The Legacy of Arctic Explorer Matthew Henson

The Legacy of Arctic Explorer Matthew Henson

“The lure of the arctic is tugging at my heart. To me the trail is calling! The old trail, the trail that is always new.” ~Matthew Henson

This story was excerpted from the forthcoming work of narrative nonfiction The Adventure Gap by James Edward Mills to be published this fall by the Mountaineers Books

In 1909 a team of six men on dog sledges made their way to a single point at the center of vast Arctic wilderness. It was a block of ice 413 nautical miles off the coast of Greenland believed to be the North Pole. There were many who refuted the events that led up to the day, April 6th, when an American flag was planted there. But in the years that followed an irrefutable truth would be revealed. The first person to stand on top of the world was black man named Henson.

When Commander Robert Edwin Peary set out on the expedition his company included 24 men, 19 sledges, and 133 dogs. After months of travel across an immense field of ice from the edge of Cape Sheridan on Ellesmere Island, as planed, one by one members of the party began turning back. So there were only a handful of men who could substantiate the claim. When the first human footprints were pressed into the snow at the most northern point on the planet all that remained of the original corps were Peary, 40 dogs, four native Inuit hunters and an African-American man who would be forgotten by history for almost half a century.

Matthew Alexander Henson was born on August 8, 1866, to a family of freeborn sharecroppers in Nanjemoy, Maryland. It was one year after emancipation and the end of the Civil War. An African-American of the first generation to roam the world after the abolition of slavery, Henson led a singular life of exploration and discovery that would usher in the modern era of adventure that continues now through the 21st century.

Orphaned at a very young age, Henson made his own way in life with uncommon courage and tenacity. When he was only 12, he signed on as a cabin boy aboard a three-masted sailing ship called the Katie Hines. For the next six years under the mentorship of a Captain Childs, Henson received an education, learned a variety of technical skills, became a competent sailor, and traveled around the world visiting the then Orient, North Africa, and the Black Sea.

Captain Childs died in 1887. And upon his passing, Henson left the Katie Hines to take a job as a shop clerk for a furrier in Washington, D.C. Though his time at sea as a sailor was a thing of the past, Henson was still very interested in a life of travel and adventure. So it was no small quirk of fate when a naval officer entered the shop one day to sell a collection of seal and walrus pelts that had just arrived from an expedition to Greenland. Impressed with Henson’s experience and enthusiasm to see more of the world, Robert Peary hired him almost immediately as his personal assistant and invited him to take part in his next assignment.

Serving in the Navy Corps of Civil Engineers Peary was tasked to map and explore the jungles of Nicaragua in the hopes of creating a canal to connect the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific. Henson and Peary spent the next two years traveling together through the rainforests of Central America, a journey that would cement their friendship and bind their destinies together for the rest of their lives.

When they returned from Nicaragua, Peary helped Henson to get a job working as a messenger at the League Island Naval Yard in Philadelphia. On leave from the Navy to do more exploring in Greenland, Peary once again invited Henson to join his party. In 1891 the two companions began an 18-year partnership of Arctic exploration that included the complete mapping of the Greenland ice cap.

Together Henson Peary discovered the great island’s northern most terminus. And in two expeditions in 1896 and 1897 they recovered three enormous meteor fragments that they sold to the American Museum of Natural History in New York for $40,000. The largest piece called the Cape York meteorite is also known by its Inuit name Ahnighito, which means the Tent. The massive iron rock weighs 31 metric tons, is the third largest intact meteor ever discovered and the heaviest ever transported by human beings. The funds Peary and Henson acquired through these two ventures would go to support other expeditions over the next ten years.

