The dawn of the 20th century was an exhilarating time in exploration, with multiple men of action vying to be the first to the North Pole, the first to the South Pole, the first to ply the ice-choked waters of the Northwest Passage, and the first to summit the highest peaks on each of the seven continents. Pushing any of these unknowns off the map would assure the first explorer to set foot there a prominent place in the annals of history.
A promise of fame and fortune, not to mention ego, spurred many of those who are household names today, including Robert Peary and Matthew Henson, Roald Amundsen, Robert Falcon Scott, and Sir Ernest Shackleton. To be considered among the ranks of these great men was what motivated New York physician Frederick Cook to leave behind the stability of a career in medicine for a life on the edge of the map.
His first taste of adventure came when he was hired as a surgeon on Peary’s Arctic expedition of 1891. Having performed the job with aplomb, he was invited to join the crew of the Belgica, part of Adrien de Gerlache’s 1897 Belgian Antarctic Expedition. When disaster struck and the ship was forced to unexpectedly overwinter for months in Antarctic darkness, Cook ensured that each crew member was adequately taken care of, often leaving the ship to personally hunt for meat to keep the crew’s scurvy at bay. His heroism put him on the radar, as it were, among explorers and adventurers alike, and he used his newfound fame — and respect — to gain support for his own expeditions.
In 1897, while he was on the Belgian expedition, Cook visited Tierra del Fuego, an archipelago at South America’s southernmost tip. There he studied the Ona and Yahgan tribes, his appreciation of Indigenous peoples setting him apart from many other explorers of the period. Cook also met with the missionary Thomas Bridges, who had already spent two decades studying the people of that region, compiling a comprehensive dictionary of their language. Unfortunately, Bridges never got around to publishing the dictionary before his death from stomach cancer in 1898 (an occurrence which would come back to haunt Cook later).
By the turn of the century, Cook had a sterling reputation as an explorer and a leader — but the events of the decade would spiral out of his control, damaging his reputation irrevocably.
The trouble began with Cook’s mountaineering. In 1903, he led an expedition that was the first to successfully circumnavigate Denali in Alaska. Three years later, in 1906, when he returned to Denali with the intention of summiting it, Cook alleged that he reached the mountain’s peak — yet, by his own photographic evidence, he didn’t even come close. His critics noted that the pictures of Cook “summiting” Denali were taken on a small outcrop about 19 miles away. (Today, said outcrop is known as Fake Peak.)
The mishap became fodder for the exploration set. It was the stuff of gossip exchanged in Manhattan’s gentleman clubs and explorer societies half a world away — until a string of further controversies started to make headline news. In the aftermath of his 1909 expedition to the North Pole, things really started to deteriorate for Cook.
In February of 1908, Cook departed Annoatok, a remote village in northern Greenland, with a small party. Soon, he was accompanied by just two Inuit men. He claimed they reached the North Pole on April 21. On the return journey south, Cook alleged that he found his route obstructed, and was thus forced to spend much of the next year overwintering in what is now part of Arctic Canada. Eventually, Cook and his two companions returned to Annoatok in the spring of 1909. They had been gone for 14 months, but the exact path of their journey was never substantiated with detailed navigational plans. Those records, Cook alleged, were part of his personal belongings, left in three boxes back in Annoatok — and lost. To this day, the boxes have never been found.
More trouble found Cook when his former mentor-turned-rival Robert Peary — the leader of Cook’s first Arctic expedition in 1891 — launched a campaign to discredit him, alleging that, in fact, Peary himself had been the first to reach the North Pole. It was a battle for the ages — explorer against explorer, mentor against student — playing out largely on the front pages of New York’s major newspapers. Peary accused Cook of lying, Cook accused Peary of getting to the North Pole too late, and Peary brought up the Denali incident from 1906 to further discredit Cook’s career. The good work Cook had done on the Belgica, as well as his valid claim of having circumnavigated the mountain in 1903, was quickly overshadowed.
The ongoing war between these two men became the stuff of tabloid legend, as each went back and forth attempting to discredit the other. Their motivations did, on one level, have to do with the glory of being the first to reach the North Pole; but back in New York, having the flashier credentials also meant you could attract the attention of financiers to support future expeditions.
It did not help that in 1910, the New York Times reported that Cook was accused of trying to publish Thomas Bridges’ Tierra del Fuego dictionary under his own name. His fate sealed, Cook’s reputation took a nosedive. He continued to defend his North Pole claim to the hilt, threatening to sue journalists for libel if they wrote that he fabricated his claim.
In 1919, perhaps exhausted by having to defend the validity of his polar exploits, or perhaps having exhausted the pool of financiers willing to support such a controversial figure, Cook turned to another sort of exploration: oil. He began working with and promoting start-up oil companies in Fort Worth, Texas. Four years later, however, he — along with 24 other Fort Worth promoters—were found guilty of fraud and deceptive practices by the federal government, and he was sentenced to just under 15 years in prison. He was imprisoned until 1930, during which time the famed polar explorer Roald Amundsen, a member of the original Belgica crew which owed its survival to Cook, visited him several times. In 1940, a decade after his release, President Franklin D. Roosevelt pardoned Cook. And then, just a few short months later, Frederick Cook, one of the most infamous explorers of all time, passed away from a brain hemorrhage.
While a number of Cook’s claims have been scrutinized and his reputation remains tarnished, a small cadre of supporters believe that he is still one of the greatest explorers to have ever lived. The Frederick A. Cook Society, which still meets today, maintains that Cook’s claims were valid, and that he was merely an early victim of what we now call “fake news.”
The punchline of the drama between Cook and Peary is that Peary’s own North Pole claim has since been seriously questioned by numerous organizations, including the National Geographic Society. But, as we’ve come to learn, no matter how powerful the truth may or may not be, it pales in comparison to the power of public perception.