Who Got There First? The North Pole Controversies

If you want to go somewhere you’ve never been, what do you do first? Pull up MapQuest on your web browser and input your destination? Or, do you have a GPS unit for your car? Maybe you use a printed map or an atlas. Back in the early days of polar discovery, none of these tools were available. In fact, much of the Arctic and Antarctic wasn’t even mapped yet.


In 1909 a bitter controversy involved two American explorers, Frederick A. Cook and Robert E. Peary. Both claimed to be first to reach the North Pole on foot.

Finding the North Pole is tricky. Unlike the South Pole, which lies on a land mass, the North Pole is actually in a vast sea covered by floating ice. Since the ice is constantly in motion, planting a flag or otherwise marking the spot is futile. In addition, magnetic compasses are rendered useless in the polar regions due to the magnetic field at the poles. Determining one’s position, then, is based on calculations using a chronometer – basically a highly efficient time piece – and a sextant – a navigational instrument that allowed an explorer to compute latitude based on the position of the sun.

Frederick A. Cook in furs, circa 1909. The Ohio State University Archives, Frederick A. Cook Society Collection, RG 56.17, image #34_2a.

Robert E. Peary, circa 1909. The Ohio State University Archives, Frederick A. Cook Society Collection, RG 56.17, image #34_34y.

In September of 1909, Frederick A. Cook, a medical doctor from New York, announced that he and two Inuit companions had reached the North Pole on April 21, 1908. He claimed that bad weather conditions and drifting ice had prohibited his southward return and he and his companions were forced to winter over in an ice cave. A week later, Robert E. Peary, a civil engineer and a commander in the U.S. Navy, announced that he had reached the North Pole, accompanied by his long-time companion Matthew Henson, and he denounced Cook as a fraud. In any case, Peary had some very powerful sponsors, including the New York Times as well as the National Geographic Society.

Though Cook appeared to welcome Peary’s announcement and was willing to share the limelight, Peary was furious at Cook’s attempt to “steal” his victory. By all accounts, Peary was a driven man, and this was his third attempt at the North Pole. Henson, an African-American, had traveled with Peary on all of his “farthest north” expeditions. Though Peary recognized Henson’s contribution to his success, stating, “Henson was the best man I had with me for this kind of work,” he also minimized Henson’s role after the fact.

Complicating the situation for Cook was that his claim to have been the first to summit Mt. McKinley (in Alaska) in 1906 had been called into question. Cook’s critics felt that if he lied about Mt. McKinley, then certainly he was lying about the North Pole as well. It didn’t take long for Peary’s claim to overshadow the claim of the rather unknown Cook.

Shortly after they returned from the Pole, Cook and Peary each published their version of the truth in books that discussed their expeditions and discoveries in minute detail. The books became bestsellers and also fueled the public debate.

Cover image from booklet, "At the Pole with Cook and Peary," 1909. The Ohio State University Archives, Frederick A. Cook Society Collection, RG 56.17, image #9_50.

The burden of proof for polar discoveries lies on the explorer. Without modern methods of GPS mapping and plotting of locations, how was this done? Polar explorers during this time were expected to keep detailed, handwritten diaries of their travels, including navigational calculations. Unlike today, when travelers might blog about their journeys to places unknown, taking hundreds of digital images and video along the way, polar explorers in 1909 were much more limited by their tools. Even radio transmission was limited during this time period; explorers had to get to the nearest populated city in order to share their discoveries with the world.

A lot of research and attention has been given to the Cook/Peary North Pole controversy over the last 90 years. Each side has its supporters as well as detractors. Some researchers have concluded that neither one actually got to the North Pole. It is fascinating that there seems to be no end to the debate in sight, even after all of these years. Researchers continue the hunt for primary documents that might lead them to the answers. The Byrd Polar Research Center Archival Program holds the papers of the Frederick A. Cook Society, while Cook’s diaries and other personal papers are held in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Robert E. Peary’s papers can be found in the U.S. National Archives in Washington, D.C.


