True North

Peary, Cook, and the Race to the Pole

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Title: True North: Peary, Cook, and the Race to the Pole
Published by: W. W. Norton
Release Date: 2/17/2006
Pages: 352
ISBN13: 978-0393327380


This book is about one of the most enduring and vitriolic feuds in the history of exploration, one that would cause a bitter divide in the international scientific community and, eventually, lead to the ruin of one of the claimants and the discrediting of the other. The irony is that the men had started out as friends and shipmates, with Frederick Cook, a physician, accompanying Robert Peary, a civil engineer with a U.S. Navy commission, on an expedition to northern Greenland in 1891. Peary’s leg was shattered in a shipboard accident on the trip north, and without Cook’s care he might never have walked again. But by the summer of 1909, all the goodwill had evaporated. In September 1909, Peary reported that he had reached the Pole five months earlier. But Cook, who reappeared seemingly back from the dead after a lengthy journey in the Arctic wastes with two native companions, presented persuasive testimony that he had been the first to attain the Pole, a year earlier, in April 1908.

The feud became the preoccupation of both men for the rest of their lives. Cook was something of a loner, but Peary was a man with friends in very high places, and he wielded this influence brutally. On one occasion he refused to take aboard his ship Cook’s crates of scientific instruments and polar records, thereby helping to ensure their loss. Years after both Cook and Peary were dead, a long-suppressed diary was released, providing proof that one of the claimants missed the Pole entirely and perpetrated a knowing fraud.


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"This adventure yarn delivers as both a cautionary tale and a fitting memorial to polar exploration."
Publishers Weekly

"True North gives you a ringside seat piercing the fog that continues to shroud the epic quest for the North Pole to reveal startling conclusions."
—Geoffrey Wawro, History Book Club

"Henderson does a masterful job recounting the explorers' respective tales without pushing an agenda."
—Dewey Hammond, San Francisco Chronicle


The late, great George Plimpton unknowingly provided the idea for this book when he casually mentioned at a cocktail party in New York City that someone should look into how "the good Dr. Cook" had been "cheated" out of his claim to being the first at the North Pole. My literary agent happened to be at the same cocktail party, and reported Plimpton's comments to me. At that time, I had never heard of Dr. Cook. After some initial research, I came to believe that Plimpton was on to something. A book proposal led to a publishing deal, and I then spent two years conducting research at various archives around the country, then writing True North.

What I came away with is the fact that history isn't always portrayed accurately. History books and encyclopedias have long said that Robert Peary discovered the North Pole in 1909. But guess what? The claim of Frederick Cook to have gotten there a year before Peary is every bit as strong, and in some ways stronger, because Cook was the first to come out with original descriptions of the pole before Peary would release his own descriptions. And this was at a time when people didn't know if there was land up there or even a lost civilization. Back then, many more people initially believed that Cook was the discoverer of the North Pole, but his support was eroded in the face of an orchestrated campaign waged by Peary. Still, Cook described the pole in a way that was verified by all the people who came after him. So, just because it's reported to be history doesn't always make it right.