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PolarFlight: The Cook-Peary Controversy, Part 2
Part II
 The most recent round in the controversy began with the 1984 airing of the CBS/ITT production, Race for the Pole. This docu-drama, of the "based on actual events" genre, portrayed a nave Dr. Cook, who was deprived of his justly deserved honors by a malevolent Peary. Needless to say, the Peary family and the National Geographic Society, that had steadfastly over the years backed Peary's claim, were opposed to the airing of the production.
  To counter doubts about Peary's claims that the television show raised, the National geographic Society commissioned British polar explorer and avowed Peary admirer Wally Herbert to examine Peary papers that the Peary family had granted Herbert unlimited access to and to write of his findings. The results, which appeared in the September 1988 issue of National Geographic magazine, may not have been, however, what National Geographic and the Peary family anticipated.
  Among the more surprising assertions Herbert made are the following:
1.  Although doubts about Peary's north pole claim were hardly new, doubts about Peary's 1906 Farthest North claim that purported to exceed the previous Farthest North by a mere few miles were long forgotten. Herbert again raised the issue of the impossibility of Peary attaining the speeds he claimed in his 1906 Farthest North. "I find it almost impossible to accept that on April 20, [1906] he [Peary] traveled a minimum of 77 miles to the claimed point and back in one long march ," Herbert asserted. (NGS, Sept. 1988, p. 398).
2.  In something less than wholehearted support by the National Geographic Society of Herbert's findings, a curious two-page, out-of-perspective map that carries the small notation "scale varies in this perspective," depicts the route Peary claimed he traveled to the north pole. To the side, and less conspicuous, is Herbert's hypothesis of Peary's actual route and three possible locations of the final "north pole" camp--all three at least 30 miles or more short of and to the west of the North Pole. (Ibid, pp. 410-110).
3.  In a conclusion that may have seemed shocking to Peary and National Geographic devotees, Herbert correctly states that the burden of proof lies with the explorer. "In his own lifetime, however, Robert E. Peary failed to provide conclusive evidence that he had reached the North Pole," Herbert says. (Ibid, p. 412).
  The following year (1989) saw the publication of Herbert's long-awaited book, The Noose of Laurels, touted as a biography of Peary (the title comes from what Herbert refers to as "the tragic delusion that fame is equated with greatness"). In fact, there was speculation at the time that National Geographic had had Herbert's 1988 Peary article in their possession for a considerable length of time and decided to publish it only when the publication of Herbert's book became imminent. However, for anyone expecting new revelations there was surprisingly little. The Noose of Laurels is well-written, well-researched, and informative, but aside from dealing with Dr. Cook--Herbert completely debunks his claim--there is little that was not covered in a condensed form in the 1988 National Geographic article.
  And for that reason, The Noose of Laurels probably never has received the attention it deserves. To further complicate matters, it is very difficult to have an interest in polar exploration without taking sides in the north pole controversy. One tends to be strongly either anti-Peary and pro-Cook or visa versa. And therein perhaps lies the book's greatest unintentional flaw. Herbert's finding that neither Cook nor Peary reached the pole--and a hint that both may have perpetrated a hoax--is hardly a new revelation but one that is likely to offend partisans on either side. (There were even allegations at the time that Herbert was eager to dispense with both Cook and Peary in order to call attention to his own transpolar trek and attainment of the North Pole).
  In the meantime, astronomer and long-time Peary (and National Geographic Society) critic Dennis Rawlins--whose 1973 book Peary at the North Pole: Fact or Fiction? attacked both Cook's and Peary's north pole claims--announced, with great fanfare, his discovery of a document that placed Peary's actual location in 1909 120 miles from the North Pole. This announcement appeared to confirm a long-held and widespread suspicion: that Peary was a considerable distance from the pole when he turned back...and knew it.
  To defend their ongoing pro-Peary stance, the National Geographic Society next turned to the so-called Navigation Foundation (their actual name is The Foundation for the Promotion of the Art of Navigation), a small Rockville, Maryland-based non-profit group dedicated to "preserving the ancient arts of navigation". The Navigation Foundation was granted the same unlimited access to Peary papers that Wally Herbert had, but their conclusions were vastly different. The Navigation Foundation succeeded in doing what had not been done before, namely that of placing Peary on April 6-7, 1909 at the precise location of the North Geographic Pole of the earth and--since Peary had never been able to account for how he reached the point he claimed was the North Pole--devising a method for getting him there...and back.
  The January 1990 National Geographic article based on the Navigation Foundation Report appears on the surface impressive and convincing. In reality, it is based on presuppositions (that Peary did in fact reach the North Pole in 1909), assumptions (that everything Peary reported was accurate and true), speculation (the method Peary used to get to the pole and back), and opinion (accounting for Peary's admittedly strange behavior following his return from the pole--something well beyond the realm of a report on navigational methods). " ... [M]ore holes than a piece of swiss cheese," was the way one critic described the report. Rather than an unbiased appraisal of Peary claims (as National Geographic purports it to be), the Report appears to be designed as a response to and an explanation for every criticism that has ever been leveled at Peary.