The North Pole controversy does not end with Cook and Peary; fast forward from 1909 to 1926. By this time, technological advances changed the focus of polar exploration. Simply getting there was no longer the primary goal; scientific study of the polar regions included geological investigation, advances in radio transmission, weather observation, and continued mapping of the vast Arctic and Antarctic regions.

Richard E. Byrd, officially retired from the U.S. Navy, was a proponent of aerial investigation. He earned his pilot’s wings after an injury to his foot forced him to redirect his naval career. After participating in the Greenland Expedition of 1925, Byrd believed more than ever in the feasibility of flight in the Arctic. Byrd was the commander of the aviation unit on this expedition. Though bad weather and mechanical breakdowns hampered the success of flight on the Greenland Expedition, Byrd continued to have faith that airplanes would indeed be successful in investigation of the polar regions.

Richard E. Byrd, circa 1920s. The Ohio State University Archives, Papers of Admiral Richard E. Byrd, RG 56.1, image #7638_13.

In 1926, with the backing of the National Geographic Society and private donations from many influential people of the time, such as Edsel Ford, John D. Rockefeller, Vincent Astor, and others, Byrd was able to secure enough money to lease a ship and buy an airplane and all the needed supplies to embark on a north polar flight. Other major investors included the New York Times, Current News Features, and Pathe News, a producer of newsreels. In exchange for their investments, Byrd signed contracts guaranteeing his story to the various media.

After extensive organization and planning, delays and complications, Byrd finally took off in his plane, the Josephine Ford, on May 9, 1926, at 12:30 a.m. Floyd Bennett did most of the piloting, with Byrd as navigator. The aerial navigator’s role was complex, operating several instruments at a time. The sun compass (developed specifically for Byrd by Albert Bumstead of the National Geographic Society) was used to determine direction, a chronometer to find longitude, a bubble sextant for latitude, and smoke bombs and drift indicator to determine the influence of wind on the plane. At 9:02 a.m., Byrd’s calculations indicated that they were at the North Pole. After taking motion pictures and readings, they circled and returned to Spitsbergen, Norway.

Pathe cameraman filming the Josephine Ford as it was being prepared for flight to the North Pole. The Ohio State University Archives, Papers of Admiral Richard E. Byrd, RG 56.1, image #7739_6.

Byrd received numerous honors for this accomplishment and became a public hero. The National Geographic Society examined Byrd’s records and confirmed his navigational calculations and instrumentation as accurate. Almost immediately, however, some were skeptical of Byrd’s accomplishment. Most doubters based their concern on the belief that the Josephine Ford was incapable of making the round-trip flight in only 16 hours. The most vocal skeptics came forward after Byrd’s death in 1957. One even stated that Byrd’s pilot, Floyd Bennett, confessed that he and Byrd had actually flown out of sight and circled until enough time had passed for Byrd to claim they had made it to the North Pole.

The North Pole flight controversy simmered for decades after Byrd’s death. It was reignited in 1996 when an Ohio State University archivist, Raimund E. Goerler, discovered Byrd’s North Pole expedition diary among Byrd’s papers. The Byrd papers came to the Ohio State University in the mid-1980s, but remained unprocessed until the 1990s, when a U.S. Department of Education grant provided the funding to process the collection.

The diary went undiscovered for a time, probably due to the printed title, “Diary, 1925.” Indeed Byrd did use the diary in 1925; however, since he did not write on all of the pages, he used it again in 1926 and in 1927. Sometimes he corrected the printed date at the top of the page and sometimes he did not. Most entries are written in pencil and the entries are out of order chronologically. Some pages have notes and mathematical calculations, while several pages show signs of erasure, though the erasures are not thorough and can easily be read. There are notes written by Byrd to his pilot Floyd Bennett, during the flight, due to cockpit noise which made it difficult to communicate verbally. It is apparent that Byrd used the diary as both a daily journal and a convenient notepad.

