Mystery of the Arctic Ice: Who was First to the North Pole

Today’s post comes from Lori Norris, an archives technician at the National Archives at College Park. The Polar Expeditions records, which this post is based on, includes papers, journals, and artifacts from Arctic and Antarctic expeditions. Held at the National Archives at College Park, these records were donated mostly from the explorers or their families. The largest part of the collection belongs to Rear Admiral Robert Peary, the explorer who believed claiming first to the North Pole was his birthright and who continues to get credit to this day for his claim.

Map of Arctic regions, Robert Peary North Pole Expedition, 1908-1909. (National Archives Identifier 1060)

Toward the end of the 19th century, exploration and the prize of discovering new lands had become a much smaller endeavor as the world figuratively shrank. Exploration, instead, looked to the more dangerous reaches of the world and even beyond our atmosphere. The industrial age allowed humans to stretch their imaginations and create structures that assisted us to explore the ocean’s depths, escape the earth’s gravity, and navigate both through and over treacherous frozen terrain. However, within this new, dangerous age of exploration, there lies a controversy that may never truly be answered: who exactly was the first to the North Pole?    

Several land discoveries have been disputed or are still in dispute with continued research and archeological digs. One of the most famous being Christopher Columbus not being the first European to reach the New World. The question of the North Pole, however, is a much bigger challenge. Roald Amundsen’s claim to the South Pole in 1911 can be proved, so why not Robert Peary’s claim only two years earlier at the North Pole? The biggest trouble lies deep in the Arctic ice.

While Antarctica is a land mass that can hold relics of the presence of humans, the Arctic Circle becomes nothing more than ice once it escapes the reaches of Canada and Greenland, the land masses that stretch closest to the North Pole. Explorers not only had to deal with the extreme temperatures but with the unpredictability of the ice. Even when waiting until the summer months of the Northern Hemisphere, temperatures still average around freezing and below. Many vessels became trapped, whether they were commanded by newcomers or seasoned explorers, due to the risky gamble of navigating the Arctic’s waters.  

Realizing the limits of these vessels and the dangerously temperamental conditions of the ice, several explorers chose the safer route of making the trek by foot and sled. One of the most famous explorers of the area was Robert Peary, who manned multiple expeditions throughout Greenland and toward the North Pole. Having begun his explorations of the Arctic Circle in 1886, Peary led bigger and riskier expeditions up until his eighth and final expedition, ending in 1909.  

His first attempt to the North Pole was in 1898, during the sixth Peary expedition, which was then followed by a second attempt in 1905. Each failed expedition taught Peary and his crew how to navigate the ever-changing, fluid landscape until he believed that he finally reached his goal in 1909. Upon coming back to the United States, however, he was faced with a shocking discovery that someone else was trying to claim his prize.

Frederick Cook, an explorer and surgeon, had accompanied Robert Peary on his second expedition to Greenland. An ambitious man who wanted to make his own mark, Cook decided to pursue his own path to fame rather than continuing under the shadow of Peary. Cook quickly sought out grand trophies, starting with claiming first to the top of Denali in Alaska in 1906, then following with the claim to have been the first at the top of the world in 1908. Having well-kept travel journals, photographic evidence, and the friendship of Ronald Amundsen, what could possibly go wrong for the young explorer?  

Evidence disputing Cook’s claim to being the first to the top of Denali quickly started to tarnish his reputation even before he came back from his attempt to the North Pole. This, in addition to Peary and his association with the National Geographic Society, created doubt that resulted in a hearing in front of the United States House of Representatives’ Naval Affairs Subcommittee in 1911.

Robert Peary sought to secure his claim to the North Pole and, in order to prove this, worked to expose Frederick Cook as a fraud. Cook’s photographs and journals were analyzed down to the finest details. Companions in both the Denali and North Pole explorations were questioned and interviewed. In the end, Robert Peary prevailed, and Frederick Cook’s efforts in exploration were left torn and smoldering in Peary’s wake.

Robert Peary, however, was not without his flaws. His journals were locked away by the National Geographic Society and his family and were never used as evidence in the case of Peary vs. Cook. Peary’s claim rested on the proof of Cook’s fraud and his reputation as an experienced explorer of the Arctic, not from his own evidence. Even if his claim to the North Pole was accurate, interviews years after the expedition placed his right-hand man, Matthew Henson, at the coordinates first.

