Polar Research Today


Kenn Harper

The saga of Cook and Peary, the initial supportand separation from Freuchen and Rasmussenand and the role of Eskimo folk memory are recounted


Freuchen Rasmussen Cook Bartlett
Players in the 1909 “Eskimo Witness Story” in which Danish newsman Peter Freuchen and explorer Knud Rasmussen came to side with Peary in the initial weeks of the controversy. Cook’s two Inuit companions, Aapilak and Ittukusuk were interrogated by Peary’s staff, including Captain Bob Bartlett.

I have lived in the Arctic for the past 42 years and speak the Eskimo dialects ofeastern Canada, West Greenland and the Thule District. For two of those years Ilived among the Polar Eskimos of Qaanaaq, Greenland, and have visited thatcommunity many times in the years since. In this time, I have heard much from thePolar Eskimos of their views of northern history and in particular of their admirationfor the abilities of four non-Inuit: Cook, Peary, Freuchen and Rasmussen, whosepaths crossed in the High Arctic as they do in this paper. This study will examine inparticular the roles of Freuchen and Rasmussen in the disgrace of Frederick Cook,and investigate the reliability of Eskimo folk-memory.

The title, “Liars and Gentlemen,” is from a statement by a female acquaintance of Chauncey M. Depew, United States senator from New York, who said in a speech before the Transportation Club, welcoming Ernest Shackleton, that his friend had said, “Cook is a liar and a gentleman, and Peary is neither.” This compelling one-liner appeared in the New York Times on March 31, 1910 and has been often repeated, and sometimes attributed incorrectly to Peter Freuchen, whose style it fits perfectly. (Bryce, page 473 and page 1046, note 21). 

Before I begin, let me explain that I will use the termsPolar Eskimos, Inuit and Inughuit interchangeably. You need also to know that Inuit and Inughuit are plural nouns, and that the word Inuk is the correct singular form. The language spoken by the Polar Eskimos is Inuktun; that of most Canadian Inuit is Inuktitut. Both are dialects of the Inupik branch of the Eskimo language. 

On May 21, 1909, Frederick Cook, travelling with the Polar Eskimo, Qulutannguaq, reached the Greenlandic community of Upernavik, south of Melville Bay, on his way south to announce his attainment of the North Pole. He stayed there for a month as the guest of Hans Peter Kraul, Danish governor of the district, to whom he announced that he had been to the North Pole. Initially skeptical of Cook’s claim, Kraul came to believe it before Cook’s departure. 

A month later, on June 20, the ship Godthaab under the command of Captain Henning Schoubye called there. Aboard were Jens Daugaard-Jensen, the Inspector of North Greenland, his staff, and a number of Danish reporters and scientists. Governor Kraul introduced Cook to them as the first man to have reached the North Pole. Cook took passage on the Godthaab from Upernavikto Egedesminde, to await the departure of another ship, the Hans Egede, for Copenhagen. 

From Egedesminde, the Godthaab left for North Star Bay with two Greenlandic missionaries, Gustav Olsenand Sechmann Rosbach, to establish the first mission to the Polar Eskimos. The ship stopped at Umanak on its way north to pick up Olsen’s childhood friend, Knud Rasmussen, who would assist in the establishment of the mission. 

Rasmussen had been born in Jakobshavn, Greenland. He was of mixed Greenlandic and Danish blood and his first language was Greenlandic. He had been educated in Denmark and had worked for a time as a journalist in Copenhagen. He had met the Polar Eskimos for the first time in 1903 when he took part in Mylius-Erichsen’s so-called Literary Expedition to north-western Greenland. 

The ship Godthaab reached North Star Bay, near the Eskimo village of Uummannaq, on July 23, 1909. But Knud Rasmussen had written to Cook four days before the ship’s arrival there, to congratulate him. He wrote thus:

“My most hearty congratulations to you on your successful voyage to the North Pole. You have won thevictory, and this victory, the greatest in arctic history, willin spite of all the honors which will overwhelm you fromthe whole world be the greatest remuneration in itself.”

Then, presaging the events that would overwhelm Cook in a short time, he added: “Your display of energy has been wonderful, and I admire you deeply. But it is well known that all great victories produce envy, and you certainly know that you will have to fight a bitter battle against all the skeptics in the world.“ I have therefore thought that I perhaps might help you if I, during my stay this summer among the Eskimosat Cape York, had a serious interview with your followers and later published that interview. For the construction of this interview I would be much obliged if you would send me a small sketch of your travel before you leave Greenland, and I ask you to send it to me at Umanakwith the Hans Egede.” (Freeman, 1961, 130)

Cook did not comply with Rasmussen’s request, but Rasmussen took no offense at his failure to reply: “I naturally surmised that he considered my proposal unimportant. A few days later I met Dr. Cook personally, just before the start of the Hans Egede and, as I then got the impression that he looked upon possible skeptics with dignified and proud superiority, I deemed any defence to be out of place and prepared to say nothing until the right moment should come.” (Freeman, 1961, 130)

The Godthaab remained in North Star Bay for two weeks before returning to Egedesminde, where Cook was still awaiting the departure of the Hans Egede for Copenhagen. Andrew Freeman, a Cook biographer, reports that the Danish officials had heard “at each Eskimo settlement on North Star Bay that Etukishook [Ittukusuk] and Ahwelah [Aapilak] had been to the “Big Nail” (the Pole) with Cook.” (Freeman, 1961, 130)

In Egedesminde, on August 9, the day before their departure for Denmark, Daugaard-Jensen hosted a dinner in Cook’s honour, at which Cook gave a lecture. After Cook had finished speaking, Captain Schoubye told that he had heard Knud Rasmussen question at least 35 Inuitat North Star Bay regarding Cook’s journey. Schoubye reported that the natives said Cook “jumped and danced like an angacock [a shaman] when he had looked at his ‘sun glass’ and seen that they were only a day’s journey from the ‘Great Nail.’” (Freeman, 1961, 131) Rasmussenwas at the dinner and confirmed the reports. He had not met with Ittukusuk and Aapilak because they were farther north at the time of his visit, but on the basis of what hehad heard he was convinced that Cook had reached the Pole. He also predicted, as he had in his earlier letter to Cook, that Cook would face difficulties as Peary would countenance no rivals.

