|The Peary Controversy—Origins and Recent Developments|
|By Douglas R. Davies © 2002|
• This article begins with a review of the literary
origins of the Peary controversy,
listing and briefly summarizing some of the important books and articles.
• Next, some of the more recent developments are discussed in greater detail.
• The article concludes with a brief overview of the evidence for and against Peary.
For centuries men had struggled to penetrate the frozen north to discover new land or a northwest passage or simply to reach the ultimate northern point. Peary is without rival in the number of years he devoted to polar exploration. In 1909, Peary finally claimed success. His 1908-09 trip was the product of over 20 years of hard-learned lessons about logistics, travel and survival in the far north. Matt Henson was with Peary nearly every step of the way for all these years and went with him to the pole. Two other members of Peary 's final expedition, Robert A. Bartlett and Donald B. Macmillan, went on to distinguish themselves in further polar travels. Henson, Bartlett and Macmillan, who knew Peary and knew what can be done on the Arctic ice, never doubted that Peary had reached the pole.
Peary, who knew this had to be a lie and made no bones about it, was branded a sore loser. A verbal brawl ensued, in which camps of pro-Cook or pro-Peary supporters attacked each other in the media, at public lectures and other events. Within a few months, his story unraveling, Cook disappeared, and his claim was quickly discredited. But the actions of Cook and Peary and their partisans, including newspaper reporters, had inflamed a bitter public controversy that could not be extinguished, and in fact smolders to this day.
Cook resurfaced after about a year on the lam. He took to the lecture circuit and, using a tactic still in vogue today, he succeeded in convincing many that all of the evidence against him was concocted by the "Peary arctic trust"—Peary and his well-to-do financial backers. In fact, Cook spent far more money and time attacking Peary than Peary and his backers spent attacking Cook. Long after the death of the last of Peary's acquaintances, there is still a Cook family trust that spends large sums each year attempting to revive Cook's claim.
Origins of Peary Criticism
eary's achievement has been challenged from time to time by critics in a
number of books and magazine and newspaper articles. Unfavorable articles
appeared virtually immediately upon Peary's return from the north as a
result of the controversy surrounding Cook's claim referred to above. The
first major anti-Peary book, My Attainment of the Pole, by Frederick A.
Cook, appeared in 1911. The book was part of a broad strategy by Cook that
included publications, lectures and a lobbying offensive in Congress to
attack both Peary's claim to the Pole and Peary himself on every conceivable
basis, whether real, imagined or trumped up. His hope was to knock Peary off
the pedestal of public attention and acceptance, so that the nation, in need
of a hero, would reconsider Cook's own dubious (and now utterly discredited)
Next after Cook came Has the North Pole Been Discovered? (1917), by Cook supporter Thomas Hall. Hall's work repeated Cook's arguments and added some of his own, including a hopelessly bungled analysis of four of Peary's photographs and an analysis of Peary's movements in the near vicinity of the pole. This latter analysis ignored the frame of reference that Peary adopted to avoid the very confusion that Hall creates (relating to the fact that at the north pole, every direction is south). The result would be laughable were it not for the fact that it was endorsed and published by a member of Congress.
Although the book is flawed with numerous gross errors of reasoning and obvious bias, it did provide the basic outline and laid the groundwork freely borrowed by later critics. Hall focused on sledging speed and navigation, the supposed suspiciousness of Peary's decision to take Henson on the final stretch to the pole, and Henson's supposed contradiction of Peary's account. His work included a detailed examination of the contentious Congressional sub-committee hearings that ultimately resulted in Peary's promotion to Rear Admiral on the retired list and won him the thanks of Congress.
British cleric Gordon Hayes wrote a similarly flawed critical work in 1929. Hayes' main focus is Peary's claimed distance, which he exaggerates by unsupported assumptions about detours and Hayes' estimate of the effect of ice drift (itself an unknown quantity) on the distance traveled. This latter analysis reveals Hayes' appalling lack of understanding of basic geometry. To reach his conclusion, he had to have assumed that Peary foolishly corrected for drift by occasionally marching at right angles to the intended direction of travel, rather than making minor course adjustments.
More recently, Dennis Rawlins' Peary at the Pole—Fact or Fiction? (1973) is essentially a rehash of the Hall and Hayes books. Rawlins managed to weed out the obvious errors, and his bias is subtler. Rawlins adds some new material found in a manuscript written by Henshaw Ward in 1934. Ward's material—largely his interpretation of communications he had with two people who might have been marginally involved in the Peary/Cook controversy in the early years— is of dubious value, since it was never published during the lifetime of anyone having knowledge of the matters who might have contradicted Ward's conclusions.
Among the more obvious problems with his study of Peary's claim is the fact that his analysis of ice drift intentionally excludes data favorable to Peary. Herbert has proclaimed himself to be the one who first reached the North Pole on foot.