In light of the discovery of the diary, the existing evidence was analyzed and reanalyzed. Some believe that the erasures present evidence that Byrd was lying about achieving the Pole; others believe that this simply shows that he made a calculation error and was correcting it. Various experts in navigation and astronomy studied the diary and its calculations and notes – and came up with different conclusions!

So how can we know whether Cook or Peary got to the North Pole first? And how can we say with certainty that Richard E. Byrd did or did not fly over the North Pole in 1926? These questions may be impossible to answer. However, researchers continue to study the collections of primary documents, hoping to find additional clues that will lead them to the answers.


Byrd Polar Research Center Archival Program
Read about polar explorers and view images and online exhibits related to the history of polar exploration.

Our Polar Past: Using the History of Polar Exploration in the Science Classroom
This article from The Science Teacher, a member journal of the National Science Teachers Association, presents research on the best resources and strategies for incorporating polar exploration history into the science classroom. Though the article is aimed at high school science teachers, teachers of all grade levels will benefit from the article’s timelines, lists of polar biographies, and general instructional strategies. The article is free for NSTA members and $0.99 for nonmembers.

The Frederick A. Cook Society
Information about Frederick Cook and the continuing controversy surrounding his claim of reaching the North Pole in 1909.

This page from the International Polar Foundation’s web site profiles current polar explorers. Pictures and short biographies are included.


Byrd, Richard, E. 1998. To the Pole: The Diary and Notebook of Richard E. Byrd, 1925-1927. Edited by Raimund E. Goerler. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press. Available online at http://www.ohiostatepress.org/index.htm?/books/book%20pages/goerler%20to.htm

Cook, Frederick A. 1911 My Attainment of the Pole: Being the Record of the Expedition that First Reached the Boreal Center, 1907-1909, With the Final Summary of the Polar Controversy. New York: The Polar Publishing Company

Peary, Robert E. 1910. The North Pole: Its Discovery In 1909 Under the Auspices of the Peary Arctic Club. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company.


The entire National Science Education Standards document can be read online or downloaded for free from the National Academies Press web site. The content standards are found in Chapter 6.

While explorers are usually part of a geography or social studies curriculum, including lessons on polar explorers (past and present) can also meet the History and Nature of Science Content Standard for grades K-4 and 5-8:

K-4 History and Nature of Science

Science as a Human Endeavor

  • Science and technology have been practiced by people for a long time.
  • Men and women have made a variety of contributions throughout the history of science and technology.
  • Although men and women using scientific inquiry have learned much about the objects, events, and phenomena in nature, much more remains to be understood. Science will never be finished.
  • Many people choose science as a career and devote their entire lives to studying it. Many people derive great pleasure from doing science.

5-8 History and Nature of Science

Science as a Human Endeavor

  • Women and men of various social and ethnic backgrounds – and with diverse interests, talents, qualities, and motivations – engaged in the activities of science, engineering, and related fields such as the health professions. Some scientists work in teams, and some work alone, but all communicate extensively with others.
  • Science requires different abilities, depending on such factors as the field of study and type of inquiry. Science is very much a human endeavor, and the work of science relies on basic human qualities, such as reasoning, insight, energy, skill, and creativity – as well as on scientific habits of mind, such as intellectual honesty, tolerance of ambiguity, skepticism, and openness to new ideas.

History of Science

  • Many individuals have contributed to the traditions of science. Studying some of these individuals provides further understanding of scientific inquiry, science as a human endeavor, the nature of science, and the relationship between science and society.
  • In historical perspective, science has been practiced by different individuals in different cultures. In looking at the history of many peoples, one finds that scientists and engineers of high achievement are considered to be among the most valued contributors to their culture.

This article was written by Laura Kissel and Lynn Lay. For more information, see the Contributors page. Email Laura or Lynn at beyondpenguins@msteacher.org.

Copyright December 2009 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0733024. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under anĀ Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.

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