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Robert E. Peary
Robert Peary’s five-man team poses with flags at the spot Peary determined to be the North Pole. Left to right: Ooqueh, Ootah, Matthew Henson, Egingwah and Seeglo.

On This Day: Robert Peary Possibly Reaches North Pole

April 06, 2012 05:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On April 6, 1909, an expedition led by Robert Peary may have reached the North Pole. A second explorer, Frederick Cook, claimed to have reached the pole a year earlier, though there are many doubts over each man’s claim and it is likely that neither actually reached the pole.

Robert Peary’s 1908-9 North Pole Expedition

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Robert E. Peary was a civil engineer in the United States Navy. In 1886, while on leave from the Navy, he led a six-month expedition in Greenland, the first of many Arctic expeditions he would lead in the ensuing decades.

He made three attempts to reach the North Pole. In 1902, he reached 84º 17' north latitude, 343 miles from the pole, and in 1906 he established a new “farthest north” of 87º 6' north latitude, just 174 miles from the pole.

Peary began his final expedition in July 1908, sailing his ice-breaking ship, the Theodore Roosevelt, to the northern part of Canada’s Ellesmere Island, where he established a base in September. Peary began the more than 400-mile trek over the Arctic Sea to the pole in February 1909, following other groups from his expedition who had departed earlier to establish a trail for Peary.

On April 1, the final trailblazers were sent back to base and Peary began his final trek to the pole accompanied by five men: Matthew Henson, an African-American sailor who had become a trusted associate of Peary since the two met during a Nicaraguan expedition in 1885, and four Inuit men named Oatah, Egingwah, Seegloo and Ookeah.

On April 6, Henson, marching ahead of Peary, suspected that he had reached the pole based on the distance he thought he had walked. When Peary caught up 45 minutes later, Henson told him,” I think I'm the first man to sit on top of the world.”

The news angered Peary, who, according to Henson, had planned to reach the pole by himself. Perry calculated their position with his sextant, determining that they were at 89°57′ north latitude, within three miles of the magnetic pole and close enough to claim that they reached the pole.

In his 1910 book “The North Pole,” Peary wrote, “Yet with the Pole actually in sight I was too weary to take the last few steps. … I was actually too exhausted to realize at the moment that my life's purpose had been achieved.” He wrote in his diary, in his April 6 entry, “The Pole at last!!! The prize of 3 countries, my dream + ambition for 23 years. Mine at last.”

The team set up camp at the spot, called Camp Jesup. The following morning, while Henson was still sleeping, Peary set out to make further observations. After returning to the camp and making more observations, Peary decided to hold a small ceremony.

In a 1910 article for Boston American, Henson wrote, “At the conclusion of his tests he ordered out the American flag, selected a hillock of ice and gave the word to erect the Stars and Stripes thereon. With the assistance of the native boys I did this. Then I led in a cheer for Old Glory.”

The Peary-Cook Controversy

Peary returned from the Arctic in September 1909, five months after reaching the pole. On Sept. 6, from Indian Harbour, Labrador, Canada, he wired news of his accomplishment to The New York Times, which reported the story in the following day’s edition.

Peary’s announcement came less than a week after American Dr. Frederick A. Cook, who had accompanied Peary on a previous Arctic expedition, alerted the New York Herald that he had reached the pole a year earlier than Peary, on April 21, 1908.

The Times wrote, “These messages, flashed from the coast of Labrador to New York and thence to the four corners of the globe while Dr. Frederick A. Cook is being acclaimed by the crowned heads of Europe and the world at large as the discover of the north pole, added a remarkable chapter to the story of an achievement that has held the civilized world up to the highest pitch of interest. … The two explorers … had been in the arctic seeking the goal of centuries, the impossible north pole, whose attainment has at times seemed beyond the reach of man. Both were determined and courageous, and both had started expressing the belief that their efforts would be crowned with success.”

The Times also noted that Peary was the more famous of the two scientists, “known to both scientists and the general public as a persistent striver for the honor of reaching the ‘farthest north.’” Peary’s superior fame and influence would help him in the ensuing battle over who was the true discoverer of the North Pole.

Initially, Cook was more widely recognized as the first to reach the pole, but Peary and his supporters, including the Times and National Geographic Society, questioned Cook’s credibility. A December 1909 Times article proclaimed that Cook “hoaxed the world.”

There were discrepancies in the accounts of Cook and his travel companions during the trek to and from the pole (which lasted 14 months because they went off course on the trip home). Cook was unable to provide solid evidence of his journey because, according to him, he was forced to leave boxes containing his navigational records at a base in Greenland with American Harry Whitney; Whitney attempted to bring the boxes back to civilization, but he returned on Peary’s ship and Peary refused to let Cook’s possessions on board.

The evidence supporting Peary’s expedition was similarly unconvincing. Peary did not keep a detailed logbook and he made the final push to the pole with no other experienced navigator who could use a sextant and confirm Peary’s claim that they had reached the pole.

Despite these shortcomings, the National Geographic Society, which had financed Peary, certified his claim in October 1909. In December, a Danish commission declared that Cook’s claims remained unproven. Thereafter, Peary was popularly accepted as the first man to reach the North Pole.

Historians and scientists remain unsure of whether either Peary or Cook ever reached the North Pole. In 1988, polar explorer Wally Herbert, who reached the pole in 1969, declared in a report commissioned by the National Geographic Society that Peary had likely fell short of the pole by 60 miles. The following year, the society commissioned a report by the Navigation Foundation which determined that Peary had come within a few miles of the pole.
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