Henson, who had been beside Peary on all but his first expedition to the Arctic, was sent ahead of the final exploration party to scout the area. This meant that the Black dock worker from Maryland, not the White rear admiral from Pennsylvania, was the first to walk on top of the world.  

Even though the National Geographic later cast doubt on Peary’s claim to have been first to the North Pole, and reputable historians and explorers have published disputing accounts, Peary’s claim persists in the popular mind.

However, who else could possibly take up the trophy? The first runner-up—journeying not on the ice but in the air—is also shrouded in mystery: Richard Byrd and the airplane Josephine Ford vs. Roald Amundsen and the airship Norge.

In May 1926, both the Josephine Ford and the Norge took off from Spitsbergen, Norway, and flew toward the top of the world. Richard Byrd, flying with Floyd Bennett in a Fokker tri-motor airplane, left Spitsbergen on May 9 toward the North Pole. The round trip took about 15 hours of continuous flying over the icy landscape.

Less than 72 hours later, Roald Amundsen, with a crew of 15 including Lincoln Ellsworth, took off from Spitsbergen in the airship Norge. Slower moving than the Josephine Ford, it took the airship around 15 hours to get to the North Pole, continuing on to land in Teller, Alaska, three days after their departure. Amundsen and his crew landed knowing that they weren’t first to fly over the North Pole, but were happy with the flight over the Arctic Circle.

Just like Peary, more recent reviews of documents and equipment from Byrd’s flight on the Josephine Ford have raised doubts. The claim has since been determined to have been made in error due to equipment issues and incorrect calculations. There were a few who believed that the claim was fraudulent, but his undisputed successes in the Antarctic make such a claim unlikely. Unlike Cook, Byrd’s reputation as a polar explorer has not been tarnished by the discovery that he may not have reached the North Pole. These new revelations would mean that Roald Amundsen was not only the first to the South Pole, but to the North Pole as well.

However, can the claim to be first go to an explorer who just flew over the North Pole? There have been multiple attempts to get to the North Pole since the 1926 flights, and all for different purposes. 

Since the Peary claim to the North Pole wasn’t disputed until the 1980s, scientists and explorers looked to new challenges and opportunities in the Arctic. In 1948 a Soviet scientific expedition flew to and landed on the North Pole. Consisting of four scientists, the expedition was kept secret during and briefly after, but it was acknowledged by Guinness World Records in 1997 as the first to be at the North Pole at ground level.  

The next achievement came from the first to sail under the North Pole. The USS Nautilus, a nuclear-powered submarine that was created from the ambitious mind of Admiral Hyman Rickover, challenged the limits of scientific innovation during Operation Sunshine in 1958. The use of nuclear technology in the compact, submersible vessel allowed the Nautilus to move faster and stay underwater for up to seven times longer than previous submarines. Operation Sunshine tested the limits of the nuclear submarine, and on August 3, 1958, the Nautilus successfully sailed beneath the North Pole.

While the submarine became the first vessel to reach the North Pole, no other expeditions dared to traverse the Arctic by sled and foot since the final Peary expedition. The next party to attempt this feat was actually done on a dare. Ralph Plaisted, an insurance salesman, and Arthur Aufderheide, a medic, began their expedition when discussing snowmobiles and quickly progressed to building a team and gaining sponsorships. Instead of selling insurance, Plaisted sold his exploration to the North Pole on Ski-Doos. The Minnesotans, along with a team consisting of navigators, scouts, and mechanics, began their North Pole attempt in 1967.

The first attempt was riddled with bad luck and even worse weather. The Plaisted expedition, however, decided on a second try in 1968. It was during this attempt that the team managed to make the successful trek from Ward Hunt Island, Canada, to the North Pole. While the team was not as experienced as the Peary team, the Plaisted expedition had an impressive support team that provided supplies by airdrop and more modern navigational tools to ensure the expedition’s arrival to 90 degrees north, the North Pole’s latitude location.

The road to the North Pole is as unknown and uncertain as the Arctic ice. The definition of what it means to be first to 90 degrees north has been fractured since the release of Peary’s journals in the 1980s. The continued urge to explore and reach the North Pole, however, shows that explorers, scientists, and even insurance salesmen dream to challenge the capricious ice in order to stand at the top of the world.

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