Matthew A. Henson (1866-1955) always accompanied Robert Peary on his Arctic explorations. As a result, he was part of the first expedition to reach the North Pole.
Matthew A. Henson was born in Charles County, Maryland, south of Washington, D.C. on August 8, 1866. Henson was an African-American, whose parents had been born free. When he was young, he moved with his parents to Washington. Both of his parents had died by the time he was seven. He was raised by an uncle and attended a segregated school in Washington for six years. At the age of 13, he went to Baltimore and found a job as a cabin boy on a ship bound for China. He was befriended by the ship's captain, Captain Childs, and worked his way up to being an able-bodied seaman. During that period he sailed to China, Japan, the Philippines, North Africa, Spain, France, and Russia. Childs died when Henson was 17, and he left the sea to look for work on land.
In 1888 Henson was working in a clothing store in Washington when he met a young U.S. Navy lieutenant, Robert Peary, who had come in to buy a tropical helmet. Peary offered to hire him as a valet. Henson did not like the idea of becoming a personal servant, but he thought it would be worthwhile to accompany Peary to Nicaragua where he was headed to survey for a possible canal across Central America. They spent a year together in Nicaragua and then Henson worked as a messenger when Peary was stationed at League Island Navy Yard. Peary was interested in the possibilities of Arctic exploration and had made a first trip to Greenland in 1886 with the intention of being the first to cross the Greenland ice cap. He was beaten by Roald Amundsen and he then set himself the goal of being the first person to reach the North Pole.
Peary returned to northern Greenland in June 1891, and Henson accompanied him along with Peary's wife, Josephine, and other assistants, including Frederick Albert Cook. During this first trip Henson started to learn about the way of life of the Inuit who lived at the northern end of Greenland, to learn to speak their language and to learn how to use their knowledge of survival in the Arctic. Henson became very popular among the Inuit where he was credited with learning their language and adapting their customs better than any other outsider. He was nicknamed Maripaluk—"kind Matthew."
Henson returned with Peary to Greenland in June 1893, at which time he adopted a young Inuit orphan named Kudlooktoo and taught him to speak English. On this expedition Peary and Henson crossed the northern end of Greenland from their base at Etah to the northeastern corner of the island at Independence Bay in "Peary Land." Henson later wrote, "The memory of the winter and summer of 1894 and 1895 will never leave me … the recollections of the long race with death across the 450 miles of the ice-cap of North Greenland in 1895 … are still the most vivid." They returned to the United States in September 1895, and Henson vowed never to return.
But he did return—in the summers of 1896, 1897, 1898, 1900, and 1902. In July 1905 Peary and Henson went back north to Greenland again, this time with the intention of traveling over the polar ice cap to the North Pole. Starting in early 1906 they traveled by dog sled over the frozen sea, but it turned out to be an unusually warm winter and early spring, and they encountered too many stretches of open water to be able to continue. They got to within 160 miles of the Pole, the farthest north any one had reached to that time.
Peary and Henson set out again on July 6, 1908 on a ship named after the U.S. president, the Roosevelt, with an expedition that included 21 members. They sailed to Etah in Greenland and took on board 50 Inuit who were to help set up the supply bases on the route to the Pole. They then went to Cape Columbia at the northern end of Ellesmere Island. Peary and Henson set out from there on the morning of March 1, 1909. They were accompanied by or met up with various advance teams along the way. One of these support teams was headed by Professor Ross Marvin of Cornell University. It set up its last supply depot 230 miles from the Pole and then headed back for Cape Columbia. Marvin never made it. One of the Inuit in the party, Kudlukto, said that he had fallen into a stretch of open water and drowned. Years later Kudlukto confessed that he had shot Marvin and dumped his body in the water when he refused to let one of Kudlukto's young cousins ride on a dog sled.
On March 31 Peary and other members of the expedition were at 87 ° 47', the farthest north any man had reached—about 150 miles from the Pole. At that point Peary told Captain Bob Bartlett, commander of the Roosevelt, to return to Cape Columbia. He would make the last dash to the Pole accompanied by Henson. Bartlett was bitterly disappointed, and the next morning walked alone to the north for a few miles as though he would try to make it on his own. He then turned around and headed south. It made sense for Peary to take Henson: he had much more Arctic experience and was an acknowledged master with the dog teams. But there have always been suggestions that Peary sent Bartlett back because he did not want to share the honor of reaching the Pole with anyone else. Given the racial prejudice at the time, Henson and the four Inuit— Ootah, Seegloo, Ooqueah, and Egingwah—did not "count."