Most recent is the pretentiously titled Cook & Peary—The Polar Controversy Resolved (1997) by Robert Bryce. Despite the equal billing in the title, this book is predominantly about Cook. While admitting the absolute phoniness of Cook's two main exploring claims (the North Pole and Mount McKinley), Bryce admiringly glorifies every aspect of Cook's career from Brooklyn milkman to federal mail fraud prisoner. After devoting hundreds of pages straining at theories that might support Cook's claims, Bryce flatly rejects Peary's claim, inexplicably devoting only about 5 pages of this massive 1200 page tome to critical analysis of Peary's achievement.
Of course, there have been many books and articles favorable towards Peary over the years as well. Favorable accounts of the 1909 journey were published by Peary's expedition leaders: Bartlett, Borup, Henson, and MacMillan. Favorable biographies were written by historian J. Edward Weems, University of Michigan Professor William Hobbs, and polar explorer Fitzhugh Green. Former University of Alaska President and mountaineer Terris Moore wrote a favorable article in the American Alpine Journal in 1983, and Harvard Professor Allen Counter's North Pole Legacy—Black, White & Eskimo (1991) reached a favorable conclusion about Peary's claim.
Of the favorable works, by far the most comprehensive in its review of the various arguments and data is the 1990 National Geographic Magazine (NGM) article by the late RAdm. T.D. Davies (this author's father). It summarizes results published by the Navigation Foundation in a much longer and complete report of the study referred to above.
One of the more interesting aspects of the article and report is the analysis of photographic evidence from Peary's own pictures. This constitutes the most important new evidence in the so-called "polar controversy" since 1909. However, it would be a disservice to the Foundation's work to focus solely on the photographs.
Equally, if not more important, are the Foundation's analyses of Peary's sledging speeds, navigation methods, ocean depth records and diaries. The foundation also examined modern data on wind velocity, ice drift and magnetic compass variation. These analyses demonstrated that despite supposed "impossibilities," Peary's account is plausible, consistent with reports of his fellow travelers, and consistent with what we now know of the Arctic Ocean.
The 1990 NGM article and related study contain the best point by point refutation of the "polar controversy" critics to date. It is beyond the scope of this article to summarize or amplify those points. The following section will, however, address evidence discovered and arguments raised since the publication of the Davies article.
|National Geographic Magazine January, 1990 published the report by Admiral Thomas Davies.|
Events since publication of the Davies article
Discovery of additional photos
After the NGM article was published, Navigation Foundation researchers found among hard copy records two extraordinary images that had not appeared in their search of electronically stored photos at the National Geographic Society (NGS) archives. Both showed large overexposed areas of sky that, when reprinted to compensate for the overexposure, revealed images of the sun and a small bright area around it. See Photo 1 and Photo 2. These allowed very precise measurement of the sun's altitude (the navigational term for the sun's elevation angle above the horizontal plane).
SHOW PHOTOS 1 AND 2
These photos were taken within a span of less than 2 hours sometime prior to about 10:00 a.m. on April 6th, 1909. Measurements reveal the sun's altitude to be what it should have been within a few minutes of arc (corresponding to a few miles on the earth's surface). This was essentially identical to the solar altitude determined by the shadow analysis described in the Davies article. These photos are, in effect, sextant observations frozen in time and verifiable by the modern researcher. In other words, anyone competent in celestial navigation can use the solar altitude in these prints to determine a line of possible positions of Peary's location, just as one would do with a sextant observation.
Critic Dennis Rawlins independently knew of these photos, and discussed them with a news reporter. Rawlins told the reporter that photos existed showing the sun at the right altitude to indicate that Peary was at the North Pole, a fact which Bryce confirms. He claimed that, by his curious logic, these photos showing the correct altitude were evidence of the falsity of Peary's account!
Rawlins reasoning went like this:
(1) A photo showing the sun's altitude of just under 7 degrees can be taken virtually anywhere in the world, by taking a series of measurements of the sun's altitude to determine when the sun will reach the correct altitude.
(2) Peary, Rawlins believed, must have staged these photos to show the correct sun altitude deliberately to generate phony proof.
(3) Peary later realized that this proof would not be sufficient (since several such shots, taken at demonstrably different times would be needed to constitute absolute proof).
(4) Rather than present proof that could be challenged as insufficient, Peary chose to "suppress" it.
Although Bryce buys this argument hook, line and sinker, it seems far-fetched. Peary published only a small percentage of the many photos he took in the vicinity of his North Pole camp. Photos 1 and 2 were no more "suppressed" than any of the other hundreds of photos he never published. He most likely decided not to include the Photos 1 and 2 because they weren't particularly interesting to a reader. They show either a big white area or a nearly black photo with a small white area recognizable as the sun.
No one prior to Peary had thought of using photos for proof of latitude. It is speculative to assert Peary took these photos to support his case. Had he done so, he certainly could have used them and shrugged off the lack of additional photos, if anyone suggested that these were needed to constitute absolute proof, on the basis that the photos he did take were a couple of shots he happened to take and he didn’t think of using these as proof of his position until after his return.
