April 6, 2023

The Race to the North Pole

The Race to the North Pole

April 6, 1909. Robert Peary leads an expedition to the Arctic and declares himself the first man to reach the North Pole.


Cold Open

It’s the evening of July 11th, 1891 in Melville Bay, off the coast of Greenland.

26-year-old surgeon Frederick Cook leans over the side of a steamship and marvels at its steel hull cutting through a layer of ice on the seawater. Aside from the native tribes who live in the sparsely populated Arctic, few people have ever been this far north. But Frederick has a taste for adventure. One month ago, he left his New York medical practice to join an expedition to the Arctic led by explorer Robert Peary. Now, Frederick is helping map the wilderness of Greenland to discover how far north the vast island reaches.

But the journey is treacherous. Frederick hears a shout and looks around to see a sailor pointing to a large chunk of ice in the water. Frederick grips the rail tight… as the ship collides with the ice block. The ship’s wheel spins wildly and the two sailors holding it are thrown to the deck.

A bar snaps off the tiller, hitting expedition leader Robert Peary across the legs. He collapses, screaming in pain.

Frederick runs to the injured explorer. With a single glance, he can tell that both of Robert’s lower leg bones are broken. He calls for help to carry Robert below deck because he knows he must quickly set Robert’s leg to prevent infection — if he doesn’t, the expedition may have failed even before they’ve set foot on land.

Frederick Cook successfully treats Robert Peary’s broken bones, and the expedition leader credits the surgeon for saving the mission. Six months later, when Robert is fully recovered, he and Frederick cross Greenland and become the first non-Inuits to see the island’s northern coast.

But over the next two decades, the relationship between the two adventurers will turn sour, as Frederick and Robert become fierce rivals in a race to go even further north. Both men will lead separate expeditions aiming to reach the North Pole—and both will declare they are the first to get there. But though Frederick may possibly have accomplished it a year earlier, doubt will be cast on his claim, leading Robert Peary to be honored as the first man to reach the North Pole, on April 6th, 1909.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is April 6th, 1909: The Race to the North Pole.

Act One

It’s midday on April 21st, 1908 near the North Pole, sixteen years after Robert Peary’s Greenland expedition.

A cold wind blows tiny shards of ice into Frederick Cook’s face as he traverses the arctic landscape. Ready to gauge his location, Frederick shouts a command to his huskies and his sled slides to a stop. Frederick’s companions, two Inuit hunters, watch with questioning expressions as the adventurer fumbles with his sextant and chronometer through thick gloves. But once he gets his reading, Frederick shakes his head and calls for the dogs to run again. They’re close, but they aren’t yet at the North Pole.

After Robert Peary’s Greenland expedition returned to the United States, Frederick spent the next few years pursuing his interest in exploration. But not alongside Robert. Frederick offended his former expedition leader when he turned down the chance to serve under him again. After their falling out, Frederick continued to explore, but on his own terms. He sailed to the Antarctic with a Belgian expedition. He trekked into Alaska and became the first man to summit Mount Denali, the tallest peak in North America. Then, Frederick set his eyes on an even greater achievement—becoming the first man to reach the North Pole.

And twenty-four days ago, Frederick’s trailblazing expedition stepped foot on the pack ice of the Arctic Ocean. Since then, he and his two Inuit companions have traveled hundreds of miles, going farther north than any person ever has. But now, Frederick is within a few hundred yards of the North Pole.

Frederick's dogs race across the ice for a while before Frederick again halts his sled and repeats his observations. This time, Frederick’s readings show they are standing at the very top of the world. He nods at the Inuits and smiles as they cheer. Frederick, Etukishook, and Ahpellah are the first humans to reach the North Pole.

Frederick takes a tent pole from his sled and ties an American flag to it. He plants the pole in the snow, allowing the Stars and Stripes to flap in the wind. Meanwhile, the Inuit hunters set to work building an igloo shelter while Frederick compiles meticulous records of conditions at the Pole. He notes that the six-foot tent pole casts a twenty-six-foot shadow. He records the temperature as minus 36 degrees Fahrenheit. He finds a crevasse and measures the ice to be sixteen feet thick. And he repeatedly checks the longitude and latitude to ensure that they actually are at the geographic North Pole. Frederick hopes these observations will help prove that his expedition reached the very northernmost point of the globe. 

After 36 hours, he’s recorded enough details, and it’s time to leave. Frederick expects that the trip back to Greenland will take a month. But it takes far longer. A navigational error quickly takes the three explorers more than 100 miles off their planned route and far from the supplies they’d cached for their return journey.

Eight months after leaving the North Pole, the trio still haven't made it to safety. And the onset of winter has made travel impossible. The sun has already set, and it won’t rise again for months. They have little choice but to wait out the darkness. 

Inside a cave, Frederick sits and watches a small fire crackle and pop, shaking his head at his misfortune, he pokes the fire with a stick as the Inuits continue to slumber in their sleeping bags. Frederick lets them sleep. There’s no point waking them—there’s nothing else to do but to stoke the fire and keep watch against hungry polar bears. 

So for four tedious months, Frederick’s routine stays the same, until finally, the sun rises. And with spring upon them, the explorers continue their onward journey. After two months, they finally arrive back in Greenland, where Frederick and his companions have long been thought dead.

Their safe return will be a cause for celebration, as will Frederick’s claim that they successfully reached the North Pole. But the explorers’ achievement will soon be threatened by a second expedition. Back in Greenland, Frederick will discover that another group has embarked on a trip to the North Pole, one led by none other than Frederick’s former mentor, Robert Peary.

Act Two

It’s April 6th, 1909, one year after Frederick Cook believed he reached the North Pole.

