Did a Bushwick Man First Reach the North Pole?

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On September 7, 1909, readers of the New York Times awakened to a stunning front-page headline: “Peary Discovers the North Pole After Eight Trials in 23 Years.” The North Pole was one of the last remaining laurels of earthly exploration, a prize for which countless explorers from many nations had suffered and died for 300 years.

However, a Bushwick man Fredrick A. Cook claimed that he had beaten Peary to the pole.  A week earlier, the New York Herald had printed its own front-page headline: “The North Pole is Discovered by Dr. Frederick A. Cook.”  Cook, a Brooklyn explorer who had seemingly returned from the dead after more than a year in the Arctic, claimed to have reached the pole in April 1908—a full year before Peary.

Anyone who read the two headlines would know that the North Pole could be “discovered” only once. The question then was: Who had done it? In  textbooks, Peary was long anointed the discoverer of the North Pole—until 1988, when a re-examination of his records commissioned by the National Geographic Society, a major sponsor of his expeditions, concluded that Peary’s evidence never proved his claim and suggested that he knew he might have fallen short. Cook’s claim, meanwhile, has come to rest in a sort of polar twilight, neither proved nor disproved, although his descriptions of the Arctic region—made public before Peary’s—were verified by later explorers. Today, more than a century after  Peary’s claimed arrival, the bigger question isn’t so much who as how: How did Peary’s claim to the North Pole trump Cook’s?

In 1909, the journalist Lincoln Steffens hailed the battle over Peary’s and Cook’s competing claims as the story of the century. “Whatever the truth is, the situation is as wonderful as the Pole,” he wrote. “And whatever they found there, those explorers, they have left there a story as great as a continent.”

They started out as friends and shipmates. Cook had graduated from New York University Medical School in 1890; just before he received his exam results, his wife and baby died in childbirth. Emotionally shattered, the 25-year-old doctor sought escape in articles and books on exploration, and the next year he read that Peary, a civil engineer with a U.S. Navy commission, was seeking volunteers, including a physician, for an expedition to Greenland. “It was as if a door to a prison cell had opened,” Cook would later write. “I felt the first indomitable, commanding call of the Northland.” After Cook joined Peary’s 1891 Greenland expedition, Peary shattered his leg in a shipboard accident; Cook set Peary’s two broken bones. Peary would credit the doctor’s “unruffled patience and coolness in an emergency” in his book Northward Over the Great Ice.

Differences between the two men  surfaces after their first trip to Greenland. In 1893, Cook backed out of another Arctic journey because of a contract prohibiting any expedition member from publishing articles about the trip before Peary published his account of it. Cook wanted to publish the results of an ethnological study of Arctic natives, but Peary said it would set “a bad precedent.” They went their separate ways—until 1901, when Peary was believed to be lost in the Arctic and his family and supporters turned to Cook for help. Cook sailed north on a rescue ship, found Peary and treated him for ailments ranging from scurvy to heart problems.

Cook also traveled on his own to the Antarctic and made two attempts to scale Alaska’s Mount McKinley, claiming to be the first to succeed in 1906. Peary, for his part, made another attempt to reach the North Pole in 1905-06, his sixth Arctic expedition. By then, he had come to think of the pole as his birthright.

Cook also had his heart set on becoming the first man to reach the north pole. He organized an expedition   to the pole departed Gloucester, Massachusetts, in July 1907 on a schooner to northern Greenland. There, at Annoatok, a native settlement 700 miles from the pole, he established a base camp and wintered over. He left for the pole in February 1908 with a party of nine natives and 11 light sledges pulled by 103 dogs, planning to follow an untried but promising route described by Otto Sverdrup, the leader of an 1898-1902 Norwegian mapping party.

According to Cook’s travelogue,” My Attainment of the Pole, ”  his party followed the musk ox feeding grounds that Sverdrup had observed, through Ellesmere and Axel Heiberg islands to Cape Stallworthy at the edge of the frozen Arctic Sea. The men had the advantage of eating fresh meat and conserving their stores of pemmican (a greasy mixture of fat and protein that was a staple for Arctic explorers) made of beef, ox tenderloin and walrus. As the party pushed northward, members of Cook’s support team turned back as planned, leaving him with two native hunters, Etukishook and Ahwelah. In 24 days Cook’s party went 360 miles—a daily average of 15 miles. Cook was the first to describe a frozen polar sea in continuous motion and, at 88 degrees north, an enormous, “flat-topped” ice island, higher and thicker than sea ice.

For days, Cook wrote, he and his companions struggled through a violent wind that made every breath painful. At noon on April 21, 1908, he used his custom-made French sextant to determine that they were “at a spot which was as near as possible” to the pole. At the time, speculation about what was at the pole ranged from an open sea to a lost civilization. Cook wrote that he and his men stayed there for two days, during which the doctor reported taking more observations with his sextant to confirm their position. Before leaving, he said, he deposited a note in a brass tube, which he buried in a crevasse.

The trip back almost killed him.