Moreover, if Peary did what Rawlins and Bryce suggest, he would have had to take a series of sights to determine when the time was right for the each photo. Since the photos were taken at different locations, and, on the basis of detailed analysis of the photos that is beyond the scope of this article, possibly an hour or more apart, Peary may have had to do this twice, to determine the two times during the day, upon rising and setting, when the sun would be at the correct altitude to show a false position at the pole. No evidence of such sights exists now, and Henson apparently did not observe any such sights or hear about them from the eskimos who were Peary's constant companions at the pole.
One wonders if every piece of evidence is, in Rawlins' mind, more proof of a conclusion Rawlins formed long ago and is unwilling to reconsider.
In Rawlins' 1973 book he laments the fact that there were no known photos at the Pole camp showing the sun's altitude, because a photo there would be "especially indicative." A photo showing the wrong altitude would prove Peary a liar. Later, when a photo is found showing the right altitude, it, too, proves Peary a liar. In other words, any photo showing the sun taken at the pole camp, other than one of a series of carefully planned photos to show the sun at demonstrably different times - the kind of photos no one has taken before or since - condemns Peary. One wonders if every piece of evidence is, in Rawlins' mind, more proof of a conclusion Rawlins formed long ago and is unwilling to reconsider.
Assuming that Peary did not carefully stage Photos 1 and 2, the mere fact that he took shots at two different times directly into the sun is strong evidence that Peary believed he was near the pole. If he were far short of the pole, as critics suggest, he would have recognized the potentially devastating consequence noted by Rawlins of a photo showing the sun. Apparently, he was not worried about this.
Bryce's Criticism of the Foundation's Work
Bryce's biography of Cook contains very little analysis of Peary's claim. It does include an attack on the Navigation Foundation's findings. Bryce suggests that the photographic analysis had been generally discredited (by unnamed persons) as bad science or wishful thinking. Yet there is no evidence of anyone having attempted a similar analysis.
Bryce may be referring to a short piece by Paul Wallich quoting an astronomer named Charles Kowal as questioning the usefulness and accuracy of methods for determining the sun's altitude by shadows. Kowal sets up a strawman by suggesting that the Navigation Foundation claimed accuracy of one part in 1000. We claimed accuracy in the range of one-third of a degree, and since there are 360 degrees in a full circle, Kowal's ridiculous assertion is apparently based on the fact that our claimed accuracy represented about 1/1000th of the number of degrees in a full circle. However, the number of degrees in a full circle is no more relevant to our work than the circumference of the earth is to an estimate of the distance traveled in a day. William Hyzer, P.E., who has published numerous articles in the field of forensic photography and photogrammetry did his own experiments and achieved results similar to ours. In any event, since Photos 1 and 2 show the sun directly, the accuracy of the shadow method is less important now.
Bryce also might be referring to an individual named Keith Pickering, whose work was referred to obliquely at a symposium at the U.S. Naval Academy in 1991 attended by Bryce and at which I presented material along with Rawlins, Herbert and others. Pickering did no measurements of photos himself, but attempted to show that the Foundation's claimed accuracy was overstated. Pickering's argument was largely based on an arbitrary assumption that our estimated error ranges for individual photos shoud be doubled and on an incorrect mathematical formula that Pickering used to determine the errors associated with averages of multiple photographs taken at the same time. When I pointed out the correct formula to him, Pickering replied, "it looks like I'm going to have to admit a major error …." In fact, Pickering admitted that Rawlins had previously told him of the error, but Pickering "was not in a mood to listen at the time."
Bryce also called the Navigation Foundation to task for basing its estimate of the times the photographs were taken solely on Peary's statements about four photos looking out from Camp Jesup in various directions. If he had read the Foundation's report, he would know that is not what we did. Moreover, the precise time of the photos is less important than the difference in time, because the sun's altitude changed by only about 1 minute of arc (equivalent to 1 mile on the earth's surface) for each hour.
In fact, the timing of various photos was based on an analysis of the photos themselves. As a first step, the time difference between two photos of the same ice pinnacle shown in Photo 1 was determined, based on the relative direction from which the sun was shining and an estimate of the direction from which the pinnacle was being viewed in each photograph. The order in which the photos were taken was confirmed by the existence of additional footprints in the later photos. These photos span a time of about 18 hours. The time span is most easily demonstrated by comparing Photo 1 and Photo 3. Photo 1 is taken nearly directly into the sun, and is clearly taken from virtually the same spot as photo 3, in which the sun is coming very nearly from the photographer's side.
