Did Peary Reach North Pole April 6, 1909?
At last you have what you value most in this life; now will you give a thought to those who love you better than life?
And he, in his own way, reciprocated. In a 1908 letter from Greenland, describing familiar places they had stayed together when she accompanied him on his early expeditions, he added this wistful note: We have been great chums dear ….
Edward Stafford, Peary’s grandson, who lives in Chester, Maryland, and is a retired naval officer with several books to his credit, was chiefly responsible for persuading his family to open the Peary archives to researchers. Peary himself, Jo, and Stafford’s mother, Marie Peary Stafford, had refused all requests for 75 years. “The explanation I always got was that Granddad was so embittered by the Cook controversy, by all the terrible things that were said about him, that he was afraid his enemies would be able to find something in there, further ammunition to use against him,” Stafford explained. “So they remained under lock and key, in a safe someplace. When my mother died, I came across them and turned them over to the National Archives.”
The Cook controversy involved Dr., Frederick Cook, who three days before Peary sent his famous telegraph message — “Stars and Stripes nailed to the Pole” — announced that he had reached the Pole on April 21, 1908, nearly a full year before Peary’s claim. When he heard of the competing claim, Peary intemperately told reporters not to believe Cook (who had served as physician on one of Peary’s early Greenland expeditions). The charges led to countercharges by Cook’s backers that Peary had not really gone to the Pole. The battle was fought out in newspapers and lecture halls across the nation, as well as in the U.S. Congress, where Cook supporters grilled Peary when he sought promotion to Rear Admiral. Although most authorities now discount Cook’s claims — he was found to have faked an earlier claim to have climbed Mt. McKinley and never produced any convincing documentation of his Polar exploit — the genial doctor from New York, who died in 1940 after spending some years in jail for mail fraud, still has believers.
In fact, it was a 1984 “docudrama” on CBS-TV, starring Richard Chamberlain as a heroic Cook and Rod Steiger as a snarling, brutal Peary, that led to the unsealing of the Peary papers. “After that ridiculous, slanted documentary, I went down [to Washington] and read the diaries myself,” Ed Stafford said. “They looked so valid and so authentic to me, I figured, ‘Why are we keeping them closed? Is there some secret we’re trying to hide? Let’s get them out in the open; let’s have them examined by someone who knows what he’s doing. Let’s get rid of this goddam Cook controversy. It’s been going on long enough.’
“Well,” he sighed, “I was successful at least in ending the Cook controversy. But I seem to have opened another whole barrel of snakes.”
Last September National Geographic published a story about Peary entitled: “Did He Reach the Pole?” The answer, according to author Wally Herbert, can never be known for sure. But based on certain circumstantial evidence he says he found in the Peary papers — blank pages in the expedition diary, Peary’s “astonishingly slack navigation,” a sudden increase in recorded speed after the last witness capable of taking navigational sights had departed, the explorer’s peculiar reticence upon arriving at the spot (he told Henson “I don’t suppose we could swear we were exactly at the Pole”) — Herbert decided that “Peary failed to provide conclusive evidence that he had reached the North Pole” and may have missed it by as much as 60 miles.
Peary critics — especially Dennis Rawlins, an astronomer-historian who lives just a few miles away from Stafford, in Baltimore — have been making the same objections for years. But the National Geographic article caused a sensation for two reasons. One was that it had been the National Geographic Society that originally upheld Peary’s claim, after a cursory examination of his records back in 1910. The other was that Wally Herbert, unlike most earlier skeptics, was no “armchair explorer,” but a veteran of 13 years of polar experience. In fact, if Peary was not the first man to reach the North Pole by foot and dogsled over the ice, it was Wally Herbert himself, who arrived there at the head of a British expedition on April 6, 1969, 60 years to the day after Peary said he made it.
Herbert’s conclusions troubled even Ed Stafford, who has published many articles defending his grandfather’s record. “Wally makes a good case,” he admitted. “He has me about half convinced that when the admiral made that second set of observations [on April 7, the day after his arrival at the spot he believed to be 90 degrees North] … it looks as though he was dissatisfied with how close he was. Maybe Wally’s right. Maybe at that point he had to decide for himself, in his own conscience, if he were close enough to say he was there. And it took him a long time to make that decision. He was a very honest guy. His statement to Matt Henson indicates that he wasn’t as close as he would have liked to have been.”
When I asked Stafford if he regretted pushing to unseal the Peary records, he was quiet for a long moment.