Intrepid Arctic Explorer: Matthew A. Henson was the first Black man at the North Pole, Co-Discoverer


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Explorer Matthew A. Henson was born August 8, 1866 in Nanjemoy, MD to free, Black, sharecropping parents. He was orphaned at a young age, and went to work as a cabin boy on an ocean steamer at the age of 12. Henson traveled as far as China before the age of 18, according to the introduction to Henson’s book A Negro Explorer at the North Pole (1912). When he was older, but still a teenager, he went to work for a furrier in Washington, D.C., but yearned for a life of adventure.

Matthew A. Henson in an arctic fur coat.
Matthew A. Hansen, "A Negro Explorer at the North Pole," Wikimedia Commons


In November of 1887, the explorer Commander Robert E. Peary came into the furrier’s shop with an armload of pelts. The two struck up a friendship, and Peary invited Henson to be his personal assistant.

Henson’s first job was to accompany Peary on a mapping mission to Nicaragua. He then helped Peary recover three fragments of the Cape York meteorites that they sold to the U.S. Museum of Natural History.


Peary set his sites on mapping the North Pole. The two made almost a dozen arctic incursions over nearly 20 years, each one getting farther than the last. During these trips, Henson learned the Inuit language and made observations about the indigenous people of Greenland, whom he called “Esquimos” in his book.


The final North Pole expedition launched July 6, 1908 on the Roosevelt, named for Theodore Roosevelt who was president at the time. This ship had already made one trip toward the North Pole, going “farther than any ship has ever made,” commented Henson in his journal. The ship docked in Etah Harbor, Greenland on August 12, where they loaded up supplies and a crew that was heavily represented by the indigenous Inuit people, including men, women, and children. According to Henson, the “women were as useful as the men” as seamstresses, cooks, and tending to other aspects of the expedition.

Henson was tasked with quite a large number of duties for the expedition: he built sleds to Peary specifications; hunted and skinned seals and walrus with the Inuit for meat and clothing; performed taxidermy on some of the killed animals; agonizingly soldered leaky tins; and was the interpreter and main contact with the “Esquimo” team members. He was a thoroughly indispensable member of the crew, and it’s safe to assume that Peary could not have achieved his goal without Henson at his side.


"IMAGINE GORGEOUS BLEAKNESS, BEAUTIFUL BLANKNESS."


The expedition itself began on February 18, 1909 - “the seventieth meridian was the pathway to the Pole,” said Henson. What followed was a grueling six-week journey north. The group that set off was initially quite large, consisting of other researchers and Inuit men, along with with their sled dogs. Throughout the month, several of their fellow explorers were forced to turn back, leaving only Peary, Henson, and their four Inuit guides.


Henson was clearly awed by the desolate beauty of the Arctic, and wanted to bear witness for his readers. He wrote,


“There is an irresistible fascination about the regions of northern-most Grant Land that is impossible for me to describe. Having no poetry in my soul, and being somewhat hardened by years of experience in that inhospitable country, words proper to give you an idea of its unique beauty do not come to mind. Imagine gorgeous bleakness, beautiful blankness.” (66)


The team split into two groups, with Henson and Peary alternating who went first. As a result, there is a dispute whether Henson actually reached the North Pole before Peary - overshooting it before returning to meet Peary - which lead to a later estrangement between the two, previously inseparable, men.


They stopped and made camp on April 6, 1909, so that Peary could take geographic measurements that confirmed their location. He then took out a flag, and posted it on his igloo, and thus “the Stars and Stripes were ‘nailed to the Pole.”

Henson recounted that Perry had a habit of taking a piece from a specific flag to bury at each location in order to commemorate the event. In this case, “a diagonal strip running from the upper left to the lower right corner was cut and this precious strip, together with a brief record, was placed in an empty tin, sealed up and buried in the ice, as a record for all time.” (134)



Peary then confirmed the measurements on April 7, 1909, and they planted the flag at the spot Peary determined was the North Pole. Along with Peary and Henson were the four Inuit men, whom it was clear Hansen deeply admired:

“The four Esquimos who stood with Commander Peary at the North Pole, were the brothers, Ootah and Egingwah, the old campaigner, Seegloo, and the sturdy, boyish Ooqueah. Four devoted companions, blindly confident in the leader, they worked only that he might succeed and for the promise of reward that had been made before they had left the ship, which promise they were sure would be kept. Together with the faithful dogs, these men had insured the success of [Commander Peary].” (137)


The four Inuit guides to the North Pole


After the expedition returned, Henson worked as a clerk at a US Customs house in New York City. Peary died in 1920, after receiving honors and recognitions for his exploratory travels. Henson, on the other hand, lived in relative obscurity. Henson was compelled to turn his expedition journal into his book (A Negro Explorer at the North Pole, 1912), in part because of salacious claims by explorer Dr. Frederick Cook that it was he, not Peary’s crew, that reached the North Pole the year before. The resulting controversy was a certified scandal in the day, and saw Peary brought before congress to testify. Henson was not seen as a credible witness because he was Black, and Dr. Cook’s supporters made racist comments that sought to discredit Henson’s account.

Despite living in Peary's shadow while Peary was alive, Henson would get recognition for his contributions later in life. He was admitted to the Explorers Club in 1937, given a medal of recognition by the U.S. Navy in 1946, and invited to the White House by President Eisenhower in 1954. Henson died March 9, 1955. While he was originally buried with his wife in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, they were reinterred in Arlington National Cemetery on April 6, 1988 with full military honors. The date marked the 79th anniversary of the North Pole discovery.


In September of 2021, a lunar crater was named for Henson as a way of continuing to acknowledge his contributions to exploration and science.


Henson was married twice, but had no children with his spouses. However, Dr. S. Allen Counter - a Harvard neuroscientist and director of the Harvard foundation - had heard rumors of “Black Eskimos” and in 1986 traveled to Greenland to look into the truth of the matter. Counter learned that both Henson and Peary had taken “country wives” among the Inuit, and fathered sons in 1906 before they left for the North Pole Expedition. Henson’s son was named Anaukaq and his mother was Akatingwah. Peary’s son was named Kali, (or Kaala), and he had another son who didn’t survive infancy. Dr. Counter brought the two men, now in their 80’s, to the United States along with their families for a reunion. Many of the two men's descendants have become explorers and educators.


Henson’s legacy is not only with his indispensable participation in the North Pole expedition, but also in his thoughtful and affectionate ethnographic descriptions of the Inuit people, which Henson feared was being destroyed by interactions with the outside world. He documented their customs and was diligent about recording names and descriptions of his friends and partners. Henson was known as “Mahri-Pahluk” in the Inuit language, meaning, “The Kind One.”


Despite leading a quiet life after returning from his expedition, Henson yearned to travel and explore. The final words of his book read: “the lure of the Arctic is tugging at my heart, to me the trail is calling!"



 

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PRIMARY SOURCE

Matthew A. Henson, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole (Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1912). Via Project Gutenberg.


SECONDARY SOURCES

Dr. S. Allen Counter, Intercultural Issues, Harvard Faculty Page, via WayBack Machine.


James Mills, "The Legacy of Arctic Explorer Matthew Henson," National Geographic Blog, posted Feb. 28, 2014.


Smithsonian Institution, "Matthew Henson, Arctic Explorer," Smithsonian Snapshot, Feb. 12, 2015.


Frank Tavares, "Lunar Crater Named After Arctic Explorer Matthew Henson by International Astronomical Union, Accepting NASA/LPI Proposal," NASA Ames Research Center, Sept. 20, 2021.




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