A couple of days later, on April 3, Henson was crossing a lane of moving ice, and one of the blocks of ice that he was using for support slipped and he fell into the water. Fortunately one of the Inuit was next to him and was able to pull him out immediately or he would have frozen and drowned. The normal day's procedure was for Peary to leave the night's camp early in the morning and push ahead for two hours breaking the trail ahead. The others would pack up the camp and then catch up with Peary. Then Peary (who at the age of 52 was already suffering from the leukemia that would later kill him) would ride in one of the dogsleds while Henson went ahead and broke trail. They would not see each other until the end of the day.
On April 6, 1909 Henson arrived at a spot that he, just by calculating the distance traveled, thought must be the North Pole. When Peary arrived 45 minutes later, Henson greeted him by saying, "I think I'm the first man to sit on the top of the world." Peary was furious. Peary then attached an American flag to a staff, and the whole expedition went to sleep. At 12:50 p.m. there was a break in the clouds, and Peary was able to take a reading of their location. It showed that they were 3 miles short of the Pole. After another nap, Peary took another reading and then set out with Egingwah and Seegloo to where he thought the Pole must be— without telling Henson. They then spent 30 hours in the vicinity of the Pole, and Henson officially raised the flag over what Peary's calculations told him was the North Pole. (Whether it really was the Pole or not has been a source of controversy ever since.)
Peary and Henson and the four Inuit arrived back at the spot where they had left Bartlett at midnight on April 9, an incredible speed—and reached Cape Columbia on April 23. They stayed there until July 17 when the ice had melted enough for the Roosevelt to steam into open water. They telegraphed news of their triumph from Labrador on September 6, 1909. But by that time, the world already thought that Frederick Cook had been the first one to reach the Pole. Peary spent the next few years defending his claims and was eventually vindicated.
By the time Henson got back to the United States he weighed 112 pounds (his normal weight was 155 pounds), and he was forced to spend several months recovering. For a while, he accompanied Peary on his lecture tours, where he would be exhibited in his Inuit clothes. In 1912 he wrote a book about his experiences (A Negro at the North Pole). However, the book died quickly, and Henson was forced to take a job as a porter working for $16 a week. Thanks to some politically influential friends he was later given a job as a messenger at the United States Customs house in New York at a salary of $20 a week, which was later raised to $40 a week. He retired in 1936, at which time there was an effort to have him awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, but nothing came of it.
As racial attitudes in the United States changed, Henson began to receive more recognition. He was elected a full member of the Explorers Club in New York in 1937, the first Black member. In 1945 all of the survivors of the North Pole expedition received the Navy Medal, but Henson's was awarded in private. When he went to attend a banquet in his honor in Chicago in 1948, none of the downtown hotels would allow him to register because of his race. In 1950, however, he was introduced to President Truman and in 1954 was received by President Eisenhower in the White House. He died in New York in 1955 at the age of 88 and was buried in a private cemetery there. Years later, in 1988, when news of his achievements received more publicity, he was reburied at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors in a plot next to Peary's.
Since Peary and Henson were both married at the time of their Arctic expeditions, it is not surprising that there was no public knowledge that both of them had liaisons with Inuit women. Dating from the 1905 expedition, they both fathered children—Peary had two sons and Henson had a boy named Anaukaq. This information came to light in 1986 when it was revealed that the small Greenland village of Moriussaq was largely made up of Henson's descendants, who had prospered as traders and hunters.
Further Reading on Matthew A. Henson
Henson's autobiography, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole was first published in 1912 (New York: 1912). It was reprinted in 1969 with a slightly different title: A Black Explorer at the North Pole (New York: Walker and Company). This edition was reprinted as a paperback by the University of Nebraska Press in Lincoln in 1989.
There are two biographies of Henson: Bradley Robinson, Dark Companion (New York: Robert M. McBride & Co., 1947) and Floyd Miller, Ahdoolo!: The Biography of Matthew A. Henson (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1963).
The story of Henson's descendants is told in "The Henson Family" by S. Allen Counter in the 100th anniversary edition of the National Geographic magazine (September 1988, pp. 422-429).