Cook, like other Arctic explorers of the day, had assumed that anyone returning from the pole would drift eastward with the polar ice. However, he would be the first to report a westerly drift—after he and his party were carried 100 miles west of their planned route, far from supplies they had cached on land. In many places the ice cracked, creating sections of open water. Without the collapsible boat they had brought along, Cook wrote, they would have been cut off any number of times. When winter’s onslaught made travel impossible, the three men hunkered down for four months in a cave on Devon Island, south of Ellesmere Island. After they ran out of ammunition, they hunted with spears. In February 1909, the weather and ice improved enough to allow them to walk across frozen Smith Sound back to Annoatok, where they arrived—emaciated and arrayed in rags of fur—in April 1909, some 14 months after they had set out for the pole.

At Annoatok, Cook met Harry Whitney, an American sportsman on a  hunting trip, who told him that many people believed Cook had  died. Whitney also told him that Peary had departed from a camp just south of Annoatok on his own North Pole expedition eight months earlier, in August 1908. On that journey Peary claimed he reached the pole and planted an American flag there.

while Peary was heading for the pole, Cook was recovering  at Annoatok. Befriending Whitney, Cook  told him about his trip,  but asked him to  say nothing until Cook could make his own announcement. With no scheduled ship traffic so far north, Cook planned to sledge 700 miles south to the Danish trading post of Upernavik, catch a ship to Copenhagen and another to New York City. He had no illusions about the difficulties involved—the sledge trip would involve climbing mountains and glaciers and crossing sections of open water when the ice was in motion—but he declined Whitney’s offer of passage on a chartered vessel due at summer’s end to take the sportsman home to New York. Cook thought his route would be faster.

Etukishook and Ahwelah had returned to their village just south of Annoatok, so Cook enlisted two other natives to accompany him. The day before they were to leave, one of the two got sick, which meant that Cook would have to leave a sledge behind. Whitney suggested that he also leave behind anything not essential for his trip, promising to deliver the abandoned possessions to Cook in New York and Cook agreed.

It was not until early August that a ship bound for Copenhagen, the Hans Egede, docked in Upernavik. For the three weeks it took to cross the North Atlantic, Cook entertained passengers and crew alike with spellbinding accounts of his expedition. The ship’s captain, who understood the news value of Cook’s claim, suggested he get word of it out. So on September 1, 1909, the Hans Egede made an unscheduled stop at Lerwick, in the Shetland Islands. At the town’s telegraph station, Cook wired the New York Herald, which had covered explorers and their exploits since Stanley encountered Livingstone in Africa 30 years earlier. “Reached North Pole April 21, 1908,” Cook began. He explained that he would leave an exclusive 2,000-word story for the newspaper with the Danish consul at Lerwick. The next day, the Herald ran Cook’s story under its “Discovered by Dr. Frederick A. Cook” headline.

In addition to meteorological data and ethnological collections, Cook boxed up his expedition records, except for his diary, and his instruments, including his sextant, compass, barometer and thermometer. He wouldn’t be needing them because he would be following the coastline south. Leaving three trunk-size boxes with Whitney, Cook left Annoatok the third week of April 1909 and arrived a month later at Upernavik, where he told Danish officals of his conquest of the pole.

In Copenhagen, Cook was received by King Frederick. In gratitude for the Danes’ hospitality, Cook promised  the king that he would send his polar records to  the University of Copenhagen. “I offer my observations to science,” he said.

While Cook was steaming for Copenhagen, Whitney waited in vain for his chartered vessel to arrive. Not until August would another ship stop in northern Greenland: the Roosevelt, built for Peary by his sponsors and named after Theodore Roosevelt. On board, Peary was returning from his own polar expedition, although up to that point he had told no one—not even the ship’s crew—that he had reached the North Pole. Nor did he seem to be in any hurry to do so; the Roosevelt had been making a leisurely journey, stopping to hunt walrus in Smith Sound.

In Annoatok, Peary’s men heard from natives that Cook and two natives had made it to the pole the previous year. Peary immediately inquired of  Whitney, who said he knew only Cook had returned  from a trip to the Far North. Peary then ordered Cook’s two companions, Etukishook and Ahwelah, brought  for questioning. Arctic natives of the day had no knowledge of latitude and longitude; they testified about the number of days they had  traveled. In a later interview with a reporter, Whitney, who unlike Peary was fluent in the natives’ dialect, would say the two told him they had been confused by the white men’s questions and did not understand the papers on which they were instructed to make marks.

Whitney accepted Peary’s offer to leave Greenland on the Roosevelt. Whitney later told the New York Herald that a line of natives toted his possessions aboard under Peary’s watchful gaze.

“Have you anything belonging to Dr. Cook?” Whitney told the newspaper Peary asked him.

Whitney answered that he had Cook’s instruments and his records from his journey.

“Well, I don’t want any of them aboard this ship,” Peary replied, according to Whitney.

Believing that he had no choice, Whitney secreted Cook’s possessions among some large rocks near the shoreline. The Roosevelt then sailed south with Whitney aboard.