Dr. Hans Steensby, an anthropologist travellingaboard the Godthaab , felt that the reason for Cook’s success was his complete understanding of the Eskimo people. (Freeman, 1961, 131)On September 1, 1909 Cook cabled the International Polar Commission in Brussels from Lerwick, ShetlandIslands, that he had reached the North Pole on April 21,1908. That same day, Jens Daugaard-Jensen cabled Denmark: “Dr. Cook reached the North Pole April 21,1908. Arrived May 1909 at Upernavik from Cape York. The Cape Yorkers confirm to Knud Rasmussen the voyage of Cook.” (Freeman, 1961, 141)

A copy of this telegram was delivered on the same day to Dr. Maurice Francis Egan, United States Ministerto Copenhagen. Egan later wrote: “Nobody questioned the truth of the story, for Knud Rasmussen’s name is a talisman, and the officials in Greenland do not take travelers’ tales seriously unless the travelers have serious claims.” (Freeman, 1961, 141) 

On September 4, even before the ship, Hans Egede,had reached Copenhagen, where huge crowds would greet Cook upon his arrival, the explorer met two reporters who had taken a motor launch to intercept the ship and be the first to interview him. Theon Wright, another Cook biographer, described them as “...two men who probably contributed as much to Cook’s ultimate downfall as anyone except Peary.” (Wright, 1970, 233).They were Philip Gibbs and Peter Freuchen.

Philip Gibbs, a feature writer from the Daily Chronicle in London had arrived in Copenhagen the day before, in his own words “vastly ignorant of arctic exploration” (Freeman, 1961, 142). But that very day, he had the good fortune to meet Knud Rasmussen’s wife and Peter Freuchen. 

Freuchen had been stoker on an expedition to north-eastern Greenland in 1906 and had passed two winters there. The newspaper Politiken hired him to cover the Frederick Cook story because of his arctic experience. Freuchen demonstrated his habit of playing fast and loose with the facts in his admission that “[t]his was the biggest news break of the year, and any slant we could invent was a story” (Freuchen, 1935, 30). In his first article, he made himself the subject of ridicule. “Dr. Cook claimedt o have been at the North Pole on April 21st,” he later wrote. “In my confusion and weariness I stated that April 21st was the spring equinox, and we wrote a lyric gem about Dr. Cook’s arrival at the Pole on the very day the sun, for the first time in the year, shot its rays across the everlasting ice. Since we had no facts to give to the public, I was asked to supply them. The next day all the rival papers had the laugh on Politiken for postponing the equinox from March to April. I was sick about it. My reputation seemed to be ruined and my career as a member of the press at an abrupt and ignominious end before it had well begun.” He kept his job, however, because of his editor’s belief in his “gift of fantasy.” (Freuchen, 1935, 30-1).

Gibbs and Freuchen, with other newsmen, boarded the Hans Egede at Elsinore and met Cook early on the morning of September 4. Gibbs, whose first impression of Cook was favourable, interviewed him over breakfast, and asked Cook for his proofs of having reached the Pole. Cook, who had left his papers behind in Greenland, replied: “You believed Nansen and Amundsen and Sverdrup. They had only their story to tell. Why don’t you believe me?” (Freeman, 1961, 144)

Gibbs claims that he had initially believed Cook, writing, “I liked the look of him.” (Gibbs, “Adventuresof an International Reporter,” World’s Work, March1923, page 481, quoted in Bryce, page 357). But he soon changed his opinion and wrote that “by intuition rather than evidence... I was convinced absolutely at the end of an hour that this man had not been to the North Pole but was attempting to bluff the world.” (Freeman, 1961, 144)

Gibbs asked Freuchen his impression of Cook, while they were still on the ship. Freuchen initially claimed that he could be no judge of the matter. But Gibbs insisted that Freuchen, as a veteran of one arctic expedition, must know something about the matter. Freuchen stated: “...I have a hunch his whole story is a damned lie.” Gibbs’r eaction, quoted by Freuchen, was: “I thought Cook was a faker from the very start, and I’m going right after him!” (Freuchen, 1935, 31)

Later that day, when the ship had reached Copenhagen, Cook gave a press conference in the Phoenix Hotel to about 50 reporters. William T. Stead, editor of the Review of Reviews, representing the Hearst newspapers, was at the conference and concluded, as reported in the New York Herald on September 6, 1909: “Some believed in Dr. Cook at first; all believe in him now." Gibbs was not present at this press conference, however, because he was in his hotel writing the first of his condemnatory articles on Cook. He incorporated some material from the Phoenix Hotel interviews, which he got second-hand, into his report. 

