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Polar explorer came from Pa. Dutch stock

Published October 05. 2009 02:55PM

One of the intriguing news stories of 1909 involved the controversy between Dr. Frederick A. Cook and Robert Peary over who was first to explore the North Pole.

At that time, the Polar region was one of the last remaining prizes for earthly exploration. Over the previous centuries, countless explorers had suffered and died in their quest to make history.

After leading an expedition to Mount McKinley in 1903, Cook, who spent two decades exploring both Polar regions and subarctic Alaska between 1891 and 1909.

Although many authorities acknowledged him as the discoverer of the geographical North Pole in 1908, Cook never produced detailed original navigational records to substantiate his claim. He is credited, however, with being the first American to spend forced winters in both the Antarctic and the Arctic.

A year later, Peary took advantage of a shift in public sentiment against Cook and submitted his north pole data to the National Geographic Society. The NGS "certified" Peary as the discoverer of the North Pole. However, the group never investigated Cook's claim.

The controversy lingered with the congress, leading to the "Peary Hearings" of 1910-11. The Congress ultimately promoted Peary to Rear Admiral and retired him with a pension, but it took no official action to declare him the discoverer of the North Pole.

Instead of entering the controversy during the height of the debate in the fall of 1909, the Tamaqua Courier instead zeroed in on Cook's background. A native of Sullivan County, New York, Cook was of Pennsylvania Dutch descent and, according to the Courier, "his people came from the Dutch section of Pennsylvania."

The writer said the family name was "Koch" and that Cook's father had settled in Sullivan County, near Callicoon, a station on the Erie Railroad. Subsequently, Cook was known as a "Callicoon Dutchman." For years, he was a partner in the milk business with his brother.

Cook's lost his father when he was very young and the family moved to Brooklyn where young Frederick attended public school. He went on to earn a doctorate at New York University.

In a datelined story from Mauch Chunk on Sept. 13, 1909, the Courier reported that "Carbon County is full of relatives of Dr. Cook."

It stated that Squire Jacob S. Hawk, landlord of Hawk's hotel, knew Dr. Cook's father, whose name was Willoughby Cook."

The writer said that Squire Hawk recalled Willoughby visiting his brother, Enos Koch, a farmer, lumberman and hotel keeper, in Penn Forest Township, from 1848-75. Hawk was a son-in-law of Enos Willoughby was often accompanied by his brother William on his visits to Carbon County.

Hawk remembered discussions between the Cook brothers and Enos Koch regarding the spelling of their names.

The Courier stated that citizens should be proud of the fact that both Cook and Peary were Americans who came from Pennsylvania stock.

"Explorers from almost every country tried to reach the top of the world but their efforts were uniformly unsuccessful," the writer stated in his opinion piece. "It remained for two intrepid Americans to accomplish the feat. And what is particularly gratifying is that both of the men are Pennsylvanians."

As for the "squabble" that developed over who first discovered the North Pole, the writer said that those who argue that Cook's earlier expedition is invalid since there is no proof. He said that some base this on the fact that a brass cylinder that Cook said he buried was not found by Peary. However, the writer felt the cylinder, which was buried in the ice, could have long since "sank to the bottom of the ocean."

The writer then took a Solomon-like approach, stating that both men should be "honored in a like degree."

"The fact that Cook got their first is not particularly material," he said. There is enough honor in the joint achievement for both the men and it is to be earnestly hoped that they will look at the matter in this light and try not to detract from one another's achievement."

Unfortunately, the last part of Cook's life was not spent basking in the glory that the Tamaqua Courier had hoped. Instead, his last years were spent trying to salvage his reputation. The explorer spent years defending his claim, even suing writers who claimed that he had faked the trip to the North Pole.

In 1923 he was convicted of using the mails to defraud by signing mailers which overstated the oil discovery prospects of his Texas oil company. He was imprisoned until 1940, when he was pardoned by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, shortly before his death on August 5 of that year.

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