The time span of 18 hours out of 30 spent at the pole (according to every account by Peary or Henson) means that the first photo had to be taken sometime between the time of arrival at the pole and 12 hours later. Three factors suggest the later part of this interval. First, the photos are taken in full sun. Henson and Peary both stated that the sky was overcast upon arrival at the pole, and the first photos of Camp Jesup by Henson and Peary confirm this. Peary stated that the sky did not clear until about 10 hours later (8:00 p.m.). Second, the final pinnacle photos are of a celebration involving all six members of the party. Logically, this would be taken near the end of the stay, and both Peary and Henson so stated. Third, the four photos referred to by Bryce were taken in various directions that Peary recorded. There is no obvious reason for Peary to have lied about the direction in which the photos were taken. If Peary's directions were correct, these were taken at about 10:00 p.m., and Photo 2 was taken about the same time. This would place the time of these photos not long after the first photos of the pinnacle (including Photo 1), which is consistent with the general chronology of events at the pole given by both Peary and Henson. It should be noted that this is really a worst case for Peary. If the directional shots were actually taken several hours before or after the first pinnacle shots, the result would be that Photos 1 and 2 would definitively cross-fix Peary's position virtually at the pole.
Bryce's Bungled Photographic Analysis
Bryce also attempts, in a footnote, to demonstrate that Peary's photos contain evidence of fraud. His analysis is as inept as the efforts by Hall in his biased 1917 book to use Peary's photos to show he was not at the Pole. Bryce's attempt is based on completely unsupportable assumptions about when photos were taken. He reveals a total lack of understanding of how shadows in a three-dimensional world appear in two-dimensional photographs.
For example, Bryce assumes that Photo 4 was taken looking nearly into the sun. He claims that the photo was cropped to take out the sun, which supposedly would have been just to the left of the printed part of the photo at too high an altitude. In fact, Photo 4 shows the full negative, with no cropping and only a thin band of sky masked out for printing in Peary's book to provide better contrast with the snow. It is obvious from inspection of Photo 4 that the sun was not in the field of view. The shadows in the foreground are clearly going left to right as they extend toward the photographer, indicating that the sun is somewhere out of the field of the photo to the left. The lines on Photo 4 illustrate this point. Virtually the full negative was printed in the Navigation Foundation report, and Bryce could have inspected the negative at the National Geographic Society if he had any doubts. This apparently he did not do. Nor does the masked portion of the photo hide anything. As noted in the Navigation Foundation report, a full, uncropped and unmasked version of Photo 4 appears in the U.K. edition of Peary's book. Bryce could easily have checked this, but apparently did not.
Bryce's attempt is based on completely unsupportable assumptions about when photos were taken. He reveals a total lack of understanding of how shadows in a three-dimensional world appear in two-dimensional photographs.
Second, Bryce's suggestion that the sun was too high in Photo 4 is contradicted by Photo 2. Peary took a series of five photos in different directions, including Photos 2 and 4. Examination of the cuts between negatives shows that these were sequential, and analysis of the sun's bearing (from shadows) and the directions Peary ascribed to four of the photos indicates that they were all taken at essentially the same time, which seems reasonable, based on the way people normally take pictures. Bryce has admitted that the sun's altitude in Photo 2 is about right, and so it would be about right for any other photo taken at nearly the same time.
Bryce is, of course, entitled to his opinion about the accuracy of the Navigation Foundation's analysis or the validity of the conclusions, but his claim that the photos contain proof against Peary is irresponsible at best.
The Clean Diary
Bryce and Rawlins have recently teamed up in exhuming the argument that Peary's diary is a fake because it is too clean. The Congressional subcommittee examining Peary's evidence in 1910 commented on the cleanliness of the diary. Peary explained the care with which he protected the diary from the elements and satisfied the questioners. It is worth noting that Captain Scott's final diary, recovered from the tent in Antarctica where he and his colleagues died of starvation in 1912 is similarly a very clean book. In fact, Rawlins himself has described it as immaculate. Contrary to Rawlins' and Bryce's speculation, Herbert examined Peary's diary and concluded it was written in the field.
Captain Scott's final diary, recovered from the tent in Antarctica where he and his colleagues died of starvation in 1912 is clean, as is Peary's. In fact, Rawlins himself has described it as immaculate.
If one assumes that the diary is a fake because it is "too clean", it must be among the oddest of forgeries in history. The Peary critics assert he forged his diary with the idea of publishing it to support his claim to the North Pole. Yet the document has no discussion of activities at the Pole on April 6th and 7th. As noted by the 1911 Congressional subcommittee, there were two loose pages at this point (perhaps from a field notebook ). Several pages are left blank or blank except for the date between April 6th and April 9th, Peary's next complete entry.
One of the inserted pages is still there, and begins, "The Pole at last!" Peary says this was written sometime not long after his regular entry for April 6, made upon reaching camp. The second loose page may have been one that now is inserted at that point, but contains the third page of the entry for April 2 and appears to have come loose. Or it might have been a page now extant only in a typewritten transcription describing the sledging excursions Peary made on April 6 and 7 to "nail" his position. These notes were probably written while Peary was out of camp on one of several excursions, on which he might not have taken his diary. They could also have been written days or weeks later to memorialize Peary's thoughts at the time and to complete the record.