At the Phoenix Hotel, Cook told the assembled crowd about his trip and about the diary which he had had to leave behind with his effects in Greenland. Then he spoke about the information that he expected his two Inuit travelling companions would provide: “Corroborating this will be the evidence of the two brave and uncomplaining companions of my trip, the Esquimaux Etukishuk and Ahwelah…

“…I am satisfied that no scientific man acquainted with the Esquimau and his traits of personality will place so low a value on my intelligence as to presume that I would pin my hopes of proof in such an issue as this to a lie concocted by me and placed in the mouths of these men…

“An Esquimau is a better judge of Arctic conditions and Arctic travel than a white man, and there is no real reason why as witnesses the word of Etikushuk andAhwelah will not be quite as acceptable to the scientific world as would that of any white man.” (New York World, September 5, 1909, as quoted in Bryce, 361)

On September 6, the New York Times had reported as follows: “A dispatch to Le Matin from Copenhagensays that Mrs. Rasmussen, wife of Knud Rasmussen, whowas with Dr. Cook in Greenland, has received a letter from her husband by the steamer Hans Egede. The explorer writes: “I never was so much moved in my life as by the success of Cook, for I hoped to carry off this honor myself....”“My husband,” writes Mrs. Rasmussen, “was the first to congratulate Dr. Cook....My husband does not doubt in any way Dr. Cook’s veracity. He is mortified not to have performed the feat himself. He nonetheless congratulates the great explorer.” (Freeman, 1961, 151-2)

Philip Gibbs, however, had a different version of events. He claimed that, over lunch with Mrs. Rasmussenand Peter Freuchen, Mrs. Rasmussen had shown him a letter that her husband had sent her. He claims she gave him permission to use part of it. Gibbs claimed, “It was Peter Freuchen who copied out the words in Danish and Oscar Hansen [the London Chronicle’s Copenhagen correspondent] who translated them into English....They were a repudiation by Knud Rasmussen of his faith in Cook and a direct suggestion that he was a knave and a liar.” (Freeman, 1961, 151)

Was Gibbs unaware of the Le Matin report that had already been picked up by the New York Times? On September 17, the New York Herald published a statement from Mrs. Rasmussen in which she flatly denied the interpretation of Knud Rasmussen’s letter given by Gibbs, Freuchen and Hansen (Freeman, 1961,287). But the damage to Frederick Cook’s reputation had been done, even before Peary’s first charge, and it had been started by Philip Gibbs and Peter Freuchen. It would be continued almost immediately by Robert Peary.

On September 3, 1909, Herbert Bridgman, Peary’s mouthpiece in New York, was quoted in the New York Times speaking about Cook’s claim to the Pole, “Theword of the Eskimos who went with him will be of use in getting at the proof… The Eskimos cannot write, but Mr. Peary has told me that they can draw a map of the North Pole and the regions surrounding that is remarkable for its accuracy. With this skill, the Eskimos ought to be in position to help Dr. Cook establish beyond doubt his claim.” (New York Times, September 3, 1909, quoted in Bryce, page 354) This was a charitable sounding ruse on the part of the vicious and conniving Bridgman. Five days later, Bridgman was again quoted, this time in the New York Herald, speaking about Cook’s Inuit companions, “I think, when Mr. Peary gives to the world his account of the stories told by the two Eskimo boys who accompanied Dr. Cook their narrations will do much to prove or disprove Dr. Cook’s claim. They are a simple minded people but they have a strange and wonderful intelligence regarding geography.” (New York Herald, September 8, 1909, quoted in Bryce, page 367).

A day earlier, in his first charge against Cook, Peary’s had raised the question of the testimony of the two Eskimo young men who had accompanied the doctor. Ina wire from Battle Harbor, Labrador, on September 7, he charged: “Cook’s story should not be taken too seriously. The two Eskimos who accompanied him say he went no distance north and not out of sight of land. Other members of the tribe corroborate their story. (Freeman, 1961, 157)

Thus Peary and Bridgman, one still in Labrador, the other in New York, laid the groundwork whereby the public was urged to put their faith in the Inuit testimony, while simultaneously beginning the campaign to convince the public that the Inuit stories did not corroborate Cook’s claims. 

A Danish newspaper, National Tidende, immediately published a defense of Cook: “Doubtless Knud Rasmussen has means of producing reliable evidence, and when he says Cook must be trusted, that opinion counts for more than Peary’s statement of what Eskimos told him. Peary is too much a party to the case for his word to be accepted unconditionally....” (Freeman, 1961,158)

As part of his attack against Cook, Peary published a document and map in which the two Inuit who accompanied Cook are purported to have said that Cook had never left sight of land. 

In the New York Times of October 13, 1909, Peary claimed that the Inuit were questioned aboard his ship, the Roosevelt, in the following manner:

“One of the boys was called in and with a chart on the table before him was asked to show where he had gone with Dr. Cook. This he did, pointing out with his finger on the map but not making any marks upon it. As he went out, the other boy came in and was asked to show where he had gone with Dr. Cook. This he did, also without making any marks, and indicated the same route and the same details as did the first boy.” (Freeman,1961, 188)

As Freeman points out, Peary’s reference to Cook’s companions as boys was a purposeful attempt to make them out as immature and inexperienced, in contrast with Peary’s own Inuit, who were experienced travelers, some veterans of Peary’s many expeditions, and leaders of the Inughuit.

