The North Pole is so smug, sitting there all cold and calculating and judgmental at the top of the world (yes, the top—Northern Hemisphere bias 4eva. Also CJ Cregg). It’s seductive, a siren song, that like Everest beckons only because it is there. And also because someone’s gotta make sure it’s not a hellmouth or housing a secret Yeti kingdom.
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The pull of the north goes back to Pytheas, a Greek mariner who for sure made it north of the British Isles and maybe all the way to Iceland in 325 BC (most people don’t believe him). Then there’s the Inventio Fortunata, a now-lost 14th century travelogue that supposedly talked of voyages in the Arctic Circle. By the 19th century you had the Brit William Parry and crew, who reached 82°45’ in 1827, a “farthest north” record for five decades. Or the Franklin expedition, two ships (the ominously-named Terror and Erebus) and 128 crew lost (recent evidence suggests they may have been lead poisoned by their water distillation system, and may have cannibalized each other after being stranded), and the four expeditions sent out to find the Franklin crew. And how about the Isaac Hayes Arctic voyage in 1861 (different Isaac Hayes).
But probably no one had as severe a case of pole fever—and a stronger desire for the fame and fortune reaching it would achieve—than Robert Peary (1856-1920), a Navy man who traversed Greenland and headed for the pole in 1886, 1891, 1898, 1905, and 1908. Spoiler: the last one might have been a success.
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Peary’s first expedition was a solo trip, paid for by a $500 stipend from his mom. Funding his excursions was a significant problem, requiring support at various times from scientific societies or individual patrons. Peary also worked the angles for himself, trading for furs and “artifacts” from the Inuit, resold back home to fur dealers and museum curators, respectively.
Among Peary’s more…audacious acquisitions was a giant meteorite from northern Greenland. There were actually four fragments of the monstrosity, known locally as the Dog (0.5 tons), the Woman (3 tons), the Man (20 tons), and the Tent (31 tons); chipping flakes off them had been a source of iron tools for the Inuit for centuries. White explorers heard about the space rocks all the way back in 1818, but didn’t know where they were until Peary found the two smaller ones in 1894. Let the florid prose of his memoirs describe it: “The brown mass, rudely awakened from its winter’s sleep, found for the first time in its cycles of existence the eyes of a white man gazing upon it. …The first thing to be done was to tear the heavenly visitor from its frozen bed of centuries.” In context, he meant that digging it up was the first step in moving it, but I prefer to assume his knee-jerk instinct on finding a priceless artifact was “how do I take this for myself.”
The smaller rocks weren’t too hard, but the 31-ton Tent required a whole new ship and some spiffy hydraulics to tackle. Peary’s plan, more or less, was to roll the thing downhill onto his ship, and in some alternate universe it careered down the hill, smashed into the vessel, and rent it in two. In reality, he set up some iron rails and slid it down to his waiting ship, whence it promptly fouled all nearby compasses. The museum, as it happened, wasn’t as excited about it as Peary hoped, and the thing waited in dry dock for nearly a decade until his wife, Josephine, haggled enough to sell it for a paltry $40,000, none of which went to the Inuits. The museum had to drill support pillars directly into the bedrock to display the thing (more on the meteorite hunting here and here; Josephine, by the by, was ”a woman in full”: she was a linguist at the Smithsonian and often accompanied Peary, later publishing two books about them).
As if absconding with inanimate objects wasn’t horrible enough, Peary also brought a group of six Inuits to New York, promising they could return home in a year rich beyond compare. The group, which included an eight year old boy, was unceremoniously dumped at the museum and within a year all but the child, Minik, had died of the flu. Minik spent a decade in New York, trying to secure passage home, before giving up and setting off on foot, and he wasn’t fucking happy about his situation. He dropped the mic so hard it produced the second loudest sound in recorded history, right after the Krakatoa eruption:
“My poor people don’t know that the meteorite that Peary took, it fell from the star. But they know that the hungry must be fed and cold men must be warmed and helpless people cared for and they do it. Wouldn’t it be sad if they forgot these and got civilized. …I’m going to die smiling at Peary and the scientists.”
Things got worse when he finally made it home, only to find himself a stranger in two cultures. He eventually came back to the US and worked as a lumberjack before dying in the 1918 flu epidemic. See here for the entire story; it’s appropriate I guess that a tragedy of forced displacement appears on American Experience.
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Peary’s “first man” on his excursions was Matthew Henson, a black man (1866-1955), which was exactly as notable as you think—his 1912 memoir was A Negro Explorer at the North Pole, and a 1947 Henson-approved biography was titled Dark Companion. Henson’s parents died in his childhood, as did the uncle he was sent to live with. By 11 he was on his own working as a dishwasher, whence he encountered the seafaring Captain Childs, who hired him as a “cabin boy.” Henson sailed with him for the better part of a decade.
