of the often-confusing evidence. He concludes that “at this remove of time the truth of the two claims can no longer be ascertained.”