One wonders about the accuracy of the white interrogators’ understanding of the Eskimo testimony. The main interrogator was George Borup, a Yale graduate on his first trip to the Arctic; Theon Wright inexplicably describes him as a man “who knew Eskimo languages.” (Wright, 1970, 217) His knowledge of Inuktun, the language of the Polar Eskimos, was, in fact, inadequate, a fact which he labours to cover up in his own book, A Tenderfoot with Peary. Indeed, the only member of Peary’s expeditions who did well in Inuktun was Matthew Henson and his command of the language is still remembered by the Inughuit as being virtually flawless. Henson was present at the interrogation, as were Bob Bartlett and Donald MacMillan. Bartlett had never claimed to know any of the Eskimo dialects with which he came in contact. MacMillan made much, over the years, of his knowledge of the Eskimo language, but his claims were baseless and fraudulent. Ironically, one of those who blew the whistle on MacMillan’s abysmal knowledge of Inuktun was Peter Freuchen. In an article published in Danish in Politiken on June 29, 1925,Freuchen states: “When one knows MacMillan one is surprised at nothing.... look at the examples of what hec alls Eskimo in his latest book and remember that in the four years when I used to meet him he did not learn to speak a single Eskimo sentence correctly...” (Freuchen,1925)

It may be appropriate at this point to mention that while explorers had, by this time, been misunderstanding and misreporting Inuit for years because of their inadequacy in the Eskimo language, and had not even gotten the Eskimo word for the North Pole correct. Theon Wright reports, on no quoted authority, that “the Eskimo word for the North Pole is Tigi-su, which means ‘Big Nail’” (Wright, 1970, 22). It is not. The Polar Eskimo word for the North Pole is “qalahirriaq”, in standard West Greenlandic “qalaserssuaq.” It means, not “big nail,” but “big navel,” and is derived from the word “qalaseq” (navel), which in turn is derived from the word “qalak”meaning bubble (Schultz-Lorentzen, 1927, 83) or the centre of concentric rings. Of course the Inuit had no word for the North Pole before the arrival of white explorers; the word can only have been coined after seeing explorers poring over polar projection maps and learning that the object of their quest was the centre of a widening series of latitudinal rings. Thus, the North Pole was conceived of as “the big navel.” White explorers inexplicably transformed “navel” to “nail,” a word coincidentally similar to their concept of “pole,” and the myth was born that the Eskimos call the North Pole “the Big Nail”.

On October 21, 1909 the New York Times published a report from Knud Rasmussen, again received via Rasmussen’s wife in Denmark. Rasmussen began by stating that “the last post from Denmark tells me that there has been some surprise among my countrymen that I, who was the only white man with a real knowledge of the Eskimo language who had been in contact with the Cape York Eskimos, have not sent any statement to civilization about my impression of Dr. Cook’s North Pole trip.... I therefore now hasten to take this opportunity...to expedite the sending of my opinion to Denmark, an opinion which in view of Peary’s attack may be of value.” (Freeman, 1961, 189)

Thus, Rasmussen was still firmly on the side of Cook in opposition to Peary. He had still not interviewed Ittukusuk and Aapilak, but had gained his information from their fellow Inuit. What followed was a detailed report of approximately 900 words. Rasmussen wrote in part: 

“The Eskimos of course cannot give the distance in figures, but they say that on the journey over the ice field from the shore the sun began to appear and stood high in the sky and at last did not disappear at all, so that it was almost summer before they reached land again.” (Freeman, 1961, 190)

As Wally Herbert has correctly pointed out, however, this was merely a reference to the midnight sun, and thus Rasmussen’s statement did nothing to materially support Cook’s claim. (Herbert, 1989, 298)Rasmussen continued: “The Eskimos have told their friends that they were very much surprised when Cook told them the goal was reached, because the spot was not the least different from all the other ice they had passed over. They had often asked Cook to return, but that was only because they had a feeling that they were very, very far from shore and that they would never get back alive again.” (Freeman, 1961, 191) Rasmussen noted also that “...the Eskimos think that Cook reached the goal...” (Freeman, 1961, 191)

Rasmussen stated, as his conclusion, “that whenever Cook’s statements are compared to the statements of his companions, they appear to be quite truthful.” (Freeman,1961, 190-91). And again: “Personally I want to express my unreserved admiration for Dr. Cook.... No one in the world can name him as a swindler.” (Freeman, 1961, 191-2)

The last statement is particularly interesting. Rasmussen had written his report while still in Greenland, but he had written it in response to mail from Denmark in which he had become completely aware that there was intense controversy over Cook’s claim to the Pole, and that serious allegations of fraud had been made against Cook. By stating that no one can call Cook a swindler, Rasmussen was coming down unequivocally on the side of Cook. It is important to remember, nonetheless, that he had made no judgment on Peary’s rival claim.

On December 21 the University of Copenhagen completed its deliberations on material Cook had presented. Its decision was that “[t]he material which as been presented to the university for examination does not contain observations or information which could be regarded as proof that Dr. Cook reached the North Pole...”(Freeman, 1961, 203).

This statement, as the London Geographical Society’s Journal noted, was neither an endorsement nor a repudiation. In Freeman’s words, “the university had ruled that the data Cook submitted contained neither proof that he had reached the Pole nor proof to the contrary.” (Freeman, 1961, 203) This makes all the more peculiar the statements attributed to Knud Rasmussen in the New York Times of 22 December 1909. Rasmussen, on his return to Denmark from Greenland had stated initially that he had read Cook’s original diary and “found it correct and satisfactory in every detail,” then later assaying, “The university would not call me at first because I was one of Dr. Cook’s strongest supporters... Later however I was invited to the investigation, and when I saw the observations, I realized it was a scandal....No schoolboy could make such calculations. It is a most childish attempt at cheating. Cook had killed himself by his own foolish acts.” (Freeman, 1961, 204-5). This is a peculiar argument. It attacks Cook on the basis of material that Cook had presented to the University of Copenhagen. Yet Rasmussen’s lengthy support of Cook published in late October had dealt almost exclusively with the Eskimo reports of Cook’s trip, and it was this on which he had based his faith in Cook.

