In April 1909, American explorer Robert Peary went down in history as the person who “discovered” the North Pole.
But an overlooked detail in that story is that Berry was accompanied by a black Maryland farmer, Matthew Henson, who said he was the one who felt he had come to the right place.
Henson and Peary teamed up in 1891, and over the course of two decades they embarked on seven Arctic expeditions together hoping to plant an American flag in the Arctic and claim its discovery.
Henson’s commitment to the cause was so great that in those years he learned to build igloos, to speak the Inuit language, and Berry said he “handled a sled better than any man who lived, except some of the best (Inuit) hunters”. He also learned to use Inuit tools and adapted their fur clothing.
Finally, on April 6, 1909, most historians agree they did, but when The New York Times broke the news months later with a 1,000-word front-page story, there was no mention of Henson.
Robert Peary is often credited with “discovering” the North Pole, but an unknown Maryland farmer accompanied him on that expedition. Henson is photographed
A group of six arrived at the North Pole as part of the Peary Expedition on April 6, 1909. They included four Inuit guides, Ooqueah, Ootah, Egingwah, and Seegloo. In the color photo, Henson is shown in the middle and the evidence is on either side
At the turn of the 19th century, discovery of the North Pole was a shared aspiration among explorers from around the world, many of whom lost their lives trying to capture the prestigious prize.
In the later debate over who should be given credit for the achievement, multiple names often came up, among them Perry and fellow American Dr. Frederick A. Cook, but until recently Henson was not one.
Henson was born into a family of farmers in Charles County, Maryland, in 1866.
His parents died in his childhood, so at the age of 12 he went to work as a cabin boy on a merchant ship, according to a biography by Arlington National Cemetery.
In six years on the ship he learned to read, write and navigate. Later, while working in a hat shop in Washington, D.C., he befriends Perry, an engineer in the US Navy, who invites him on an expedition to Nicaragua.
Perry was impressed by Henson and in 1891 the couple went together on the first expedition to the North Pole. On all but one of Peary’s subsequent trips he was accompanied by Henson, who was later discovered to have distant Inuit relatives.
Over that period, Peary devised new ways of managing expeditions, developing what became known as the “Perry System,” according to an article in Smithsonian Magazine.
He would travel with large parties of up to 50 men who, together with their materials, would be pulled by 246 dogs. However, the sensational method led to failure during the 1906 attempt.
Matthew Henson has been photographed in furs worn during various Arctic expeditions. While in Greenland, he befriended several Inuit and even learned the language, which proved an invaluable skill.
When the New York Times broke the news of Perry’s successful voyage in a 1,000-word front-page story, there was no mention of Henson.
During the last attempt in 1909, the party was less than 200 miles from the North Pole but resources were running low. Peary took everyone back to the ship but continued with a small team, consisting of Henson and four Inuit.
According to Henson, it was he who had a hunch that they had reached the North Pole, and it was Peary who took the measurement that confirmed this. Henson went on to describe the events of that day in an interview with the Boston American.
“We are now at the pole, right?” Henson said he asked Perry.
Perry replied, according to Henson: ‘I don’t suppose we could swear we were quite at the pole.
Henson also wrote about his life’s work and classified his entire journey in a file book It was published in 1912 under the title “Negro Explorer in the Arctic”.
In it he described how he had a sense of where he was going: “Commander Perry took his sights from the time our chronometers gave him, and I, knowing that we had continued in a practically straight line, was sure that we had gone more than the distance necessary to ensure that we reached the top of the earth.” .
The Explorers Club is a non-profit organization based in New York with chapters all over the world. Pictured is its headquarters on East 70th Street in Manhattan
Matthew Henson (pictured at 87) reached the North Pole with Robert Peary helping President Eisenhower locate the globe during a visit to the White House
J.R. Harris, also African-American, serves on the board of directors of the Explorers Club, a nonprofit organization based in New York. He said BBC The organization’s efforts to put Henson on the map.
“As a kid growing up in school, I had never heard of Matthew Henson,” he told the BBC. A lot of people assume that Matthew Henson was someone I looked up to that day, which isn’t true. All we’ve heard is that Robert Peary discovered the North Pole.
“He (the Inuit) really liked him,” Harris said. “Perry was kind of confrontational, and he appreciated that somebody in his party could get along with the Inuit and could get along well.”
Harris also discussed the importance of accrediting Inuit evidence that was also present at the time of the successful 1909 expedition. The BBC reported that the Explorers Club started a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Commission in 2022 and made JR Harris its chair.
It has admitted four new members: Seegloo, Egingwah, Ooqueah, and Ootah, who accompanied Henson and Peary on their last trip.
“In my opinion, all of them have discovered the North Pole, all six of them,” Harris said. These four guys are finally getting the recognition they deserve.
In Henson’s book he comments on how at the time he was considered merely an appendix to the historical journey rather than an integral part of it.
Describe how it felt upon discovering the North Pole. “Another world’s feat was done and finished,” he wrote, “and, as in the past, since the beginning of history, wherever the work of the world was done by a white man, it was accompanied by a colored man.”
“From the construction of the pyramids and the journey to the cross, to the discovery of the New World and the discovery of the North Pole, the Negro has been the faithful and constant companion of the Caucasus.”