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Who Was First at the North Pole?
~ An Historical Perspective ~
by Barbara Rhodes, Chairperson
PolarFlight Research Forum
  The quest for the North Pole began as early as the 1500s, at first as a purely commercial venture. While the Spanish and Portuguese dominated, and fiercely protected, the more southerly trade routes to the Orient, other European countries searched to the north for alternative sea routes. But by the late 1800s, however, long-held dreams of discovering a northern sea-route to the Far East failed to materialize. What instead ensued in the north was a race among various nations and personalities to set record northings and, ultimately, to be the first to reach the North Pole itself.
  In September of 1909, an American medical doctor and veteran of both arctic and antarctic travel, Frederick A. Cook, returned to civilization after a two-year absence with the astonishing news that he and two Eskimo companions had reached the North Geographic Pole on April 21, 1908. Five days later, another veteran arctic traveler and a Navy civil engineer, Robert E. Peary, announced that he and five companions had reached the North Pole on April 6-7, 1909 and labeled Cook a fake. Despite lingering doubts in many quarters about the veracity of Peary's claim, the laurels of being celebrated as the "discoverer" of the North Pole ultimately went to Peary. Cook, on the other hand, became known as a liar and a charlatan and his claim as one of history's great hoaxes.
  Notwithstanding his many detractors, Peary's claim to "discovery" of the North Pole was accepted for much of the twentieth century. Although history books and encyclopedias still tend to continue to credit Peary with being the first to reach the North Pole, today the assertion that Peary actually reached the vicinity of the pole is considered highly questionable. In the wake of recent doubts about the validity of Peary's north polar attainment, a number of other claims have come to the forefront, each vying for the distinction of being known as "first" at the North Pole. Who then was actually first to reach the North Geographic Pole?
  There are several factors that greatly complicate a question of who was first at the North Pole--a question that, on the surface, one might think should have a simple answer. Several caveats follow that should be kept in mind in considering the merits of various north polar claims:
(a) The North Geographic Pole is an imaginary point in the Arctic Ocean that is covered by floating ice (map). The polar ice pack is constantly in motion so there is no means to permanently mark the location of the North Pole. The proximity of the magnetic pole complicates the use of magnetic compasses in navigation and since lines of longitude converge at the geographic pole, determining exact location by sextant observation alone tends to be imprecise. (for more on polar navigation, click here). Pinpoint accuracy in arriving at the exact location of the North Pole is a quite recent phenomenon. Any earlier claims of attainment of the North Pole really should contain the qualifier "vicinity" of the pole. And . . . just how close is "vicinity" is a subject of debate all in itself!
(b) To further complicate matters, there are the myths and legends and just plain inaccuracies and misinformation that pass, unquestioned, as historical fact. Publications abound that contain erroneous information or, worse yet, that present assumptions and opinions in the guise of established fact. In turn, one frequently finds these same publications cited as authorities for repeating, unverified, the same misconceptions and misinformation. Fictionalized, overly romanticized, movies and television productions of the "based-on-actual-fact" genre further add to the confusion over fact and fiction, myth and reality.
(c) Additionally, questions about first attainments of the North Pole depend in large measure on the mode of transportation used to reach--and to stand upon--the location of the North Geographic Pole. No doubt harking back to the early Cook and Peary claims, there appears to be a widespread sentiment that attainment by surface travel is more significant than by any other means; that one must actually stand upon the surface to qualify (although in reality one is actually standing on floating ice covering an ocean); and that somehow it must have been an arduous journey in order to count.
  The following then are some of the factors to be considered that make the question of first attainment of the North Pole a complex matter indeed with no definitive answers that could conceivably satisfy all:
1. First, there is the matter of Dr. Frederick A. Cook. Cook, with two Eskimo companions, claimed to have reached the pole by dogsled from the northern coast of Axel Heiberg Island in the Canadian Arctic on April 21, 1908--a full year before Robert Peary's 1909 claim of first attainment of the pole. Cook was thoroughly discredited and disgraced for most of the 20th century. (At one point he was even jailed on a questionable charge of mail fraud although he later received a full pardon). In the light of recent research and findings--and a re-examination of much old material--many arctic historians and scientists are reconsidering Cook's claims. Interestingly, Cook's 1910 book, My Attainment of the Pole, was re-published in 2001 with new supplemental material. At the very least, this republication should make Cook's account more widely available and, presumably, more widely read. Cook may, or may not, have reached the "vicinity" of the North Pole--it should be kept in mind that there are staunch adherents on both sides and passions often run high. But with Peary's claim more or less discredited in many circles, the possibility exists that Cook might receive a fairer appraisal now than he ever did previously.