In 1910 Bartlett, who had been back to Northern Greenland, claimed that Rasmussen had interrogated Cook’s Eskimos and that the information they supplied supported Peary. Freeman states that Rasmussen had claimed in his published report that he had received the information second-hand rather than through direct interrogation of the Eskimos. According to Freeman, Cook said that two Danish missionaries who “could not speak the North Greenland dialect conducted the examination and prepared a report which Rasmussen subsequently translated.” (Freeman, 1961, 216)

This time, the Eskimo testimony contradicted that of 1909, yet both reports were communicated to the world at large by Knud Rasmussen, who opened his report in the Chicago Daily News on November 8, 1910 with: 

“Already in the fall of 1909, when I was on an expedition to Greenland, there existed grave doubts as to whether Dr. Cook had been near the North Pole, and I made up my mind to secure through thoroughly disinterested people a bona-fide report of his Eskimo fellow travelers, Etukishook and Ahwelah.” (Freeman,1961, 216)

It is important to note that Rasmussen stated that “there existed grave doubts;” yet he did not state that he himself harboured grave doubts at that time. The disinterested parties can only have been the missionaries Cook mentioned. These were Gustav Olsen and Sechman Rossbach. However, Cook is in error in calling them Danish missionaries. They were missionaries of the Danish Lutheran Church, but they were native West Greenlanders, both in their thirties, natives of Disko Bay. As such, they both spoke the Kalaallisut or West Greenlandic language, which is related to Inuktun, the language of the Inughuit or Polar Eskimos of the Thule District. Both had difficulty with Polar Eskimo initially.

This time, the natives’ story, as reported by Rasmussen, ended with the natives accusing Dr. Cook of swindling them by not paying them well enough for their having accompanied him on the trip. Rasmussen quoted the Eskimos as saying, “Dr. Cook...promised us a good reward, but he proved himself a liar and swindled us in the payment....He gave us only a knife, some matches, and a useless boat.” (Freeman, 1961, 216-217)

Thus, this argument too, advanced by Rasmussen in contradiction of his own earlier reports, attacked Cook on the basis of details other than the story of the polar trek.

The question must be asked: Why did Rasmussen, who believed so strongly in Cook’s story in 1909, even on the basis of second-hand evidence, seek to distance himself from Cook in 1910, even to the point of implying that he had harboured doubts the previous year?


I think there may be a simple reason. It is an unprovable hypothesis, which I will here advance. It involves the relationship between Rasmussen, the poet and dreamer, and Freuchen, the pragmatic realist. As early as 1910, Knud Rasmussen had published his plans of the project which would, in 1921, become the culmination of his life’s work, the Fifth Thule Expedition. The outline of this project was published in The Geographical Journal in London under the title, “Projectof a Danish Expedition to the Central Eskimo.” (Rasmussen, 1910b) He had been formulating the projectfor some time prior to its publication.

I believe that Knud Rasmussen genuinely believed the testimony he heard from Inuit on the subject of Frederick Cook and his attainment of the North Pole. But I believe that Knud Rasmussen changed his mind on the wisdom of publicly supporting Cook’s cause after he met with Peter Freuchen in Denmark in the fall of 1909. I believe that Freuchen convinced Rasmussen that it was unwise to support Cook, because Peary was quite clearly the favourite of the American monied establishment, the same establishment whom Rasmussen may have to call on for support for his grandiose plan to visit and study the Eskimos of Arctic America. In the end, of course, Rasmussen did not rely on American support, but in 1909and 1910 this could not have been known. I propose that it was that simple, that Freuchen convinced Rasmussen of the folly of supporting Cook. 

The Nature of Inuit Testimony

I want here to pull together some thoughts that explorers and observers have made on the nature and reliability of Eskimo testimony. 

I want to put this into the context of the observation published by Harry Whitney, a sport hunter who was in northern Greenland in 1909. When Borup, MacMillan, Bartlett, Henson and Peary questioned Ittukusuk and Aapilak on board the Roosevelt near Etah, Harry Whitney was not present at the questioning, but wrote that, after their interrogation, the two Eskimos had come to him and asked him “ ‘what Peary’s men were trying to get them to say.’ They said that they had been shown papers but declared that they did not understand the papers. ”(Wright, 1970, 218.) Here is the crux of the matter as regards the Eskimo testimony. It concerns the desire to please.

Frederick Cook himself wrote in My Attainment of the Pole:

“Among themselves the Eskimos have an intimate way of conveying things, a method of expression and meaning which an outsider never grasps. At most, white men can understand only a selected and more simple language with which the Eskimos convey their thoughts. This partly accounts for the unreliability of any testimony which a white man extracts from them. There is also to be considered an innate desire on the part of these simple people to answer any question in a manner which they think will please....this desire to please is notoriously stronger than a sense of truth.” (Cook, 1911, 452)

Amundsen said: “My experience with Eskimos is that they will give you the kind of answer you want.” (Herbert,1989, 332) Stefansson wrote to Peary on 3 October 1910:“There are two things I know about Eskimo character -they seldom lie, and they never keep a secret, no matter how solemnly they promise to do so.” (Herbert, 1989,332)

The Canadian explorer, Captain Joseph Bernier, was a supporter of Cook. A report of Bernier’s views on the case stated, “Capt. Bernier said he took no stock in Eskimo evidence. They desired to please and would tell any story which they thought would be agreeable to their listeners.” A. P. Low, another Canadian explorer of the High Arctic, stated, “The Eskimos... are not quite truthful. When the source of a lie is traced, it is found to be due to a mistaken politeness, the native intention to please by answering in a manner which he thinks will be agreeable to the questioner.” (Anonymous)

Dillon Wallace, speaking specifically about the polar controversy, stated, “I am rather surprised to see Commander Peary quoting the Eskimos to the effect that Dr. Cook never reached the pole. Their whole idea of life is to say what pleases… They are all in awe of Peary and would not like to offend him. They would, for the sake of being agreeable, willingly declare that white snow was black.” (New York Herald, September 9, 1909)

And so on. Northern literature is replete with similar comments on the nature of Eskimo testimony. 