Peary met Henson in 1887, and brought him along as an assistant during a surveying trip to Nicaragua, and then on every one of his subsequent polar expeditions, where Henson was valued for his sledging ability (said to be the greatest non-Inuit), ability to speak local languages (or the willingness to learn, I guess, since Peary couldn’t be bothered), and his dead reckoning ability.
Their 1908-09 expedition consisted of 50 Inuit men, women, and children, 246 sled dogs, 70 tons of whale meat, Henson, and Peary. The final assault on the pole was Henson, Peary, and the four best Inuit guides (Ootah, Egigingwah, Seegloo and Ooqueah). Those six made the pole on April 7, 1909. Supposedly.
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Henson and Peary wended their way back to the US and passed along news of their success. In September 1909, Peary was feted on the front page of the Times. That was great, except that a week earlier the Herald had featured the story of Frederick Cook, who claimed to have reached the pole in April 1908.
Cook was a doctor and Arctic voyage veteran, once a Peary crewmember and noted for having saved a sick and starving crew by hunting for fresh meat during a harsh winter. That, more or less, is where his unreservedly good deeds end. Take, for example, a trip to Tierra del Fuego, where he befriended a local missionary, “borrowed” a Yahgan-language dictionary the man had compiled, then tried to sell it as his own when the missionary died. Or Cook’s 1906 attempt to summit Mount McKinley, where he offered up photographic proof…later shown to be taken miles from the summit at a place now called Fake Peak. Two years after that (and before it was known to be fake), Cook made a dash for the pole with two Inuit men—he had photographic proof of that, too.
The problem with the North Pole is that it’s on drifting ice, so if you get there you can’t just plant a flag. Besides being a wonderful reminder that all achievement is ephemeral, the difficulty in confirming a pole visit begat a glorious and spite-filled controversy between Cook and Peary. And if nothing else was discovered with any certainty from the events, it was that PR was even more Peary’s milieu than an ice floe. He enlisted the help of his prominent backers to sully Cook’s reputation, which, to be fair, wasn’t that hard. Cook’s McKinley companion, for example, signed an affidavit attesting they hadn’t reached the summit only after being paid off by Peary supporters.
In truth, the documentary evidence for both sides was sparse. Cook’s navigational records had been lost after being stored in a cache in Greenland, so he had only his first-person diaries. Peary refused to release most of his records—they were held by the National Geographic Society, who funded his trip and had an incentive to hold onto them lest they be disproved. And moreover, Peary was the only one of his group at the pole that knew how to read a chronometer—meaning that there was no one to double check his readings.
With the backing of the Society, the Times, and a Congressional committee, Peary was for decades seen as the first to the pole—whether his group ever made it at all is a fact contested even today, with perhaps the most damning piece of evidence the seemingly impossible pace suggested in his diaries. Even if he did get there, there are some plausible arguments that Cook had made it first (on the other hand, some tinfoil hatters who think Cook is lying say that his accurate descriptions of polar geography were stolen from Verne’s 1864 novel The English at the North Pole, which of course raises the question of how Verne’s account was accurate). The first unambiguous pole-ing wasn’t until 1969.
Peary died in 1920, but the feud didn’t. In 1923, Cook was convicted of mail fraud for lying about yields in oil fields he owned. He was sentenced to 14 years in prison (he was paroled after seven), with the judge telling him “You have at last got to the point where you can’t bunco anybody.” Even the DA thought the sentence excessive. The judge, it turns out, was a friend of the Pearys, whose family crest is nothing more than an anthropomorphized grudge. As it happens, Cook’s oil fields were in fact bigger than he’d claimed. He was given a deathbed pardon by FDR in 1940.
Matthew Henson, meanwhile—not to mention the Inuit guides—were mostly ignored in favor of the “heroic” Peary. It wasn’t until 1937 that Henson was admitted to the Explorers Club. In 1988 he and his wife were (re)interred at Arlington, next to Peary.
(Side note: the researcher who made that happen flew in Henson’s only living child for the ceremony, who was born in 1906 to an Inuit woman (in parlance, Henson’s “country wife” SHUDDER SHUDDER SHUDDER. Peary had multiple Inuit children; Josephine was not a fan of his philandering). In “Greenland is an unforgiving tundra” news, one of Henson’s grandchildren was killed by a walrus in 1944.)
(Double side note: In Henson’s account of the Pole-reaching, he uses this ridiculously great sentence: “A temperature of 50 degrees below zero is pretty close to the freezing point of sentiment”. What a phenomenal opening line for a novel.)
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Here’s a detailed account unpacking the question of whether Cook or Peary’s team made it first. The pissing contest is fun and all, but there are lot of layers to the story—the inherent uncertainty of scientific knowledge; the late-19th century ethos of “suffering for science,” as though bodily sacrifice is an honor-bound duty of science; the changing face of anthropology (the museum curator Peary communicated with was Franz Boas, known primarily for challenging the then-default assumption of racial hierarchies), and the ignoring of Henson and the Inuit guides.