2. Next, there is the 1937 Soviet SP-1 expedition that landed on the ice in the "area" or "vicinity" of the North Pole. The Soviets traveled via 4-engine cargo planes from a base in Franz Josef Land to establish the first of many floating ice stations that now dot the Arctic Ocean. A preliminary May 21, 1937 flight with Mikhail Vodopyanov as pilot and carrying Professor Otto Schmidt, the expedition leader, may have landed on the ice within about 10 miles of the pole, although later the main body of the expedition probably landed roughly 30 miles from the pole. Their intention, of course, was not to land at the exact location of the North Pole. Rather it was to land on an ice floe of sufficient size to establish a floating ice station near the pole. Throughout, the Soviets, correctly, were careful to use the terms "area" or "vicinity" of the pole in referring to these landings.
  A 1948 Russian expedition is believed to have arrived by air and traveled to within 10 miles of the North Pole and is sometimes credited with being the "first." However, during the post-World War II era the Soviets seem to have been less careful about using the term "vicinity" so perhaps this as well as other unequivocal claims should be approached with a bit of caution.
   Note also in conjunction with aircraft landings on the ice near the pole, that the 1926 Byrd claim of flying to the North Pole--that was questionable from the very beginning--and the 1926 Norge trans-polar airship flight--that is undisputed--were both over-flights. Neither party ever asserted that they had landed at or near the North Pole. Nevertheless, publications sometimes mistakenly credit either or both, as well as the 1928 Italia flight that crashed on its return, with having landed at the pole.
3. Following subsequent flights that landed on the ice near the North Pole, there are the confirmed attainments by surface travel of the 1960s. The 1968 Ralph Plaisted expedition reached the North Pole on April 18, 1968 traveling by motorized sleds (snow-mobiles) from Ward Hunt Island in the Canadian Arctic. An over-flying USAF aircraft confirmed their position at 90N. The 1968-69 Wally Herbert/British Trans-Arctic expedition reached the North Pole on April 5-6, 1969 traveling the "old-fashioned" way by dog sled across the polar ice pack from Pt. Barrow, Alaska to Spitsbergen via the North Pole. So again, who was "first" in this case depends on the mode of transportation. Incidentally, both the Plaisted and Herbert expeditions received resupply by airdrops--a factor some purists consider a disqualifier in terms of "firsts."
4. Last, there are a variety of other polar firsts: first woman, first by submarine, first by icebreaker, first to ski supported (with resupply by airdrops), first unsupported, and so on. As if the question weren't complex enough already, future plans call for submersibles to travel to the surface of the pole 14,500 ft. under the polar ice pack, a location that is being touted as the real North Pole.
  And so the great North Pole debate goes on . . .  In the final analysis, the answer to the question of who was first at the North Pole is that there is no one single answer. There are entirely too many qualifiers to consider to offer a simple answer and the likelihood exists that the question may never be definitively resolved.
C. F. Hall
A. F. Markham
Greely Exped.
Nansen &
(now considered questionable)
About the Author: Barbara Rhodes, author of this piece, is a founder and the Chairperson of PolarFlight Research Forum. She is a licensed airplane pilot and her specialty is polar aviation history. She lives on the coast in North Carolina in the US.
For more information . . .
Scroll down past the record Farthest Norths for "Who was first at the North Pole--some accepted and some disputed records."
Another interesting site that deals with this question. In German; even if you don't read German, there are some rarely seen photos here that make this site well worth a visit.
A biographical sketch of polar explorer Louise Arner Boyd. On the basis of Boyd's 1954 chartered airplane flight over the North Pole, she is credited with being the first woman to travel to the North Pole.
Who "Owns" the North Pole? click here.
For additional Frequently Asked Questions pertaining to the North Pole and the North Polar Regions, click here.