It would be bizarre, if Peary were fabricating a phony diary, to include these loose slips and leave blank pages. The existence of blank pages means that Peary could just as easily have transcribed these notes into the diary itself rather than inserting the loose pages.
Moreover, the diary does not have the look of a document meant for publication. It is full of personal notes, including a design for his tomb and some not-too-attractive musings about the rewards and recognition that he hoped to receive and that other explorers had received. Herbert, in particular, made much of the self-absorption reflected in these notes. Why would Peary include them in a diary intended for publication?
Bryce attempts to explain the foregoing "oddities" by suggesting that Peary copied over all of his original diary, but left blank the pages describing his activities at Camp Jesup, rather than copy the supposedly damaging original entries. But there is absolutely no proof for this. Such speculation does nothing to explain why Peary did not make up entries for the blank pages.
This leads to the curious conclusion that, if the diary is a forgery, the information recorded in it is the same as the data in the "genuine diary" except for the description of activities on April 6 and 7. The diary entries that do exist then must reflect Peary's genuine belief as to the dates of each entry, including the key entries for April 2 through 6, during which Peary estimated the distance covered at 130 miles or more. After all, if these entries were phonies, why would Peary not have kept up the phony entries right through April 7 and 8?
The most logical view of the diary is that it contains Peary's contemporaneous, honest entries. The imperfections in the diary are a testament to its genuineness. As noted, the inserted pages at April 6 could reflect that fact that Peary made those entries while he was out of camp, in a field notebook. They could also indicate, as some have suggested, that Peary encountered some disappointment or confusion at Camp Jesup, and did not want to commit himself in his diary about his activities in and around Camp Jesup. If so, what was the disappointment or confusion that Peary encountered? Was it, as Henson has suggested, that Peary was annoyed because Henson hadn't stopped short, as he was ordered to do, so that Peary could go on to the pole alone? Or was it something else? It might be interesting to speculate about the possibilities, but the inserted pages do nothing to cast doubt on the truthfulness of the entries in which Peary estimated that he had covered 130 miles since leaving Bartlett. As will be demonstrated below, if this is a reasonably accurate estimate, then Peary had to have been very near the pole, and any disappointment or confusion that Peary might have had related only to the precise location of Camp Jesup. There can be no question that Peary thought he had reached the pole (with whatever degree of accuracy) based on his April 9th entry at Bartlett's camp on the return trip: "From here to the Pole & back has been a glorious sprint with a savage finish."
Overview of the Arguments
At this point in history we can actually review Peary's claim with much more
factual understanding than ever before. The lay reader may look upon a full
shelf of literature on the matter. While assessing the various books and
articles for and against Peary's claims, two points must be kept in mind.
No evidence contradicts Peary
First, no critic has discovered a single piece of evidence showing that Peary faked his claim. A comparison of Peary's North Pole claim to Cook's will serve to illustrate the kind of evidence that one might expect to discover if Peary's claim were false.
"…no critic has discovered a single piece of evidence showing that Peary faked his claim…"
Cook reported the existence of two land masses and a "sunken glacial island," all of which we now know positively do not exist. Cook was lying. By contrast, everything that Peary reported about his trip is consistent with actual Arctic geography.
· Peary correctly reported no land at the pole.
· He correctly reported the existence of a major ocean bottom ridge that crossed his route about one-third of the way to the pole.
· He correctly reported deep water along his track about two-thirds of the way to the pole and at the pole. If these reports were guesses, Peary took a chance, because shallower water than Peary reported exists in the near vicinity of both these latter locations .
· Cook's only witnesses directly contradicted his account of his trip, first in 1909 when questioned by members of Peary's expedition and on numerous occasions thereafter. From a 1924 newspaper account the Eskimo called "E-Took-a-Shoo" said, "…if Dr. Cook went to the pole he must have gone there while his Eskimo companion was asleep."
· Those who accompanied Peary on various stages of his trip, and most importantly Henson, who accompanied Peary all the way to the pole, have never contradicted Peary on any of the important aspects of his account.
· Cook's diary has been altered in major ways and does not agree with his published account of his attainment of the pole.
· Peary's diary does not contain any entries that contradict, in any material way, with his published account. Some critics argue that Peary's diary was written after the fact, but no "real" diary has ever been found.
· Critics have made much of the fact that the pages for the two dates that Peary was at the pole were left blank, for any of a variety of reasons (including totally innocent reasons), but the entries that are there support his published account.
In sum, the critics have no evidence contradicting Peary's claim. They simply don't believe the accounts Peary and Henson gave, primarily because they don't believe the claimed distances and claimed navigational accuracy.
Critics have not presented a coherent theory
Second, critics fail to put forth any theory of what actually happened. Of course, they should not be limited to a single theory, but should be obliged to advance at least one theory that, overall, is more credible than the account given by Peary and his companions. This they have not done.