Wally Herbert, writing on the subject eighty years after the fact, had a somewhat different view:

“Nor should the folklore of the Eskimos be ignored....to argue that their own story of what they did is invalid because they were uneducated is as insulting as it is absurd, for unlike the white men who came to their country to seek fame and glory, they, the natives, had no need to lie.” (Herbert, 1989, 317)

Herbert concludes that “what Itukusuk (sic) and Aapilaq (sic) told their own people is therefore the story that needs to be told....” (Herbert, 1989, 332) but he hastens to add “...and I do not refer to the story given second-hand to Rasmussen which was published in the New York Times on 21st October, 1909, but the story handed down by word of mouth among the Polar Eskimos themselves.” (Herbert, 1989, 332)  He notes that “Stories are always retold exactly as heard, not deviating by as ingle phrase or word...” (Herbert, 1989, 332)

But if this is correct, why would the “second-hand”version told to Rasmussen differ in any way from the version handed down by word of mouth over the years? Would not the story told to Rasmussen, as one of the earliest retellings of the story, be as accurate as any later retelling? Herbert has not adequately explained why the initial version given to Rasmussen should be inaccurate while all later versions were considered to be accurate. 

I would like to put forward a hypothesis on the nature of Inuit folk memory. 

Inuit folk memory serves well in many instances. Indeed, it is phenomenally accurate over periods of centuries. In Greenland, folk memories of certain events which happened in the days when the ancient Norse inhabited areas of Greenland were preserved accurately until Rink wrote them down in the 1800s. In Baffin Island, Charles Francis Hall discovered in the 1860s that the Inuit of Frobisher Bay preserved accurate memories of the visit of Martin Frobisher to their shores almost three hundred years earlier. In the Thule District of Greenland, the Inughuit remembered in remarkable detail the events of the great migration led by the shaman Qitdlarssuaq in the 1860s. The three examples I have given share one element in common. They all deal with the arrival of, or activities of, a group of outsiders who had come into their midst. In the first two examples, these outsiders were white. In the last, the outsiders were from another group of Inuit. These, and many other events, were folk memories of events significant to the Inuit who were affected by them. Their memories were preserved and passed down as part of group intellectual culture. 

Yet I can provide another list of things that Eskimos believe strongly, which are erroneous or impossible. In1930 the Krueger expedition, which included Inuit guides from the Thule District, disappeared on the ice near Axel Heiberg Island. None of the party was ever seen again. Yet I have had Inuit in Qaanaaq tell me that people from their community, passing through Thule Air Base in the1970s, saw an aging Aaqioq, one of Krueger’s guides, working as a wage labourer at the base. Such a thing is, of course, impossible. In the 1940s the entire family of an Iglulik Inuk named Kangualuk disappeared on the shores of Foxe Basin; Inuit who searched for them found their camp, their dogs and their sleds, indeed everything except the people. In the 1970s a rumour developed in Baffin Island that a descendant of Kangualuk had been discovered as an interpreter at an international conference in Europe and that he had said that the family had been abducted and taken away in a Russian submarine, and that they had continued to live in Russia, Russia being the bogey-man of the 1970s although the enemies of the1940s were the Germans. 

Again, such a story is preposterous. In Qaanaaq, when I began my own research into the life of Minik Wallace,I was told by many elderly Inuit that, after Minik had gone south in 1916, he had become a fighter aircraft pilot and died a hero’s death in a fiery crash, or that he had collected his large inheritance that allegedly awaited him there and lived a long and happy life as a gentleman, or that he had moved to the United States and become a dentist. One can see where each of these endings had its genesis. From the members of the Crocker Land Expedition, the Eskimos knew there was a war in Europe; Minik himself had told them that a large inheritance awaited him; when he had come back to his people in 1909 one of his few possessions was a set of dentist’s tools. How does this second set of stories differ from the first? The stories are riddled with confusion and uncertainty. The stories have no satisfactory endings. It is human nature to want an ending, and it is also human nature to fabricate one. In the case of the Krueger expedition, an ending was fabricated to explain the fate of one of their fellow tribesmen, Krueger himself being unimportant to them. In the case of the mysterious disappearance of the entire Kangualuk family, an external influence was brought in to explain what was inexplicable from within Inuit culture. In the case of Minik’s departure south, tidbits of non-relevant information were ascribed larger significance. The result is the same in every case -a tale that is preposterous or contradictory.

I would sum up the differences in the two sets of stories in this way. When there is no controversy, when stories are straight-forward, unambiguous, and have a clear and well- defined ending, Inuit folk memory will generally prove accurate. When there is controversy or confusion, or no clear-cut ending, imagination will takeover and folk memory will be more inclined to be inaccurate. 

The case of the Inuit memories of Dr. Cook’s journey fit the latter category well. There was controversy of a type to which the Inuit were unaccustomed. There was confusion. Ittukusuk and Aapilak had no way of knowing that two superb Arctic travelers, both known to the Inuit, were locked in invective of a type heretofore unknown to Arctic exploration. But they did feel that it was incumbent upon them to produce answers to a number of questions posed by a team working for the more powerful of the two explorers. That is why they asked Whitney what Peary’s men were trying to get them to say.