Although Peary was the public face of their partnership, Henson was the front man in the field. With his skills as a carpenter and craftsman, Henson personally built and maintained all of the sledges used on their expeditions. He was fluent in the Inuit language and established a rapport with the native people of the region. He was known by all he encountered as “Matthew the Kind One.” Henson learned the methods the Inuit used to survive and travel through the incredibly hostile landscape of the Arctic. “He was more of an Eskimo than some of them.” Peary once said
Henson was a very capable hunter, fisherman, and dog handler. And it was he who trained even the most experienced of Peary’s recruits on each of the eight attempts they made to reach the North Pole.

It’s fair to suggest then that much of the success in their expeditions was due to Henson’s expertise. Though Peary repeatedly failed to reach his goal he managed to return safely time and time again having progressed a little further with every trip. In 1906 with the support of President Theodore Roosevelt, Peary and Henson managed to get within 174 miles of the North Pole by ship using a state-of-the-art ice breaker. On the three-masted steam-powered schooner called the Roosevelt, Peary and Henson made it closer to the pole than on any expedition to date.

“When my observations were taken, Peary wrote in his journal, “they showed that we had reached 87°6′ north latitude, and had at last beaten the record, for which I thanked God.”

Two years later Peary and Henson would make their eighth and final attempt to reach the North Pole. Whether they succeeded or not both men, now in their 40s, could feel the strain of their long careers and decided this would be their last voyage together. Once again aboard the Roosevelt, a hand-picked team sailed from New York Harbor on July 6, 1908. Joining the party was Dr. John W. Goodsell, Donald B. MacMillan, Ross G. Marvin, George Borup and Robert Bartlett, the ship’s captain. In a now classic system of caches the plan was to ferry and deposit loads of gear and food along the way with each successive team of dog mushers returning to the ship that was iced into port at Ellsemere Island. A smaller team of two Americans and four Inuit companions would make the final push to their objective. Peary and Henson were the most likely choices to lead the Pole team.

“With years of experience equal to that of Peary himself, [Henson] was indispensable,” MacMillan would recall later.

And even Peary agreed that the expedition would never be completed without his trusted friend. “Henson must go all the way,” he said as they planned the trip months earlier. “I can’t make it there without him.”

The group arrived at their starting point at Cape Sheridan on September 5, 1908. There they spent the long Arctic winter storing supplies of meat that included muskox, deer, and rabbit. Several of the Inuit men brought along their wives and children who set about the task of creating all the clothing and perishable supplies the expedition would need. In February, Peary lead the party by sledge to Cape Columbia where out on the ice he established a forward base camp. The expedition began in earnest as Henson lead the first group of sledges toward the pole on March 1, 1909. And for the next five weeks the teams raced toward their goal.

Along the way in addition to temperatures that fell to 65 degrees below zero they encountered the frequent hazards of cracking and drifting ice that formed patches of open water called leads. But the group made steady progress as each of the support teams deposited their supply caches and turned back the way they came. McMillan lead the first team back with Dr. Goodsell. They were followed days later by Borup, then Marvin. Bartlett was the last to return to the ship. Once he arrived the captain of the Roosevelt readied the ship for the Pole Team’s safe return.

In his account of the adventure The Negro at the North Pole published in 1912 Henson made a detailed summary of the five-day march. He, Peary, and Inuits Ooqueah, Ootah, Egingwah, and Seegloo drove the five remaining dog sledges at a breakneck pace day after day for stretches that lasted 12 to 14 hours. Moving quickly to avoid the possibility of a massive lead opening up behind them and blocking their way back home they traveled more than 170 miles. In a series of hard pushes they made their way navigating by sexton and dead-reckoning until finally on April 6th, as conditions on the trail ahead seemed to improve Henson reported in his account that he felt certain their objective was within reach.

“We crawled out of our igloos and found a dense mist hanging over everything,” he wrote. “Only at intervals, when the sun’s rays managed to penetrate the mist, could we catch even a glimpse of the sky. Estimating the distance that we had come during the last four days, we figured that, unless something unusual happened to us during the course of this day, we should be at the Pole before its close.”

According to his own recollection Henson was in the lead sledge through much of the day scouting the trail ahead.