On August 26, the vessel reached Cape York, in northwest Greenland, where a note from the skipper of an American whaler awaited Peary. It said that Cook was en route to Copenhagen to announce that his discovery of the North Pole on April 21, 1908. Native rumor was one thing; this was infuriating. Peary vented his rage to anyone who would listen, promising to tell the world a story that would puncture Cook’s bubble. Peary ordered his ship to  make full speed for the nearest wireless station—1,500 miles away, at Indian Harbour, Labrador where Peary had an urgent announcement to make. On September 5, 1909, the Roosevelt dropped anchor at Indian Harbour. The next morning Peary wired the New York Times with the message “Stars and Stripes nailed to North Pole,”  Peary had sold the rights to his polar story for $4,000, subject to reimbursement if he did not achieve his goal, so he had a reason to debunk Cook’s story.

Arriving in Nova Scotia on September 21, Peary boarded  a train to Maine. En route, he met with Thomas Hubbard and Herbert Bridgman, officers of the Peary Arctic Club, a group of wealthy businessmen who financed Peary’s expeditions in exchange for having his discoveries named for them on maps. The three men began to shape a strategy to undermine Cook’s claim to the pole.

When they reached Bar Harbor, Maine, Hubbard had a statement for the press on Peary’s behalf: “Concerning Dr. Cook…let him submit his records and data to some competent authority, and let that authority draw its own conclusions from the notes and records….What proof Commander Peary has that Dr. Cook was not at the pole may be submitted later.”

The same day that Peary arrived in Nova Scotia, September 21, Cook arrived  in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where he and a brother, William, once ran a milk depot on Bedford Avenue. An estimated 100,000 people lined the streets for a parade that took him to the Bushwick Club, housed in an elegant Queen Anne building, and he shook hands with 5,000 well-wishers. Bushwick was Cook’s neighborhood. He lived in a turreted mansion that still stands on the corner of Willoughby and Bushwick Avenues, and was the former home of one of the brewery barons for which the neighborhood was famous during the late 19th century. He issued a statement that began, “I have come from the Pole.”

The next day he met some 40 reporters for interviews  at the Waldorf-Astoria. Asked if he objected to showing his polar diary, Cook “showed freely” a notebook of 176 pages, each filled with “fifty or sixty lines of penciled writing in the most minute characters,” according to accounts in two Philadelphia papers, the Evening Bulletin and the Public Ledger. Asked how he fixed his position at the pole, Cook said by measuring the sun’s altitude in the sky. Would he produce his sextant? Cook said his instruments and records were en route to New York and that arrangements had been made for experts to verify their accuracy.

Four days later, he received a wire from Harry Whitney. “Peary would allow nothing belonging to you on board,” Cook would later write that he was seized by “heartsickness” as he realized the implications of Whitney’s message. Still, he kept giving interviews about his trek, providing details on his final dash to the pole and his year-long struggle to survive the return journey. Peary had told an Associated Press reporter in Battle Harbour that he would wait for Cook to “issue a complete authorized version of his journey” before making his own details public. Peary’s strategy of withholding information gave him the advantage of seeing what Cook had by way of polar descriptions before offering his own.

Peary’s wealthy backers proved the difference. They had invested in his journey and wanted a return on their investment. One of them was the publisher of the New York Globe. They began to attack Cook’s credibility. Soon, Peary released a transcript of the interrogation of Etukishook and Ahwelah aboard the Roosevelt. The men were quoted as saying they and Cook had traveled only a few days north on the ice cap, and a map on which they were said to have marked their route was offered as evidence.

Also in October, the National Geographic Society—which had long supported Peary’s work and put up $1,000 for the latest polar expedition—appointed a three-man committee to examine his data. One member was a friend of Peary’s; another was head of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, to which Peary had been officially assigned for his final expedition, and the third had been quoted in the New York Times as “a skeptic on the question of the discovery of the Pole by Cook.”

On the afternoon of November 1, the three men met  Peary and examined some records from his journey; that evening, they looked at—but according to Peary’s own account did not carefully examine—the explorer’s instruments in a trunk in the poorly lit baggage room of a train station in Washington, D.C. Two days later, the committee announced that Peary had indeed reached the North Pole. Newspapers supported Peary’s claim and Cook did not help his cause when he left for a yearlong exile in Europe, during which he wrote his book about the expedition, ” My Attainment of the Pole.” Though he never returned to the Arctic, Whitney did, reaching northern Greenland in 1910. Reports conflict on how thoroughly he searched for Cook’s instruments and records, but in any case he never recovered them. Nor has anyone else in the years since.

Cook went into the oil business and was convicted of mail fraud. He ended up in prison, further discrediting his account. Cook died at 75 in 1940, in relative ignominy; it is little wonder that his memoir is titled “Hell Is a Cold Place.”

Other later  explorer, arriving by air and by sea,  confirmed Cook’s original descriptions of the polar sea, ice islands and the westward drift of the polar ice. But the question remains: How did Cook get so much right if he never got to the North Pole in 1908?

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