Instead, they present as fact their opinions on arcane subject matters that their readers (and, for the most part, they themselves) know little about, such as the physical limits of travel by dog sledge, celestial navigation, and magnetic compass variation. The critics' opinions are, at best, debatable. A brief discussion of the technical arguments follows, not to try to bring the reader to a final conclusion on these points but to indicate that there is no smoking gun among these arguments that justifies dismissal of Peary's claim. These arguments are relevant, of course, but must be fit into a common-sense analysis of Peary's claim as a whole.
The technical red herrings
Peary critics have argued that the traveling speeds were "too fast". None of these critical individuals had ever handled a dog team, except Herbert (and of course, Cook). But Herbert's sledges were generally loaded to double the weight of Peary's. Sledge weight is a major determinant of the net progress over the ice that is attainable. Not only does a heavier sledge offer more resistance to being pulled on level ice, reducing speed, but the greater need to detour around minor obstacles that could be surmounted by a lighter sledge increases the total distance that needs to be covered. The experienced dog sledgers who have published their views on traveling distances have mostly been favorable towards Peary. This includes Peary colleagues Bartlett, MacMillan, Borup and Henson and MacMillan's colleague, Fitzhugh Green. It also includes Peary contemporaries Isachsen (of the Sverdrup expedition), Rasmussen and Freuchen (who for years maintained a trading station on Northern Greenland) and Stefansson, who spent years in the arctic. Edward Shackleton (Sir Ernest's son) and Geoffrey Hattersley-Smith traveled in the arctic in the 1930s, 50s and 60s, and have published favorable views of Peary's distance claims and repeated those views in letters to the Navigation Foundation. Modern polar travelers Will Steger and Paul Landry both support Peary's claimed distances.
Landry's recent experience is a good example of what can be done with dogs. Landry essentially duplicated various aspects of Peary's trip, including the overall time to reach the pole and the dramatic increase experienced by Peary and each of his supporting parties upon turning back over his own broken trail.
The most that can be said of Peary's daily advances, which were 10 to 15 miles in the early going, 15 to 20 miles in the middle part of the trip, and about 25 miles in the last 5 marches is that some people find the increase suspicious and others accept Peary's explanation that ice conditions improved, allowing a more direct route and faster travel.
Persons knowledgeable about navigation have debated whether Peary's methods were adequate to get him to the near vicinity of the pole. Two types of navigation must be considered: First, the ability to maintain a given direction over the duration of a day's march, and avoid wandering off to the left or right. This can be done quite easily and accurately as Matty McNair describes in her 1999 book . McNair knows the sun's shadow moves at 15 degrees an hour. At local noon her self-cast shadow points due North (or, if she is off track left or right of her intended due North course, it points parallel to that intended course). An hour later the sun's bearing, and her shadow, has shifted 15 degrees, and so forth. The course determined by the shadow method is used to set the compass course, and the compass can be used between checks against the sun or when it is cloudy. Either tool allows the determination of a line pointing parallel to the intended course. Then McNair locates an ice mass along that course in the distance and heads toward it. It simply does not matter how much meandering is done through the ice rubble in between - she keeps heading for the targeted object. This is the same technique employed by Peary on his expeditions and by Henson when he broke trail.
The second type of navigation has to do with correcting for, most importantly, any overall drift of the ice to the left or right of the intended course, and secondarily any cumulative errors that might build up from careless application of the method described above. Critics, and most notably, astronomer Rawlins, have claimed that for this purpose precise longitude sights were required along the way. However, the Navigation Foundation and USAF navigator William Molett have identified methods somewhat less precise than longitude sights that Peary could easily have used to stay on track. These generally involve methods to estimate (directly or indirectly) the time at which the sun is at its highest angle above the horizon, which occurs essentially when the sun is due south (local noon). Professional surveyors from the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey who talked to Peary and testified on Peary's behalf before Congress were satisfied that his methods, based on determination of local noon, were adequate.
It should be remembered that Peary was a college-educated civil engineer with decades of surveying experience. Examples in Peary's records for other explorations demonstrate that he was capable of making accurate longitude determinations by various methods involving use of the sextant or theodolite, both instruments Peary carried on the pole trip.
Key issues that are largely absent from the critics' works are questions to which readers can apply their common sense. For example:
· Was Henson lying when he said the expedition covered 132 miles after leaving Bartlett?
· Was Henson, after 18 years of Arctic work with Peary and their Inuit friends, unable to estimate how far the party traveled?
· Why did Peary, a skilled surveyor with a demonstrated ability to make accurate longitude determinations during his surveys of Greenland in 1900 and before, not produce any longitude sights either real or faked? How did he benefit from not taking longitude sights?
· Why didn't Peary fill in the blank pages in his diary for April 7 and 8? How did he benefit from not doing that?
Captain Bob Bartlett, the last of Peary's team leaders to turn back before the final push to the pole, took a latitude sight at 87-45. This sight appears genuine, and critics generally do not seem to question that Bartlett got that far (although not necessarily on course), since the claimed daily distances are unremarkable and confirmed by multiple witnesses. Critics generally argue that this is the point at which Peary left the truth behind, citing two pieces of supposed evidence: Peary's decision to abandon his last "credible" witness and his failure to take a longitude sight at Bartlett's camp. But do these arguments make any sense?