“The Commander, who was about fifty yards behind, called out to me and said we would go into camp,”wrote Henson. “We were in good spirits, and none of us were cold. So we went to work and promptly built our igloos, fed our dogs and had dinner. The sun being obscured by the mist, it was impossible to make observations and tell whether or not we had actually reached the Pole. The only thing we could do was to crawl into our igloos and go to sleep.”

The following day when the mist had cleared Peary took measurements of their location relative to the position of the sun at the noon hour.

“The results of the first observation showed that we had figured out the distance very accurately, for when the flag was hoisted over the geographical center of the Earth it was located just behind our igloos,” Henson wrote.

The party had indeed reached the North Pole. But the question remained who had arrived there first. “I was in the lead that had overshot the mark by a couple of miles,” Henson was quoted in a newspaper article upon their return. “We went back then and I could see that my footprints were the first at the spot.”

Upon their return to the United States some reports in the press indicated that there was tension between Peary and Henson as to whom between them deserved credit for reaching the North Pole first. “From the time we knew we were at the Pole, Commander Peary scarcely spoke to me,” Henson would later reveal. “It nearly broke my heart … that he would rise in the morning and slip away on the homeward trail without rapping on the ice for me, as was the established custom.”

It seems odd that after such a long and successful partnership the two men would become estranged from one another. With a difference of a few hours at most it would be reasonable to give Peary and Henson equal credit for having reached the North Pole together as a team. But the racially divisive climate of time would not give an African-American man the same standing in the public eye for the accomplishment of such a monumental feat of human achievement. Peary was the recognized discoverer of the Pole while Henson was relegated to the role of trusty companion. Despite Henson’s indispensable contributions to their efforts for almost 20 years he received very little acknowledgment.

Matters only got worse when even Peary’s claim of success was called into question. A member of a previous Greenland expedition, a man by the name of Frederick Cook, professed to have reached the North Pole one year earlier on April 21, 1908. But the controversy quickly faded when several individuals came forward with compelling evidence to dispute Cook’s contrived story of discovery. Unfortunately many doubts were raised to suggest that Peary had also failed to reach the North Pole. Several skeptics speculated that he missed the mark by several hundred miles. With few ways to verify the success of this kind of remote expedition reports of a successful outcome were made on the honor system. Really the only other person to back up Peary’s story was Henson, as the four Inuit hunters didn’t speak English. Though as a black man his testimony was likely deemed by many to be less than credible the strength of his character as substantiated other members of the party carried a great deal of weight in affirming the truth of their journey to the top of the globe.

Robert Peary died on February 20, 1920. After returning from his last polar expedition he was promoted to Rear Admiral and traveled the world through his remaining years of life as an acclaimed hero. But history would treat Matthew Henson much differently. Upon his return from the Pole Henson took a job as a clerk with the federal customs house in New York City, on the recommendation of Theodore Roosevelt. He would spend the next 30 years leading a quiet life in relative seclusion.

But in 1937 his contributions to the discovery of the North Pole would finally be recognized. The Explorers Club of New York made him an honorary member. A few years later in 1946 Henson was awarded a medal, identical to the one given to Peary, by U.S. Navy. And in 1954 he was invited to the White House by President Dwight Eisenhower to receive a special commendation for his early work as an explorer on the behalf of the United States of America.

Henson died the following year on March 9, 1955. Though he was buried in Woodlawn cemetery in the Bronx, New York on April 6, 1988 his remains along with his wife’s were relocated to Arlington National Cemetery. On the 79th anniversary of his having reached the North Pole Henson was laid to rest with full military honors near the monument to Robert Peary. In 1996 an oceanographic survey ship was commissioned as the U.S.N.S Henson in his honor. And in the year 2000 the National Geographic Society presented Henson posthumously its most prestigious award the Hubbard Medal. Ironically, the first recipient of this prize was Robert Peary in 1906.

This story originally appeared in the National Geographic Adventure blog Beyond the Edge on February 28, 2014