A hero finally gets his due
Reaching the North Pole for the first time in history was success enough for anybody. But for African-American Matthew Henson it was a double victory: a triumph over both a hostile land and the prejudices of a white-dominated society.Skip to next paragraph
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Today, achievements such as Mr. Henson's are widely celebrated, especially in February, which is Black History Month.
But things were quite different in 1909. That's when Henson and Robert Peary reached the Pole. Henson may even have gotten there first. (More on that later.)
The feat brought Peary global recognition, though not immediately, because Frederick Cook claimed to have arrived a year earlier. Eventually, though, Cook's story was viewed suspiciously, while the Explorers Club, the United States Congress, and others acknowledged Peary as the pioneer.
Henson, though, was cast into the shadows. His recognition was largely confined to the black community. A huge gathering was held for him at the Tuxedo Club in Harlem, attended by educator Booker T. Washington, among others.
White society ignored him. Only in recent times has he received his due, thanks in part to people who championed him after his death.
In 1988, at the urging of Harvard professor Allen Counter, President Ronald Reagan granted a petition to move Henson's remains to Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C., where many American heroes and soldiers are buried.
In 1996, a Navy ship, the USNS Henson, was named for him. And in 2000, the National Geographic Society gave him its highest honor: the Hubbard Medal for distinction in exploration, discovery, and research.
These are impressive honors, made all the more so by Henson's uphill climb. He was born in Maryland in 1866, a year after the Civil War ended. By the time he was 11, both his parents had died, and he was entrusted to the care of relatives. At 13, he intrepidly set out on his own, mostly walking 40 miles to Baltimore, where he became a ship's cabin boy.
That meant peeling potatoes in the galley. During the five years he spent sailing around the world, however, he learned geography, history, and seamanship.
He encountered racial hostility on a subsequent ship job, though, and turned to other work. He became a bellhop, dock worker, messenger, and night watchman.
Then, while working in a Washington, D.C., hat shop, Henson met Peary.
Peary, an engineer and explorer, came in looking for a sun helmet for a trip to Nicaragua. The United States government was sending him to search for a canal route. When the store owner learned that Peary needed a valet, he recommended Henson. The clerk was bright and, at 21, had been around the world already. Peary hired him. In Nicaragua, Henson used the mapmaking skills he'd learned aboard ship to help Peary.
When the trip ended, Peary approached Henson about joining him on a far different adventure: a quest for the North Pole.
At the time, the North Pole was as mysterious and unattainable as the moon. Little was known about it, other than that it was very cold.
No airplane had flown over the Pole - that wouldn't happen until 1926. The polar ice field kept ships from sailing there. Some people saw the glow of the northern lights and though Eskimos were burning logs on the "top of the world." (The aurora borealis, as it's called, is caused by charged particles from the sun colliding with Earth's atmosphere.)
By the 1870s, a race had sprung up. Who would be first at the North Pole? It wasn't a head-to-head race, but a series of expeditions over many years by Americans, Italians, and Norwegians.
Henson had become Peary's right-hand man, and the two made a number of trips to Greenland and the Arctic beginning in 1891. They covered thousands of miles on dog sleds. After being stymied by blizzards and drifting, cracking ice on six occasions, they mounted a seventh expedition.
The trek north began after anchoring their ship at Ellesmere Island, at the edge of what is now the Canadian territory of Nunavut. Henson led construction of an igloo base camp, and on March 1, 1909, a relay-style assault on the Pole commenced. It was a major team effort, enlisting about 20 Inuit (also called Eskimos), more than 250 dogs, and large quantities of supplies.
Henson often helped to break the trail during the 475-mile journey and was selected by Peary to join him on the final leg, along with a few Eskimos.
"Henson must go with me," Peary said. "I cannot make it without him."
Peary could have chosen one of his white assistants, but he wanted the best man, regardless of race. Henson was a proven leader, skilled at repairing sledges and driving the dog teams. He was also the only American on the expedition who spoke the Inuit language fluently.