It may have been our harsh Upstate New York winters that primed one man for the North Pole for the first time in human history. But historians debate if Dr. Frederick Cook was really a trailblazer, or a fraudster.


Frederick Cook was born in Sullivan County, New York in 1865, which is generally accepted as the cutoff point between Upstate and Downstate New York.

Cook obtained his doctorate at New York University Medical School and got his first taste of the Arctic serving as a doctor on early expeditions to the region. The Belgian Antarctic Expedition of 1897 - 1899 was particularly perilous, as the crew was forced to spend the winter there. Cook helped keep his fellow crew members alive by hunting for fresh meat to prevent scurvy.

After those early Arctic expeditions, Cook spent some time exploring Denali (the former Mount McKinley) before returning to the Arctic in 1907. Cook claimed he and the members of his party reached the North Pole on April 21, 1908. But Cook and his two companions were missing from the nearest settlement for 14 months, and what they actually did during that time became a subject of controversy.


Cook's claim was accepted as truth initially, but was soon disputed by another Arctic rival, Robert Peary of Pennsylvania, who himself claimed to have discovered the North Pole in 1909. Peary sought to discredit Cook's claim, as Cook never provided any navigational records. Cook claimed his records were left behind in Annoatok, the closest settlement to the North Pole.

Later in 1909, a commission at the University of Copenhagen looked into Cook's claims, and could not determine beyond reasonable doubt that he did what he said he did. The Cook vs. Peary feud continued throughout the early 1900s.

In Cook's autobiography, he wrote:

I have stated my case, presented my proofs. As to the relative merits of my claim, and Mr. Peary's, place the two records side by side. Compare them. I shall be satisfied with your decision.


By the 1920s, Cook was done exploring and had found himself promoting startup oil companies. In 1923 he was indicted by federal authorities on fraudulent promotions. He was also charged with other cases of financial fraud, and served prison time until being released in 1930.

Shortly before his death in 1940, he was pardoned by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

So the question remains: was the North Pole really discovered by an Upstate New Yorker, or a Pennsylvanian? History may never know for certain.

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