  Nevertheless in defense of the Navigation Foundation, they did at least resolve one matter: they determined that the document Dennis Rawlins claimed to have discovered that placed Peary 120 miles from the pole in 1909 contained chronograph corrections not sextant observations. But far from solving a mystery, this opened up new questions that National Geograhpic and the Navigation Foundation failed to address. Why had the Peary family over the years jealously guarded the original of this document believing it to be observations made at the North Pole, and why then would the original have been dated April 5-6 rather than the April 6-7, 1909 date that Peary said he was at the pole?
  Following closely after the Navigation Foundation report that unequivocally placed Peary (and his companion Matthew Henson) at the North Pole on April 6-7, 1909, was the publication of S. Allen Counter's 1991 book, North Pole Legacy: Black, White and Eskimo. Counter is a neuroscience professor at Harvard and a longtime admirer of Matthew Henson, Peary's black assistant on all but Peary's first foray into the far north.
  North Pole Legacy is an often very touching and affectionate account of Counter's locating in 1986 in Northwest Greenland Anaukaq Henson, Matthew Henson's part Smith Sound Eskimo son and at the same time meeting Anaukaq's "cousin," Kali Peary, the part Eskimo--Counter uses the term Amer-Eskimo--son of Robert Peary. Both men were born within days of each other in 1906. An elder Peary son, also named Anaukaq, born in 1900, was already dead. The book chronicles Counter's efforts to bring Anaukaq Henson and Kali Peary to the United States, the American Peary family's efforts to prevent Kali Peary from coming to the U.S., and the eventual well-publicized visit of the two men and members of their families in 1987. The following year (1988), Counter was able to have Matthew Henson's remains reburied in Arlington National Cemetery next to Peary's grave with a designation of "co-discoverer" of the North Pole. Unfortunately Anaukaq Henson had died in the meantime but other Henson family members attended the ceremony.
  The remainder of the book, the Epilogue, in which Counter attempts to justify Peary's claim to the discovery of the North Pole would perhaps have been better left unsaid after such as warmly human portrayal of the Greenlandic Henson and Peary families. Counter relies heavily on recent pro-Peary literature such as the Navigation Foundation report, but appears to be beyond his area of expertise in commenting on polar navigation and makes a number of questionable claims.
  Counter obviously believes--and perhaps rightly so--that if Peary is honored as the discoverer of the North Pole then Henson should be honored as co-discoverer. But by making Henson's place in history dependent on Peary's (somewhat questionable) place in history, he may inadvertently be doing Henson a great disservice. Matt Henson deserves more: he should be remembered as a great explorer in his own right.
  In the midst of all the pro- and anti-Peary rhetoric one name was conspicuously absent since the 1984 airing of Race for the Pole, that of Frederick Cook who, if his north pole claim were valid, would have preceded Peary by a full year. Howard Abramson's 1991 book, Hero in Disgrace, reminded readers that there was indeed a Frederick Cook whose claim to reaching the North Pole, however tenuous, was just as good as Peary's.  
  However, Hero in Disgrace contained little that was new and not covered in such books as Andrew Freeman's The Case for Doctor Cook (1961), Theon Wright's The Big Nail (1970), Hugh Eames's Winner Lose All (1973), and Sheldon Cook-Dorough's informative booklet, Frederick Albert Cook - The Major Expeditions (1988). But Abramson has at least helped keep Cook's name alive and additionally has the distinction of being the first of Cook supporters to visit Cook's 1907/08 base at the abandoned Eskimo settlement of Annoatok in Northwest Greenland. Amazingly, remains of Cook's old hut were still standing and the book contains several striking photos.
  At this point, one additional book, On Polar Trails, published in 1983 and based on a lengthy unpublished manuscript by Dr. John Goodsell, surgeon on the 1908-09 Peary expedition, is deserving of mention. Two points in particular in the Goodsell book that shed light on the 1908-09 Peary expedition and the subsequent polar controversy are the following:
  According to Peary reports, the points on the polar sea at which the first three supporting parties, one of which was Goodsell and his Eskimo companions, returned to land are in precise degrees and minutes of north latitude. The location of these turnaround points has never been questioned and always considered valid, thus implying careful navigation and observations. However, Goodsell states quite definitely in his manuscript that these points were dead reckoning estimates lending credence to a belief that at least for the first part of the outbound trek Peary was doing little more than simply "heading north" (possibly by the sun) and estimating his positions.