Explorer Robert Peary wakes to the sound of huskies barking. He’s momentarily disoriented and wonders where he is. Then he remembers. He’s in an igloo, just three miles from the North Pole. Crammed in the ice shelter with him is a fellow American, Matthew Henson, and four Inuit hunters.

Robert’s breath forms clouds in the cold air as he crawls out of his sleeping bag and checks that his boots are still dry. He knows all too well that getting wet feet out here will lead to frostbite in minutes.

But Robert is well used to the discomfort of life in the far north. This is his eighth trip to the Arctic, and his expeditions have set several records for exploring deeper into the ice fields than ever before. His last journey attempted to go all the way to the North Pole, but Robert barely escaped with his life after the ice broke up around him. But he was determined to try again—and at 50 years old, he knew his next trip would likely be his last.

So, two years after abandoning his first North Pole attempt, Robert was ready to try again. This time, the ice held, and for the past two months, Robert’s expedition has slogged through the frozen wilderness. Now, they are on the final stretch—and since Robert is unaware that Frederick Cook has already led an expedition here, he thinks today is the day that mankind will reach the North Pole for the first time.

But as he looks at the barren sheet of ice from the igloo, Robert sighs with disappointment. The sky clouded over while they slept, and the overcast conditions will make it difficult to take readings to confirm their position. But with limited rations, Robert knows there is no time to waste. He orders his men to pack up camp, harness the dogs, and set off, using a magnetic compass to direct them north.

As the sky clears, Robert eagerly takes readings with his sextant and chronometer. But he curses when he checks the instruments. They’ve gone past the North Pole. Robert orders his party to turn around and follow their tracks back, taking more and more measurements until he declares that they are finally at the North Pole.

There, Robert pulls an American flag from his pocket and plants it on top of a mound of snow. Alongside it they fly the flags of the Red Cross, the Navy League, the American Peace Society, and Robert’s school fraternity. After posing for photographs, Robert cuts a strip off the Stars and Stripes and places it in a tin. He adds a note giving the names of his expedition party and the date they reached the North Pole and buries the tin in ice.

But as he stamps snow on top of the tin, Robert spots his fellow American, Matthew Henson, bent over, carefully examining the ground. Matthew points to their tracks, saying they must have passed this exact location just a few hours ago when they overshot the North Pole. He gestures to one particular set of bootprints that matches his. Matthew looks up with a grin and says that he was in the lead when they came past here—so that must make him the first person ever to reach the North Pole.

This doesn't well with Robert. He hasn’t dedicated two decades of his life to Arctic exploration only for Matthew to steal the glory at the last moment. So Robert firmly states that it’s impossible to know for sure; any one of them might be the first to it.

Robert is certain that he has led the first expedition to reach the North Pole. But after a long trek back to Greenland, he receives the unwelcome news that Frederick Cook returned from the far north four months ago. Hearing this, Robert is inconsolable. It’s the first he has heard about a rival expedition, and he sees Frederick’s actions as a betrayal—Robert taught Frederick all he knows, and he’s been repaid by his old comrade sneaking to the North Pole ahead of him.

But soon, Robert will have an opportunity to undermine Frederick’s claims. To ensure that he gets the glory, Robert Peary will do all he can to cast doubt on Frederick Cook’s achievement—even if that means ruining his former protégé’s reputation.

Act Three

It’s August 17th, 1909 in an Inuit village in Greenland, four months after Robert Peary’s expedition reached the North Pole.

Harry Whitney, an American hunter, bounds up the gangplank of a steamship and shakes Robert Peary’s hand.

For the past year, Harry has lived among the Inuit in Greenland and learned their hunting techniques. During that time, he befriended explorer Frederick Cook when the two crossed paths in the wilderness. The men became so close that Frederick left most of his luggage in Harry’s care after his return from the North Pole. This allowed Frederick to get home faster and publicize his record-breaking polar journey.

Harry assured his friend that he would look after his belongings and get them to Frederick as soon as possible. Now, months after Frederick’s departure from Greenland, Harry has finally found a ship returning to the United States—but it belongs to Robert Peary, leader of the second expedition to the North Pole.

Robert raises his eyes in shock at the number of trunks Harry carries on board. Harry sees his surprise and explains that these aren’t all his—he has several of Frederick Cook’s cases with him too. Robert’s face clouds over, and he announces that nothing belonging to Frederick will be permitted on board.

Harry is shocked by the sudden change in Robert’s demeanor. He looks uneasily at Frederick’s trunks and struggles with indecision. He doesn’t want to let his friend down, but there won’t be another ship for months.

So with a reluctant sigh, Harry takes Frederick’s luggage back to the dockside and leaves it in the safekeeping of the local Inuit. He asks them to hold onto the trunks until Frederick can organize their passage on a different ship. But when that finally happens, Frederick is told that the luggage is nowhere to be found. It’s unclear what happened to them, but all of his trunks are missing—and with them, almost all of his notebooks and records from the polar trip.

More than a month later, when his ship docks in America, Robert will begin a smear campaign against Frederick in the press, suggesting that his rival stopped short of the North Pole. And without the bulk of his notebooks, Frederick will be unable to supply sufficient evidence, that he was the first man to reach the North Pole. The influential National Geographic Society will eventually announce that it was Robert Peary, Matthew Watson, and their four Inuit companions who were the first group to stand on top of the world. But almost 80 years later, the organization will re-examine Robert’s records and conclude that his evidence is also insufficient, throwing into question once again who was the first to the North Pole and did Robert Peary’s expedition truly make history when they claimed they arrived at the North Pole on April 6th, 1909.


Next on History Daily. April 7th, 1926. Three years into Benito Mussolini's fascist rule of Italy, Irish aristocrat Violet Gibson attempts to assassinate the Italian dictator.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Muhammad Shahzaib.

Sound design by Mischa Stanton

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Scott Reeves.

Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.