And that is why I disagree with Wally Herbert’s statement, which I quoted earlier, that “[s]tories are always retold exactly as heard, not deviating by a single phrase or word...” (Herbert, 1989, 332) This is certainly the case with unambiguous, straight-forward stories. I submit that it is definitely not the case with stories rife with confusion, controversy and competing loyalties.

At this point it is appropriate to introduce an Inuit perspective to this subject. It is a concept which explains the Inuit desire to please, to give the answer one thinks is expected. The concept is that of “ilira,” a verb stem in the Canadian Inuktitut language, and the concept has been elaborated in a Canadian context. Yet the concept is relevant to all Inuit groups. I will quote an explanation of the concept of “ilira” given recently by a Canadian Inuit (Eskimo) political leader:

“...Inuit use ilira to refer to a great fear or awe, such as the awe a strong father inspires in his children or the fear of the Qallunaat [white people] previously held by Inuit.

“This fear, or ilira, developed very early in our initial encounters with explorers, missionaries and traders. We quickly became subject to the overwhelming power and fabulous wealth of these Qallunaat. They possessed guns and all types of wonderful manufactured goods. They also engaged in new and supposedly better ways of doing things and urged us to forsake our traditional practices and beliefs in favour of a Christian, Qallunaat way of life. The origin of our relationship, therefore, was based on the erosion of Inuit culture, self-reliance and self-confidence.

“...As traditional subsistence patterns became impaired, Inuit increasingly relied upon the Qallunaat for many of their basic needs.

“This relationship, and the feeling of ilira to which it gave rise, meant that whatever the Qallunaat suggested or wanted was likely to be done. Qallunaat could make the difference between success and disaster, sustenance or hunger, and Inuit responded to their desires and requests as if they were commands. In this cultural setting, a challenge to the authority of the Qallunaat or defiance of their requests was almost unthinkable.” (Kuptana,1993, 7)

The relationship of Peary to the entire tribe of Polar Eskimos is a textbook example of the circumstances necessary to create the feeling of “ilira”. Peary had controlled the supply of trade goods in the district since the decline of bowhead whaling. Malaurie wrote in 1982 that Peary accomplished his aims “by threats, coercion, and the power of his authority.” (Malaurie, 1982, 235) Peary himself once wrote of the Eskimos that “these people are much like children, and should be treated as such.” (Peary, 1910, 47) He wrote that “their feeling for me is one of gratitude and confidence” (Peary, 1910, 48) yet Imiina in Siorapaluk referred to him as “the great tormentor” and said that people “were afraid of him...really afraid....He was a great leader. You always had the feeling that if you didn’t do what he wanted, he would condemn you to death.” (Malaurie, 1982, 234)Rasmussen, perhaps attempting to be charitable, wrote of the Eskimos’ feelings towards Peary that “their respect for the man was greater than their love” (Rasmussen,1910a, 8), but also, and more tellingly, quoted the Inuitas having said, “He asked with so strong a will to gain his wish, that it was impossible to say no.” (Rasmussen,1910a, 6)

I believe that no one will ever know the truth of the Eskimo story of Dr. Cook’s attempt on the Pole. I believe that, from the very first questioning of Ittukusuk and Aapilak by outsiders, by Peary’s team of himself, Borup, MacMillan, Bartlett and Henson, that the truth of their story became lost to posterity. It may certainly have been lost to the white men who were questioning them, for none but Henson was very capable of understanding Inuktun. But I believe that it was lost also to their own tribespeople, for uncertainty had been thrown into what might otherwise have become a simple folk tale. The strongest and best of the tribe had worked for Peary. There were rewards and prestige for those who worked for him. Ittukusuk and Aapilak had been poorly rewarded, for Cook was a man of more modest means. There is no satisfactory explanation for the variances between the earlier Eskimo version of Cook’s trip as told to Rasmussen, and the later versions of the story, unless one subscribes to the theory that Itukusuk and Aapilak changed their story to suit their circumstances. There was certainly nothing to be gained for them by not giving the answers that were expected of them.

Peary’s old enemy, Dr. T. S. Dedrick, the surgeon on Peary’s expedition in 1898, put the matter into perspective, when he said, “Mr. Peary’s statement that the Eskimos gave him these facts must be judged in the light of the conditions under which the statements were made…. To please Mr. Peary, in which art of pleasing the Eskimo is most adept, the Eskimos, in expectancy of gifts, could easily say or have their remarks twisted to the semblance of saying that Dr. Cook did not get very far toward the pole. Here was a man on the spot with a ship. Dr. Cook was but a memory to the Eskimos. (New York Herald, September 10, 1909)

The version of the Inuit story that has come to be accepted by Inuit is that written by Inuuterssuaq Ulloriaq, the historian of the Polar Eskimos tribe, a few years before he died. That version has been substantially published as an appendix to Wally Herbert’s “The Noose of Laurels.”

Here are some relevant excerpts:

“Only three people remained,” – this is after Cook’s support party had turned back – “and they spent many days at the northern tip of Axel Heiberg Land with an abundance of provisions and equipment. They were not doing anything in particular but their leader wrote and wrote. The young men were very clear about the fact that the trip was to go to the North Pole, as Cook had shown them a map in Anoritooq and explained to them where it lay.

