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April 2019

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U.S. Census Bureau History: Robert Peary and the Exploration of the North Pole

Robert Peary

On April 6, 1909, an expedition led by Robert Peary claimed it was the first to reach the
geographic North Pole. His claim would immediately be challenged by Dr. Frederick A. Cook,
who claimed to have reached the pole months earlier. The controversy surrounding the
competing claims continues 110 years later.

After a 9-month journey through some of the most severe conditions on Earth, an expedition led by Robert E. Peary claimed it was the first to reach the geographic North Pole on April 6, 1909. As the expedition sailed home in early September 1909, Peary telegraphed the New York Times from Labrador, Canada—"I have the pole." Much to Peary's dismay, the Royal Danish Geographic Society was honoring another explorer—Dr. Frederick A. Cook—for his claimed discovery of the North Pole months earlier. Controversy over the competing claims continues more than 110 years later.

Frederick Cook, Peary's friend and doctor during previous Arctic expeditions, departed on his quest for the North Pole in July 1907 from Gloucester, MA. He spent the winter in Annoatok, Greenland, before setting off for the pole in February 1908. Surviving on musk ox meat and pemmican (made from the meat and fat of beef, musk ox, and walrus), Cook reported that he and his assistants calculated by sextant readings that they reached the geographic North Pole on April 21, 1908. Harsh conditions and open water forced the men to shelter in a cave for months before continuing their journey home. The emaciated expedition arrived in Annoatok 14 months after leaving. After another grueling 700-mile trek south to Upernavik, Greenland, Cook boarded a ship to Copenhagen, Denmark. On September 1, 1909, he reported his discovery of the North Pole to the New York Herald from the telegraph station in the Shetland Islands.

While Cook was away, Robert Peary and 23 men, including his decades-long African American assistant Matthew Henson, departed New York city aboard the S.S. Roosevelt, bound for Ellesmere Island, in present day Nunavut Territory, Canada, on July 6, 1908. The expedition left the Ellsmere camp on March 1, 1909, and slowly wound its way over glaciers and pack ice toward the pole. Covering as many as 15 miles a day by dogsled, Peary, Henson, and two assistants reached what they believed was the geographic North Pole on April 6, 1909.

Robert Peary first learned of Cook's expedition on his return trip from the North Pole. During a stop in Annoatok, Peary initially dismissed rumors of Cook's success. However, after learning from more reliable sources in late August that Cook was on his way to Copenhagen to announce his discovery, he ordered the Roosevelt to sail at top speed to the nearest telegraph station so he could relay his own announcement to the New York Times. Days after the New York Herald published Cook's announcement, the headline of the New York Times' September 7 edition read, "Peary Discovers the North Pole After Eight Trials in 23 Years."

Once in the United States, Peary, the Peary Arctic Club, and the explorer's wealthy financiers, orchestrated a campaign to challenge Cook's credibility. As the controversy over who reached the pole first grew more contentious, the National Geographic Society (which financed Peary's expeditions) named former U.S. Census Bureau geographer Henry Gannett to chair a committee tasked with examining evidence of the two men's North Pole claims. Much to Cook's chagrin, many of the records documenting his claim had been left behind in Greenland. In April 1909, Harry Whitney, a hunter traveling with Peary's expedition, offered to deliver Cook's records to New York City. However, Peary chartered the ship that arrived to bring Whitney home and the explorer refused Whitney's pleas to load Cook's boxes. Cook's records were never seen again, leaving him unable to substantiate his claim to the pole. Unable to examine Cook's records (and favoring Peary from the start), Gannett and his committee unanimously ruled in favor of Peary in December 1909. Although Peary's records and responses to questions raised concerns among members of a 1911 congressional subcommittee reviewing the expedition, the House Committee on Naval Affairs supported a bill that authorized the President of the United States to place Robert Peary on the retired list of the Corps of Civil Engineers with the rank of rear admiral, thus formally recognizing Peary as first to the North Pole and awarding him a rear admiral's pension.

Peary retired to Harpswell, ME. He died on February 20, 1920, and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Frederick Cook published an account of his polar expedition in 1911, but without the detailed records left behind in Greenland, public support favored Peary. Cook opened oil exploration companies in Wyoming and Texas, and was convicted of mail fraud related to those companies in 1923. He received parole in 1930, and a pardon Link to a non-federal Web site by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in May 1940. Until his death in August 1940, Cook asserted that he was first at the North Pole.

Today, many researchers studying polar expedition records conclude that Peary may not have stood at the North Pole, but he was probably as close to that point on the Arctic Ocean's ice as the instruments of the day could accurately record. Following Peary's expedition, many explorers, scientists, and naval vessels (like the U.S.S. Nautilus) reached the North Pole by sea and air. It was not until April 19, 1968, that a snowmobile-riding Minnesotan named Ralph Plaisted completed the first undisputed over-land trek to the North Pole with three companions. Their arrival at the pole was confirmed by sextant readings and aircraft circling overhead. Today, approximately 1,000 people visit Link to a non-federal Web site and confirm their arrival at the geographic North Pole annually, thanks to the help of global positioning satellites.