The credible witness slur
Critics have charged, since the very first days of the controversy, that Peary took Henson, a black man, instead of Bartlett to avoid having a "credible" witness . Peary gave good and compelling reasons for having selected Henson, but even if one assumes Peary took Henson for the alleged purpose of ditching any witness who would be heard to contradict him, that would not justify disregarding what Henson did, in fact, say about the journey. And indeed critics have no trouble crediting any unfavorable remark that Henson made about Peary. But this modern view of the credibility of a black man is applied selectively. What about Henson's credibility on the absolutely central question of how far the expedition went after Bartlett left?
Henson stated that the expedition covered about 132 miles in 5 marches after Bartlett, and covered those marches in 3 forced marches on the return. In fact, Henson not only believed that the expedition covered 132 miles, but he stated in a 1910 newspaper article that believed that he was the one who decided when the distance had been covered.
How do critics, who claim the distance was impossible, address these statements? Hall ignored them altogether, even though he quoted other matters mentioned by Henson in the same paragraph of the newspaper article in which Henson made these claims. Herbert quotes the Henson newspaper article and concludes, in one chapter, that Peary must have gone the right distance but in the wrong direction. Yet this does not prevent Herbert from expounding in another chapter on the utter impossibility of the distance, without even mentioning Henson's estimate.
Rawlins' dismisses Henson's distance estimates as incompetent by suggesting that "certainly his weary bones told him he'd gone at least 130 miles!" while implying that only a fool would believe such a distance.
Bryce, like Hall, does not mention Henson's distance estimate, but laments the absence of a "fully literate" witness to the final stage of the journey. Accepting, only for the sake of argument, Bryce's characterization of Henson as less than "fully literate," it is difficult to understand what "full literacy" could have to do with the credibility of Henson's distance estimate.
It might be fair enough to argue about whether Henson could confirm that Peary went the right direction, since Peary had the navigational instruments and training. But there is nothing to suggest that Henson was not as good as the next man at estimating distances. The distance estimates earlier in the journey by Peary, Bartlett and Marvin (the latter two individuals having less sledging experience than Henson) were in fact quite good. Peary's diary and book show that at a point later shown to be 136 miles from land, the estimates of the three were 133, 138, and 143, respectively. Consistent with this degree of accuracy, Henson stated he could judge the distance traveled within a mile or two a day (i.e., 5 to 10 miles in the 5 days since leaving Bartlett).
What if they lied?
Of course Henson could have been lying about covering the distance to the pole. But it does not seem likely, and critics generally have not suggested that he was lying. Does it make sense that Peary enlisted Henson as a co-conspirator? Peary would have been beholden to Henson for life to maintain such a conspiracy and would have had to share some of the honors or financial rewards with him. He would have had to pay him off in some way. This did not happen. Henson received no financial rewards to speak of, certainly nothing compared to what Peary reaped.
After the pole Henson actually conducted a lecture tour with slides made from his own North Pole pictures. He earned about $2600. Peary tacitly assented to the lecture tour by Henson, but Henson complained that Peary would not let him use many of his photos. By 1912 Henson had written his own book about reaching the pole , but it was not a financial success.
Henson never shared the spotlight of fame with Peary. There was no place in society for blacks, and Peary was even quoted in the press saying he was the "only white man to reach the Pole." After the Pole they never met again socially.
Henson had a hard time finding work in New York, because there were no jobs for blacks at that time. Peary supporters did help him get a lowly job as a clerk at the U.S. Customs House. He worked at this for 25 years in order to earn a pension. This was the extent of the financial reward reaped by Henson.
Does any of this sound like Henson was in on a conspiracy with Peary to fake the pole? Not at all.
Another problem with the critics' "conspiracy" theory is that if Henson had been a co-conspirator with Peary the two of them would not have been constrained to the timeline that has aroused so much suspicion for the portion of the journey after Bartlett turned back. They could have conspired to cut down the (fictitious) time at the pole by 12 hours. Then add an extra day or two (faked) between the departure from and return to Bartlett's camp. Then they could have made up the time by claiming slightly higher speeds on the final portion of the return trip. Peary could have thrown in a longitude sight or two after leaving Bartlett. Such measures would have deflated the criticism that has been one of the mainstays of every critical attack for the last 90 years.
The point is that Peary, with Henson's complicity, could have created a more acceptable hoax - one that avoided the criticisms Peary could reasonably assume would be coming. But he did not do this.
The point is that Peary, with Henson's complicity, could have created a more acceptable hoax. But he did not….
Peary critic Rawlins points to a lack of a longitude observations at Bartlett's camp as evidence that Peary had at that point (if not earlier) abandoned any real effort to reach the pole. That is absurd. For example, Rawlins argues that Peary avoided finding out how far off track he was. Why? Rawlins imagines Peary feared that his colleagues (being naturally curious about the result of the sight) would realize they were so far off course as to make attainment of the pole impossible. Why risk this, Rawlins argues, when the direction Peary traveled after leaving Bartlett would be irrelevant, assuming Peary had no intention of going the distance to the pole?
