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Who Was the First Person to Reach the North Pole?

The title of the first person to reach the North Pole is shrouded in mystery and controversy. While Robert Peary claimed this feat in 1909, doubts about his expedition's accuracy persist. Frederick Cook also asserted he reached the pole a year earlier. The truth remains elusive, inviting us to explore the icy depths of polar exploration history. What might we uncover next?
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

The first person to reach the North Pole was an engineer in the American Navy named Robert Edwin Peary, who reached the Pole on 6 April 1909, along with his employee Matthew Henson and four Inuit men named Seeglo, Ootah, Ooqueah, and Egigingwah. Although his achievement was shadowed with doubt for almost a century, a 2005 expedition by a British explorer named Tom Avery and four others were able to recreate Peary's journey with replica wooden sleds pulled by Canadian Eskimo Dog teams, taking 36 days and 22 hours to reach the North Pole, a figure only 5 hours faster than that given by Peary.

The Earth's North Pole is extremely isolated and cold. As there is little reason to travel there except to make a point, the total number of explorers who travel there numbers no more than a couple hundred per year. Fly-bys have been made by plane and airship, and US and Soviet submarines have passed by the North Pole and even surfaced there. Lacking solid ground, the North Pole is covered by constantly reshuffling thick sea ice. This makes it impossible to build any permanent structure there.

Robert Edwin Peary was the first person to reach the North Pole.
Robert Edwin Peary was the first person to reach the North Pole.

During the summer, the North Pole receives 24 hours of sunlight, and during the winter, 24 hours of darkness. To understand why, recall that the Earth's axis is not directly perpendicular to the plane of the ecliptic, but rather is offset by a factor of 23 degrees, called the axial tilt. So while the majority of the planet is thrust in and out of sunlight every 24 hours, small portions around the North and South Pole experience 6-month nights and days. Of course, this makes them all the more hostile to would-be polar colonizers or scientific researchers.

In 2005, British explorer Tom Avery replicated Peary's journey with wooden sleds pulled by Canadian Eskimo Dog teams.
In 2005, British explorer Tom Avery replicated Peary's journey with wooden sleds pulled by Canadian Eskimo Dog teams.

Numerous controversies surrounded the first polar expedition. Except for Peary, no one on the trip was trained in navigation, and thus no one could confirm Peary's navigational work. In a book later published by Henson, he recalled the trip as difficult, involving torturous detours to avoid ice ridges and areas where the ice pack grew thin. This contradicted Peary's account of a fast and direct trek to the Pole. However, as stated before, their trip was recreated by explorers using period equipment, and thus looks more plausible than many historians of the 20th century would have thought.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who is credited as the first person to reach the North Pole?

Sunshine is omnipresent at the North Pole in summer.
Sunshine is omnipresent at the North Pole in summer.

Robert Peary is often credited as the first person to reach the North Pole on April 6, 1909. However, there has been controversy surrounding his claim due to inconsistencies in his travel logs and lack of independent verification. Despite this, many historical records still recognize Peary's claim.

What evidence is there to support Robert Peary's claim to the North Pole?

Robert Peary's claim is supported by his own accounts, navigational records, and the testimonies of his team members, including Matthew Henson, an African American explorer who played a crucial role in the expedition. However, the accuracy of Peary's records has been questioned by historians and explorers, and no conclusive evidence, such as undisputed physical markers, has been found to confirm his exact location at the North Pole.

Were there any other contenders for the title of first person to reach the North Pole?

Yes, Frederick Cook claimed to have reached the North Pole on April 21, 1908, nearly a year before Peary. However, Cook's claim was widely disputed and discredited after investigations found inconsistencies in his evidence. Additionally, some have suggested that the indigenous Inuit people may have reached the Pole before any explorers, but there are no historical records to validate this.

How did the controversy surrounding the North Pole claims affect subsequent explorations?

The controversy over who first reached the North Pole spurred further expeditions to the Arctic, with explorers seeking to provide indisputable proof of their achievements. This led to advancements in navigation, survival techniques in polar conditions, and a better understanding of the Arctic environment. The race to the Pole also increased public interest in polar exploration and scientific research.

When was the first undisputed overland journey to the North Pole completed?

The first undisputed overland journey to the North Pole was completed by a team led by Wally Herbert on April 6, 1969. Unlike previous claims, Herbert's team's arrival at the Pole was confirmed with independent verification, including aerial reconnaissance and support, making it a milestone in polar exploration history.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime HistoricalIndex contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

Learn more...
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime HistoricalIndex contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

anon221359

At the time of the trip to the N. Pole, Peary had lost most of his toes to frost bite, and had difficulty walking. Henson scouted out the way to the pole, before going back to get Peary (who was in a dog sled), and transporting him to the pole, where Henson had already been.

anon161199

I would like to contact the relative of Plaisted. The family of a Sherpa from Darjeeling, India, has told me that he, as an employee on the Plaisted expedition, was the first Indian to reach the North Pole. I would like to confirm this.

anon152968

Ralph Plaisted was my grand uncle and according to my family history he was the first "undisputed" person to reach the North Pole by land. Due to the difficulties he had on the trek, and Peary's journal, he believed that Peary had faked his accomplishment. Some experts believe he missed the North Pole by anywhere from 30-120 miles. As for Matthew A. Henson I believe he was on the same expedition as Peary.

BBought357

Matthew Henson was the first to reach the North Pole and was an African-American. For reasons that have been well documented he received no credit for that. He sent forward while the others did whatever was needed for the expedition to go further. If you check the records you will see the documentation, but if not there, check African-American history on the subject.

sputnik

How about Ralph Plaisted? In 1968 a group with Plaisted as their leader definitely made it to the North Pole. His conquest of the North Pole is indisputable.

anon3145

Matthew A. Henson was determined to be the first person to reach the north pole. Only getting credit for it in his latter years.

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    • Robert Edwin Peary was the first person to reach the North Pole.
      By: Juulijs
      Robert Edwin Peary was the first person to reach the North Pole.
    • In 2005, British explorer Tom Avery replicated Peary's journey with wooden sleds pulled by Canadian Eskimo Dog teams.
      By: Allen.G
      In 2005, British explorer Tom Avery replicated Peary's journey with wooden sleds pulled by Canadian Eskimo Dog teams.
    • Sunshine is omnipresent at the North Pole in summer.
      By: miiko
      Sunshine is omnipresent at the North Pole in summer.