“One day at last the leader said it was time to move on. So they set off for the North Pole. The young men were pleased to be off. Young people do not find it especially entertaining to be stuck in one place. They travelled for a long time towards the north on the two dog sledges with the leader out in front on his skis as usual. The whole time they could make out faintly some of the coast of Grant Land. The young men had still not lost any of their courage for they moved forward the whole time. They were carefree every day. Presently they came to large expanses of drift ice and after having travelled through this for some time ice packs came into sight. The leader stopped then and wanted to go no further. He did nothing but write, as usual. Since the young men had nothing else to do, they passed the time by hitting one another to see which of them was the stronger. Sometimes they built small igloos. There is no doubt that this was the reason for their constant good humour. I do not doubt either that their leader was good to them. Daagtikoorsuaq [the Polar Eskimo name for Dr.Cook] had a remarkable command of the polar Eskimo language….

“Eventually they turned around and travelled south through the enormous ice packs between which there were also large holes in the ice with tracts of open water. They continued down along Axel Heiberg Land directly towards the sound before the end of the shady side of Ellesmere Land…

“Exhausted, they eventually reached the headland at Cape Sparbo in early September 1908.”

Inuutersuaq went on to describe the winter at Cape Sparbo. Then he continued: “When summer eventually arrived they discovered just how much he had lied. When they went out walking they saw a map in his papers, on which he had drawn a route all the way to the North Pole. The first time they saw it they had a good laugh because they knew there was no question of anything of the sort.

“Although they believed he was lying they did not change their attitude towards him. They thought a lot ofhim and they knew he thought a lot of them…

“From the accounts of these young hunters we others could later understand how dogged, patient, obedient and respectful they had been. And this is how it should be when one is with an expedition.

“Back home in Anoritooq the two young men were very pleased to see their families and parents fit and healthy. They were interrogated thoroughly as to what the North Pole looked like and whether they had actually reached the North Pole. The polar Eskimos had of course been given to understand by Daagtikoorsuaq that he hadr eached the North Pole! But when the two young men were asked whether they had really reached the North Pole, they just laughed, perhaps because it made them think of the route which had been drawn to the North Pole but also perhaps because they knew that nothing of the sort had happened. They thought it would be a sin if their leader were to have an inkling of what they had seen. We all knew that the two young men were loyal people.

“Although they knew that they had looked at the map with their leader’s invented route to the North Pole, they never dreamed of going along with the joke. I am saying this because I know that later they were interrogated very thoroughly about the North Pole, by Piulersuaq himself. They of course admitted that he had lied. I am in no doubt either that Daagtikoorsuaq never let the two young men, Aapilaq (sic) and Itukusuk (sic), know anything of his lie about them reaching the North Pole. He was able to do this because they did not know where the North Pole lay, or so he thought then.

“It was not difficult to guess Daagtikoorsuaq’s thoughts:“

1. Daagtikoorsuaq was clear in his mind that he could not reach the North Pole. He therefore concentrated persistently on the trip in the large drift ice instead.

2. The two ignorant young men did not know where the North Pole lay.

3. To be able to do what he did, he did not want any adults with him…“I know that the polar Eskimos have nothing bad to say about Daagtikoorsuaq.” (Herbert, pages 334-338).

As one can see, there are internal inconsistencies within Inuutersuaq’s story, not unusual in Inuit stories. Given the circumstances, is it any wonder that Inuutersuaq’s version contradicts Cook’s own version and substantiates many of Peary’s claims against Cook? I submit that there is no reason to believe that this is the correct version of the story, and that the differences between this story and the story originally told by Polar Eskimos in 1909 has not been satisfactorily explained.

Ironically, Inuuterssuaq is also the author of an excellent and unimpeachable story of the much earlier Qitdlarssuaq migration from Canada to the Thule District. But these are different types of stories. The Qitdlarssuaqstory was unambiguous, the Cook story riddled with controversy and, I propose, Ittukusuk’s and Aapilak’s desire to please. I knew Inuuterssuaq well - he was my former wife’s uncle - and I enjoyed the hospitality of his home in Siorapaluk many times. We talked of Cook and Peary often and I know that he had a tremendous respect for Cook’s abilities on the land and sea and for his command of the Polar Eskimo language. But he didn’t believe he had been at the North Pole. I trust that the foregoing may partly answer why.


Anonymous, “Doubts Eskimo Evidence,” New York Times, October 15, 1909, 5:2.

Bryce, Robert M. 1997. Cook & Peary: The Polar Controversy, Resolved, Mechanicsburg, Pa., Stackpole Books.

Cook, F. A. 1911. My Attainment of the Pole, New York: Mitchell Kennerly.

Freeman, Andrew A. 1961. The Case for Doctor Cook, New York: Coward McCann, Inc.

Freuchen, Peter. 1925. Freuchen-Stefansson Correspondence, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire.

Freuchen, Peter. 1935. Arctic Adventure, New York: Farrar & Rinehart.

Herbert, Wally. 1989. The Noose of Laurels, London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Kuptana, Rosemary, “Ilira, or Why it was Unthinkable for Inuit to Challenge Qallunaat Authority,” Inuit Art Quarterly,8:3, Fall 1993.

Malaurie, Jean. 1982. The Last Kings of Thule, New York: E. P. Dutton.

Peary, Robert. 1910. The North Pole, New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company.

Rasmussen, Knud. 1910. Greenland by the Polar Sea, New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company.

Rasmussen, Knud, “Project of a Danish Expedition to the Central Eskimo,” The Geographical Journal, XXXV: 3,March 1910.

Schultz-Lorentzen, “Dictionary of the West Greenland Eskimo Language,” Meddelelser om Gronland, LXIX, 1927.

Wright, Theon. 1970. The Big Nail, New York: The John Day Company.

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