There are two problems with Rawlins' speculation. First, it doesn't compute. Even if an observation at Bartlett's camp were to show a position 50 miles off track (to the west or east), that wouldn't be a problem. Peary would in that case need to make an adjustment in his course, but the increase in distance to the pole simply isn't significant. As shown in Sketch 1, the distance along the new course would be only about 9 miles more than the distance along the original course, an increase from 135 to 144 miles. This additional distance is not nearly enough to change Peary's prospects for success. Thus there would have been no down side if Peary had troubled to take a longitude determination.
Second, this argument presumes that Peary must have intended to travel considerably less than the 135 miles needed to reach the pole. If he were going to travel any distance close to this, why would he deliberately risk going the wrong direction? He would have done virtually all the work for required for a genuine claim, so why settle for a faked one? But if Peary were going to travel considerably less than 135 miles, he would need to get Henson into the conspiracy.
Rawlins' whole premise that Peary couldn't risk taking a sight because he was hiding the ball from his colleagues just doesn't hold up.
What really happened?
So what happened after Bartlett turned back? There are two basic scenarios:
Under the first, Peary didn't take a longitude sight because he had no intention of going anywhere near the distance to the Pole. Henson went along with Peary's obviously inflated distance estimates and silently suffered in obscurity while Peary basked in the glory of a phony claim. The four Innuit who went along never spilled the beans (for example in their many discussions with, and reported by, the resident Danish trader Peter Freuchen over the years), either because no one ever told them how far the pole was from Bartlett's camp or because they were enjoying their fame in their own society, or were loyal.
Under the second scenario, Peary didn't take a longitude sight at Bartlett's camp because he believed, rightly or wrongly, that he was fairly well on track. How far east or west he might actually have been can be argued about. He and Henson headed north, on a course parallel to their estimated meridian (using the shadow and compass method described above). They went a distance that they both estimated to be about 130 or more miles. How accurate their estimates were can be debated. Based on Henson's estimate of 1 or 2 miles per day, the error would be no more than 10 miles. Based on the average accuracy of Bartlett's, Marvin's and Peary's estimates for the first 136 miles, referred to above, the error would be less than that.
In any event, Henson and Peary arrived at a place called Camp Jesup, and after staying there for 30 hours, and taking at least a dozen photos of flags flying, they returned. Why did they return? Was Camp Jesup so close to the pole that Peary was satisfied he was essentially at the pole (as his published observations show)? Or was Camp Jesup so far from the Pole that further marches would be futile? Or did Peary turn back within relatively easy striking range of the Pole?
Sketch 2 will help shed some light on this. The horizontal lines at the bottom of the figure show the location of Bartlett's camp, based on the sight he took, assuming that the sight must have been taken between 12:30 and 1:30 p.m. on April 2. Note that the location of these lines do not depend on any assumption about whether Bartlett's sight was at local noon; they depend only on the time of the sight. In performing calculations for this sight, Bartlett used almanac data, which is normally interpolated to the nearest hour, for 1:00 p.m., confirming an actual time for the sight between 12:30 and 1:30. The horizontal block near the top of the figure is the area in which Camp Jesup must have been located if Peary and Henson traveled 120 to 140 miles more or less north from Bartlett's camp. The pie-slice area represents the area in which Camp Jesup could be located based on the conclusion that Photos 1 and 2 were taken between 8:00 and 10:00 p.m. on April 6th.
It is readily apparent that if the conclusion about the time of Photos 1 and 2 is correct, and the distance traveled was 130 miles, then Camp Jesup was virtually at the pole. If the distance traveled was at least 120 miles, then Camp Jesup could be no more than about 20 miles from the pole. Thus the undisputed solar altitudes in Photos 1 and 2 together with the conclusion that Peary and Henson apparently believed they had covered the necessary distance from Bartlett's camp imply that Peary was at least within easy striking distance of the pole.
Of course, Peary could have turned back just short of his goal, out of concern for his safe return. This seems highly unlikely, given Peary's history of hair's-breadth escapes and pushing men, dogs and supplies to the absolute limit. Granted, Peary could have turned back due to some unreported difficulty, loss of nerve by Peary or his party, or simply a belief that he was "close enough." Until there is some evidence of this, or at least a plausible theory about what happened, there is no reason to reject Peary's account. Certainly the theories of Rawlins, Herbert and their predecessors about longitude sights, ice drift and detours have no bearing on this. Whatever difficulties Peary might have experienced in covering the distance to the pole and knowing which way to go, it appears that he overcame these and reached at least the very near vicinity of the pole.
|© 2002 by Douglas R. Davies. All rights reserved. No part of this text may be used without written permission from Douglas R. Davies. Email request|