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.

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.

Honors came later

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.

As mysterious as the moon

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.

'I cannot make it without him'

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.

The details on what happened next are not clear. According to Harvard University's Dr. Counter, a Henson historian, Henson was expected to take the lead but stop short of the Pole to let Peary reach it first. Instead, he and two Eskimos inadvertently arrived before realizing their mistake, then waited 45 minutes for Peary to catch up. (Peary, who had frostbitten feet, was being pulled in a sled.)

When Peary realized what had happened, he was so angry that he refused to speak to Henson on the return trip and thereafter maintained a distant relationship more common between blacks and whites of that era.

The expedition's navigational equipment was not as precise as today's satellite-based GPS. Today, however, most experts are convinced that Peary and Henson got there before anybody else. (A respected navigation society studied photos Peary's group took at the Pole. From the angle of the shadows cast, they concluded that the explorers had, indeed, reached the North Pole.

As the leader of the expedition, Peary naturally received major credit. Changing racial attitudes and research, however, have established Henson as a remarkable explorer as well.

A cable-TV movie about Henson's exploits, "Glory and Honor," came out in 1997/ A Hollywood version, starring Will Smith, is in the planning stages. A handful of books, including several for young readers, chronicle Henson's life and polar adventures.

After returning from the Pole, Henson led a quiet existence. He worked for many years in the US Customs Bureau. Before his death in 1955, though, he had the satisfaction of shedding his "unsung hero" status. In 1937 he was elected to the international Explorers Club in New York. In 1945 the US Navy awarded him a medal. And in 1954, President Eisenhower invited him to the White House.

95 years later, you can phone home from the top of the world

Christopher Sweitzer has been to the North Pole twice. The first time hardly counts, though, since he was only 18 months old. As a fifth-grader last April, he returned with his dad, Rick, whose adventure travel business has been offering North Pole trips since 1993.

On his latest journey, a 5-1/2-day trip, he arranged to call his classmates at Highcrest Middle School in Wilmette, Ill., on a satellite phone.

"The connection was pretty good," says Chris, an outdoorsy 12-year-old who likes to play soccer and baseball when not skiing.

Their trip was far shorter, faster, and more comfortable than the one Robert Peary and Matthew Henson took in 1909. Chris traveled mostly by air.

He and his dad flew to Spitzbergen, an island north of Norway. From there they took a Russian charter flight (in a special plane designed to land on ice) to a base camp on the frozen Arctic Ocean, 60 miles from the Pole. A helicopter took them to within five miles of the Pole. They cross-country skied the rest of the way. It took three hours.

The skiing was a lot tougher than Chris was used to. He often had to get over tall pressure ridges of ice. Another surprise was where they stayed. 'I never thought about having a base there, with big tents,' he says.

Tents are used at the oddly named Camp Borneo (the island of Borneo is very hot and humid). The camp is temporary. The Russians who run it set it up for several weeks, usually in April. The camp requires a large, flat stretch of solid ice at least three feet thick, so planes can land.

The tent Chris and his dad stayed in was about 20 feet long, 10 to 15 feet high, and heated. "It was pretty nice," he says, surely more comfortable than outside, where the temperature was about minus 10 degrees F. (and minus 25 at the Pole).

When Chris called his classmates, they wanted to know what animals he'd seen. On the entire trip, Chris saw only one seal. He didn't see any polar bears, which was probably just as well, since they have been known to attack humans.

Chris worked so hard skiing the last miles to the Pole that his perspiration froze on his face. Because it's so cold, rest stops are short and infrequent. On the trips he leads, Rick Sweitzer says the group stops about once an hour just long enough for a little nourishment. 'Every time you stop,' Rick says, 'it takes 15 minutes to warm up when you start again.'

When the Sweitzers' GPS unit told them they had arrived at the "Pole," (there's no actual marker), they found they had company. A group of runners was competing in an extreme marathon, running (well, mostly walking) around a one-kilometer loop. There was a five-hour limit, and only a few contestants finished the race.

Chris watched - from inside the heated helicopter that shuttled him and his dad back to base camp.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to A hero finally gets his due
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today