  Second is the matter of the so-called "Eskimo Testimony" originally published in the New York Times and used to discredit Cook (to this day it is considered one of the most damning pieces of evidence against Cook). When the Peary expedition returned to their base in Northwest Greenland and learned that Cook was alive and claiming to have reached the north pole the previous year, Peary claimed to have interviewed Cook's two Eskimo companions and learned from them that they were never out of sight of land. However, according to Goodsell the questioning was conducted by George Borup, a young Yale graduate on his first trip north, who did not speak the complex and heavily inflected Eskimo tongue (nor did Peary who, according to Goodsell, was not present). Matthew Henson was the only expedition member who was fluent in the Eskimo language, but according to Goodsell also was not present although Henson later signed an affidavit stating that the "testimony" was true. Even more revealing is the fact that Goodsell, who at least in his own estimation had acquired some rapport with the Smith Sound Eskimos and facility in communicating with them, had requested of Peary that he be allowed to interview the two Eskimos but had his request denied and was excluded from the questioning. Goodsell was the only expedition member who did not sign the affidavit, but not, however, because he refused to do so but because he was never asked to and states that he did not learn of the "testimony" until his return home.
  Nevertheless, only Wally Herbert in The Noose of Laurels mentions the Goodsell book in his extensive bibliography and no one--including Herbert--comments on its contents. On Polar Trails appears significant not for any influence it may have had but because it has been virtually ignored.
  Finally, Cook and Peary: The Polar Controversy Resolved by Robert M. Bryce (1997) is a researcher's dream...and a reader's nightmare. In approximately 1200 tightly packed pages, Bryce has presented a complete and meticulously researched and documented account of both Cook's and Peary's forays into the north polar regions. Bryce begins with Peary's first Greenland expedition with Cook as surgeon and ethnologist and covers, in great detail as well, Cook's overwintering in Antarctica, his assaults on Mt. McKinley and the events subsequent to the rival polar claims. However, for students of polar history, Part I, a 761-page narrative, aside from clearing up a few common misattributions, contains little that is new, startling, or not previously known in one form or another.
  The Part II Analysis of the rival polar claims, is less straightforward and factual and based more on opinion, speculation and assumption. Bryce's finding, that Peary did not reach the north pole in 1909, is hardly surprising. But his opinion that Cook turned back at 84N might come as a bit of a surprise--both to Cook adversaries (and Peary supporters) who assumed Cook never got out of sight of land, and to Cook proponents who staunchly believe Cook reached the North Pole. But Bryce's reasoning appears somewhat less than compelling and is based largely on his interpretations of Cook's diaries.
  For example Bryce's discussion of the magnetic compass and magnetic variation in the polar regions is far more complex than it needs to be and appears to be of the textbook explanation variety. Since magnetic variation, i.e. the difference in compass headings between the magnetic pole and the geographic pole (at the time of Cook's and Peary's forays in the north, a difference of approximately a thousand miles), plays an important role in evaluating the validity of the rival polar claims, it would seem that a better grasp of the subject--as well as that of polar navigation in general--would be needed especially for interpreting Cook's assertions in his diaries.
  For anyone with the fortitude (or curiosity) to read that far, the end notes seem to provide the most illuminating part of the book. For example, Bryce presents in his notes a detailed discussion of whether Matthew Henson was illiterate, barely literate, or, as Henson and Peary supporters have asserted, quite literate and well able to confirm whether or not he and Peary had indeed reached the North Pole. Bryce's conclusion, that Henson was barely literate, is based on examining a number of handwritten items said to have been written by Henson although the writing differs significantly and on unpublished diary entries by other expedition members to the effect that they were teaching Henson to read and write. In this case, Bryce's conclusion appears valid.
  However, Bryce misses one important point often used by Peary and Henson advocates to support the claim that Henson would have been able to confirm whether or not he and Peary had reached the North Pole. Henson was known to have recorded the sextant observations used to determine location in the polar regions. Presumably these were observations made by others and consist of a set of numbers. It is common practice to have another person record figures while an observation is being made; of themselves these figures have little meaning. There is absolutely nothing to support a contention that Henson was able to make observations himself, and, more importantly, that he would have been able to do the complex mathematical computations needed to convert the raw data of a sextant observation to actual location.
  Despite its pretentious title, "The Polar Controversy Resolved," it is unlikely that the book has resolved anything. Much like Wally Herbert's The Noose of Laurels, Cook and Peary is likely to offend staunch partisans on both sides. The bitter irony, however, is that Bryce may well have had the last word, at least for a time, on the Cook-Peary controversy. But not because he has, as his title asserts, satisfactorily resolved the debate. Rather, renewed interest in questions surrounding American Richard E. Byrd's claim of having flown to the north pole in 1926 appear to have taken precedence. And so the great north pole controversy goes on.