You can learn more about Robert Peary and the exploration of the Earth's polar regions using census data and records. For example:

  • Matthew Henson and two of the assistants accompanying Robert Peary's expedition accidentally reached the North Pole before the explorer, who intended to quietly leave them behind so he could claim the pole for himself. When Henson noted his foot prints were in the snow at the pole before Peary's arrival, the explorer stopped speaking to his assistant. Until his death, Peary refused to share credit for the discovery of the North Pole with Henson or the assistants who got there before him. Henson died in 1955, and was buried at New York City's Woodlawn Cemetery. President Ronald Reagan gave permission for Henson and his wife to be reinterred at Arlington National Cemetery on April 6, 1988—79 years after the discovery of the North Pole. Henson's grave lies next to Robert Peary's and credits the African American explorer as "Co Founder" of the geographic North Pole.
  • Polar explorer Richard E. Byrd Jr., and Floyd Bennett claimed to make the first overflight of the North Pole on May 9, 1926, thanks to the financial support of Ford Motor Company president, Edsel Ford. Byrd's claim of reaching the North Pole has since been disputed. If Byrd's flight missed the pole, then a crew (including polar explorers Roald Amundsen, Umberto Nobile, Oscar Wisting, and Lincoln Ellsworth) aboard the airship Norge would claim the honor days later on May 12, 1926. On November 29, 1929, Byrd and Bernt Balchen completed the first flight over the South Pole in Antarctica.
  • Robert Peary's expedition claimed to be the first to reach the geographic North Pole by verifying their position using a sextant and artificial mercurial horizon. Had the explorers simply followed their compasses, they would have traveled toward the geomagnetic North Pole. Unlike the geographic North Pole, which is a fixed point at the "top" of the globe, the geomagnetic North Pole's position is constantly changing as the Earth's fluid iron core shifts. In 2019, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that the Earth's magnetic North Pole was moving away from the Canadian Arctic and toward Siberia, Russia. The magnetic pole's position has moved so quickly since 2015, that the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency released an early update of its World Magnetic Model to avoid potential errors by navigators using global positioning systems.
  • The city of North Pole, AK, lies southeast of Fairbanks, AK, along the Tanana River. In 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau counted 2,117 people living in North Pole, AK. Despite its name and being home to Santa Clause House Link to a non-federal Web site, North Pole, AK, is actually about 1,700 miles from the geographic North Pole and 125 miles south of the Arctic Circle.
  • At more than 5,500 miles away, North Pole, NY, is even further from the geographic North Pole than the Alaskan city that shares its name. The hamlet is part of Wilmington, NY, within the state's Adirondack Park. While North Pole, AK, is home to the Santa Clause House, this New York hamlet is home to Santa's Workshop Link to a non-federal Web site. In 2010, 1,253 people lived in Wilmington, NY.
  • Want to experience conditions similar to those at the North Pole without traveling to the middle of the Arctic Ocean? The 2012 Economic Census reported that the United States was home to 369 skiing facilities (NAICS 71392); 441 ice manufacturing establishments (NAICS 312113); 451 dry ice manufacturing establishments (NAICS 325120); and 1,175 refrigerated warehousing and storage establishments (NAICS 493120).
  • According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, winter temperatures at the North Pole can fall to -40 F, while temperatures at the South Pole can drop to an even chillier -76 F. Few places in the United States ever reach such low temperatures, however on January 23, 1971, Prospect Creek, AK, north of Fairbanks set the national low temperature record with an -80 F reading. In the contiguous United States, the temperature at Rogers Pass, MT, north of the state capital Helena, dropped to -70 F on January 20, 1954!

USS Hampton at the North Pole

On April 19, 2004, the crew of the Los Angeles-class attack submarine USS Hampton (SSN 767) posted a sign reading "North Pole" on the ice after
surfacing in the polar ice cap region. At the time, the USS Hampton and the British Royal Navy's HMS Tireless were taking part in a joint operational
exercise. The submarines' crews and scientists met on the ice to collect data and perform experiments.

Forty-six years earlier, the U.S. Navy submarine USS Nautilus successfully completed the first-ever submerged transit of the geographic North Pole.
Learn more about Nautilus and other U.S. Navy submarines here!

Photo by Chief Journalist Kevin Elliott and courtesy of the U.S. Navy.

This Month in Census History

J. Presper Eckert, Jr. was born 100 years ago on April 9, 1919.

Eckert cofounded the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation with John Mauchly in 1945. In 1951, they delivered UNIVAC I to the Census Bureau where it tabulated the 1950 Population and Housing and 1954 Economic censuses.

Through mergers and acquisitions, Eckert's company ultimately becoming Unisys Corporation in 1986. Eckert retired from Unisys in 1989, but continued to consult on projects until his death in June 1995.

The Census Bureau decommissioned its last Unisys computer—the Unisys Clearpath 4400—in 2010.

Enumerating by dog sled
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Remote Alaska

The U.S. Census Bureau's special agent Ivan Petrof conducted the first enumeration of the Alaskan territory in 1880. At that time, the territory's population was 33,426. During the 1960 Census—the first following Alaskan statehood—the population was 226,167.

Today, Alaska is home to 739,795. Its most remote areas are counted months before the rest of the nation's population so enumerators can take advantage of frozen lakes, rivers, and paths allowing them to more easily reach villages by snowmobile and dogsled, like this mushing 1940 Census enumerator.

In 2020, the nation's population count will begin in Toksook Bay, AK. The remote village in Alaska's Bethel Census Area was home to an estimated 661 people in 2017.

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Census Day

Census Day 2020 is just 1 year away! Most households throughout the United States and its territories will receive and return their census questionnaires by mail.

The 1960 Census was the first to mail questionnaires to most householders who completed the questionnaire with data that was accurate as of April 1, 1960. An enumerator visited to collect the forms soon after.

In 1960, the nation was home to nearly 180 million people. Sixty years later, the U.S. Census Bureau anticipates counting about 330 million people!

Visit https://www.census.gov/history every month for the latest Census History Home Page!

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Source: U.S. Census Bureau | Census History Staff | Last Revised: December 05, 2022