This blog post is part of the Frozen Friday Series, an A-Z journey of the Polar Archives. Each week, we will feature some aspect of the history of polar exploration with a blog post written by our student authors.
To reach the North Pole, adding their names to the short roster of great polar explorers, was the ardent desire of innumerable men in the 20th century. These men “dreamed the dream of accomplishing one last heroic deed—to breath the frozen winds of the unknown North—to seize the White Grail—to exhale the last great heroic gasp before the spirit of the romantic age departed…”[i] Yet the prize these men sought, fought, and died for is nothing more than a point on the shifting Arctic ice.
The first Arctic explorers were not actually seeking the North Pole at all. Instead, they wanted a passage through the Arctic to Asia (then called the Orient). It took over three hundred years to find such a passage—though there are actually two: the Northeast Passage and the Northwest Passage. Later explorers sought any land hidden amongst the ice, slowly extending the ‘furthest north’ record on their quest. Soon, the Pole itself became the ultimate goal and men realized whoever got there first would be enshrined in history. Today, the identity of who reached the North Pole first is one of the greatest controversies in Arctic scholarship. Amazingly, there are four different contenders spread over a twenty-eight year period. Finding the North Pole is not easy. There are no distinct geographic features and the ice pack is constantly shifting. In the days before GPS technology, how do we prove that we were where we say we were? Verification must come from the explorers’ journals, their ability to navigate with tools, their observations, their character, and corroborating evidence from any companions.
The first contender for discovery of the North Pole is Dr. Frederick Cook (check out our previous post about Dr. Cook). After a few previous expeditions, Cook began his attempt on the Pole in 1907. Preparing carefully for the journey—including a newly designed type of sled and a collapsible boat—Cook and two Eskimo* companions set out for the Pole with eighty days’ worth of food in March of 1908. Cook was not seen or heard from again until April of 1909.
In the meantime, the explorer Robert Peary, obsessed with becoming the first to reach the North Pole, was in his fifth expedition. Peary began in February of 1909 with a large party. Neglecting to bring a boat to cross leads in the ice, Peary and his party were halted by open water on a number of occasions. Several hundred miles from the Pole, Peary sent all but five companions back to camp, and then made his dash to the Pole in April. However, when Peary returned to civilization in August and announced his success, he found that Cook had returned from his own expedition and was claiming that he had reached the pole in 1908.
Peary refused to accept Cook’s claims and set out to systematically discredit him. In short, Peary accused Cook of deliberate fraud. There is evidence that Peary and his well-placed friends may have bribed one of Cook’s previous companions to speak against Cook. Additionally, Peary interviewed one of Cook’s Eskimo companions, yet he refused to allow neutral witnesses to interview that same Eskimo when the Eskimo supposedly claimed that Cook had never left the sight of land. Peary’s discrediting of Cook coincided with public doubts about Cook’s claim to have summited Mt. McKinley several years earlier. While several of Peary’s accusations do not hold up to scrutiny, Cook was unable to provide any positive proofs—such as sextant readings in his journals—that showed he had reached the North Pole. In the end, history took Peary’s side, yet Peary’s own accountability soon came into question. Like Cook’s account of events, Peary’s claim also had some holes. He refused to submit several of his original documents to scrutiny and many believe his claimed speeds while traveling to the Pole are nearly impossible. Peary also never produced any positive proofs—no soundings or sextant readings. A United States Senate subcommittee granted Peary official recognition for reaching the North Pole but by a four to three margin and with several members claiming significant doubts. Recent scholarship on the subject indicates that it is unlikely that either man actually reached the North Pole.
If neither Cook nor Peary was the first, it could have been Richard Byrd. In 1926, after one previous trip in the Arctic, Byrd sought to become the first man to fly over the North Pole. An excellent campaigner, Byrd quickly gained the necessary money and equipment and sailed off to King’s Bay, Spitzbergen, Norway. Already encamped there was the veteran polar explorer Roald Amundsen, preparing for his own flight over the Pole. Byrd, while the second to reach Spitzbergen, was the first to set out. He and his pilot Floyd Bennett flew to the North Pole, some 700 miles away, and back in just over fifteen and a half hours. The only hiccup in the flight was a minor oil leak. Upon their return, both to King’s Bay and to the U.S., Byrd and Bennett were lauded as heroes and treated accordingly.
Soon, however, doubts began to form. Critics claimed that Byrd had not been gone long enough to reach the Pole, given his plane’s maximum speed, and that Byrd had lied rather than face failure. Byrd attributes his record speed to a tailwind to and from the Pole. One of Byrd’s later companions would later claim that pilot Floyd Bennett had admitted this fraud. In 1996, this controversy sparked again after The Ohio State University’s Archivist Raimund Goerler found Byrd’s flight journal within the massive Byrd collection. Researchers and scholars quickly examined this important document and noted that some figures appeared to have been erased and adjusted by Byrd during his flight. Byrd’s critics claim this as deliberate attempts to fake his way to fame. Byrd’s supporters point out that if they were incriminating, Byrd could have completely removed these pages from the journal rather than just lightly erase them. Nevertheless, the case against Byrd has never been proven and remains of interest to historians and scholars of the history of polar exploration. Unlike Cook and Peary, whose reputations were tied to their North Pole expeditions, Byrd would go on to lead numerous successful expeditions to Antarctica and would become the first man to fly over the South Pole in 1929.
If Byrd was not the first man to the North Pole, then the credit for this achievement goes to Roald Amundsen and the crew of his airship Norge. The Norge left King’s Bay within hours of Byrd’s return and spent two days traveling to Alaska, traveling over the North Pole in the process. With this accomplishment, Amundsen and his crew made the first Arctic crossing and Amundsen became the first man to reach both Poles. Amundsen’s claim to crossing the North Pole on the way to Alaska is currently undisputed. If neither Cook nor Peary made it to the Pole, then the first successful overland trip was not until 1968 by a team on snowmobiles.
Without a time-machine or more definitive evidence, it is unlikely that we will ever truly know who first reached the top of the world. Our mission in the Polar Archives is to provide researches and scholars with the primary resources about these controversial achievements, so they can decide for themselves! If we have piqued your interest about Richard Byrd, Frederick Cook, or polar exploration please visit the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center Archival Program.
Written by Autumn Snellgrove and edited by John Hooton.
[i] Cook and Peary, Prologue
* ‘Eskimo’ is considered a derogatory term by many to native inhabitants of northern North America. Although it would not be appropriate to use it in this blog under any other context, we are using it here as it is the term used by the explorers mentioned in this blog. More information on ‘Eskimo’ as a slur can be found here.