Little-known African-American among Peary’s North Pole explorers
Matthew Henson was born 150 years ago
February 21, 2016 12:12 AM
In this May 14, 1926, photo, Matthew Henson, in New York, points to a map of the North Pole. He was part of the expedition of Robert Peary to the Pole.
By Mark Roth / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When the morning of April 7, 1909 dawned, Matthew Henson checked the temperature outside.
It was 29 below zero.
Later that day, Henson and the man he worked for, Robert Peary, would raise an American flag to claim they were the first to reach the North Pole.
Peary, 52, was a naval officer born in Cresson, Pa., and he had been trying to reach the pole for 23 years. Henson, a 42-year-old African American, had accompanied Peary on the last four of his five attempts to reach 90 degrees North latitude. And since Henson usually broke the trail ahead of Peary, many believe that he was actually the first man to reach the fabled spot on the treacherous ice pack over the Arctic Ocean.
While experts today believe that Peary, Henson and the four Inuit tribesmen who were with them probably did not reach the pole, they acknowledge the crew got within five miles of their goal.
“It’s kind of an enigmatic place,” said Michael Robinson, a history professor at the University of Hartford and an expert on the polar expeditions. “Unlike most locations on the Earth, the North Pole is over an ocean on a shifting pack of ice. There is no way you can plant a flag and assume it will still be there even 15 minutes later.”
But doubts about the Peary crew’s achievement didn’t surface for many decades. For the rest of his life, Peary was hailed as the discoverer of the North Pole. Henson, in the meantime, faded into obscurity, and only received recognition for his role in the expedition starting in the 1930s, when he was in his 70s.
Henson was born 150 years ago in Nanjemoy, Md., about 40 miles southwest of Washington D.C. His parents were free black sharecroppers who died when he was still a boy. At age 12, he shipped out of Baltimore as a cabin boy. The captain of his ship taught him the Bible, mathematics and some of the classics, giving Henson his first real education.
Henson had returned from his voyages and was working in a clothing store in Washington, D.C., when, as a 21-year-old, he met Peary, who had stopped in to buy a sun hat for a government expedition to Nicaragua. Henson offered his services as a valet, and they remained together for most of the next two decades.
As the years went on, Henson became far more than a valet to Peary, even though the walrus-mustached commander continued to look on him as a subaltern. In the 1890s and early 1900s, Henson became Peary’s crucial link to the Inuit, known then as Eskimos, learning their language and mastering the art of hunting for walrus and seal, building sleds and driving the teams of dogs that pulled the sleds over the ice pack.
He also was aware of his significance as the only African American who was part of the polar expeditions.
In his 1912 memoir, “A Negro Explorer at the North Pole,” Henson recalled his feelings at the moment Peary planted the American flag at what they thought was the pole.
As the flag “snapped and crackled with the wind, I felt a savage joy and exultation,” he wrote. “Another world’s accomplishment was done and finished, and as in the past, from the beginning of history, wherever the world’s work was done by a white man, he had been accompanied by a colored man. From the building of the pyramids and the journey to the Cross, to the discovery of the new world and the discovery of the North Pole, the Negro had been the faithful and constant companion of the Caucasian, and I felt all that it was possible for me to feel, that it was I, a lowly member of my race, who had been chosen by fate to represent it, at this, almost the last of the world's great work.”
Mr. Robinson, the Hartford professor, said Henson’s very presence with Peary, along with four Inuits, could have been a sign of Peary’s prejudice.
As the expedition made its way north across Greenland and out onto the ice pack, Robinson said, “there is some evidence to suggest that Peary actually turned back the white members of his crew who were proficient in navigation and could have helped him determine where he was, and he did that because he didn’t want anyone else to claim they were first at the pole, and for racial reasons he didn’t view Henson or his Inuit party as a threat” to his reputation.
Other experts have a somewhat different view. Genevieve LeMoine, a curator at the Peary MacMillan Arctic Museum & Arctic Studies Center at Bowdoin College in Maine, said that when Peary sent the white crew members back, it also meant he had “no one else to do celestial navigation with him and that meant there was no one who could back up his claim.”
Henson and the Inuit, on the other hand, were vital companions because Peary had been greatly weakened by his previous expeditions. “Peary was quite debilitated,” Mr. Robinson said, “and had lost 8 of his 10 toes to frostbite and was mostly riding on the sled rather than driving the dogs.”
Henson got most of his belated recognition after World War II, when the biography “Dark Companion” was published in 1947. He had worked in New York for the U.S. Customs House after his return from the polar expedition, and never went back to the frozen North.
He and Peary did leave a legacy there, though. Both of them had relationships with Inuit women during their expeditions, and Peary had two sons with the Inuit woman known as Aleqasina, while Henson had one son with his second Inuit wife, Akatingwah.
Peary was married when he entered his relationship with Aleqasina, and she was married to an Inuit man as well. The arrangement was not a huge departure from some of the existing customs of the Inuit, who would sometimes create four-way marriages for economic and social benefits. “Some have suggested that the economic benefits of the Peary relationship would have been approved of by Aleqasina and her husband,” Ms. LeMoine said.
While it may be hard for people today to sense the excitement that surrounded the expeditions to both the North and South poles, Mr. Robinson said the journeys were not only the moonshots of their day, but they came at a time when many Americans worried that their growing prosperity had made them too soft.
“You had a lot of people complaining that we were so cut off from our pioneering spirit that we needed to rediscover our roots. This was the age of Jack London and the Boy Scouts getting started, and this is also when Teddy Roosevelt said we should seek out what is hard not what is easy.”
In his memoir, Henson gave vivid accounts of some of the challenges he faced.
“I have been walrus-hunting, and taxidermizing,” he wrote at one point. “That is, I have skinned a pair of walrus so that they can be stuffed and mounted. This job has been very carefully, and I think successfully, done and the skins have been towed ashore ... Two boatloads of bones have been rowed over to Dog Island for dog food.”
Recalling an earlier European expedition toward the pole in the ship America, Henson noted that after the crew landed, “the America went adrift, and has never been seen since. It is not difficult to imagine her still drifting in the lonely Arctic Ocean, with not a soul aboard (a modern phantom ship in a sea of eternal ice). A more likely idea is that she has been crushed by the ice, and sunk, and the skeleton of her hulk strewn along the bottom of the sea, full many a fathom deep.”
He also nearly lost his life when he was quite near to the pole, saved at the last minute by one of the Inuit. Two days before the flag was planted, he recalled, “I was standing and pushing at the upstanders of my sledge, when the block of ice I was using as a support slipped from underneath my feet, and before I knew it the sledge was out of my grasp, and I was floundering in the water.
“I did the best I could. I tore my hood from off my head and struggled frantically. My hands were gloved and I could not take hold of the ice, but before I could give the “Grand Hailing Sigh of Distress,” faithful old Ootah had grabbed me by the nape of the neck, the same as he would have grabbed a dog, and with one hand he pulled me out of the water, and with the other hurried the team across. He had saved my life, but I did not tell him so, for such occurrences are taken as part of the day’s work.”
While Henson has finally been recognized for his heroic work, the Inuit who went on the expeditions still tend to be underappreciated, Ms. LeMoine said. Part of the reason is that the search to find the North Pole never made much sense to the hardy tribe members who lived in Greenland.
“There is no hunting out there [on the ice cap], so why would you waste your time going out there? They did it because Peary spent years working with them, gaining their trust, and when he said he would pay them a certain amount he lived up to his word. And that’s how he got them out on the sea ice, even though there was no point to it from their perspective.”
Mark Roth: firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @markomar.
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to
email@example.com and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner.