(Author’s note: I wrote the following profile several years ago for American History magazine. But as today marks the 100th anniversary of Robert Peary’s assault of the Geographic North Pole, it seems appropriate to give this a second airing.)
Commander Robert E. Peary had to make a historic choice. It was April 1, 1909, and as he stood in the frigid, wind-ravaged vastness of the Arctic ice, just over 130 miles from the goal he’d been seeking for more than two decades--the North Pole--he needed to decide who would accompany him on the last leg of this expedition.
His party was already much reduced from the 20 men and 168 dogs that had set out across the ice six weeks earlier. As they’d pushed north by foot and sledge, contingents of men and animals had periodically split off from the force, returning to Peary’s transport ship, anchored at the north end of Canada’s Ellesmere Island, but leaving their supplies with the remaining trekkers. Now, for the commander’s final assault on the Pole, he pared his crew down to its most essential members: four Inuits (Eskimos) and a stocky African American who, over the 22 years he’d spent at Peary’s side, had demonstrated both his courage and fortitude: Matthew Alexander Henson. Asked by another member of his party why he chose Henson, Peary said simply, “I can’t
get along without him.”
Five days later, on April 6, Henson, Peary, and the rest reportedly became the first men to reach the North Pole. There, they planted a handmade American flag and bellowed choruses of “Hip, hip, hooray,” even though there was not a soul within 400
miles to hear them.
For Henson, this moment seemed to justify all of the difficult choices and harder challenges he’d endured over the years. He couldn’t have known what trials he had yet to face.
Born on a farm in Charles County, Maryland, in 1866, by the time Henson was 12 his parents had both died and he’d run away to Baltimore, where he signed on as a cabin boy aboard the merchant ship Katie Hines. He spent half a dozen years at sea, traveling the globe, and in the course of it, learning about geography, astronomy, and literature from the ship’s captain. But following that seaman’s demise in the mid-1880s Henson returned to dry land, drifting through New York and New England, taking one odd job after another, until he finally found work as a stock boy for a Washington, D.C., haberdashery. It was there, in 1887, that he met the tall, mustachioed naval officer who would change his life.
Lieutenant Robert Peary was only passing through the nation’s capital on his way to Nicaragua, where he’d been assigned to survey a possible canal route from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea. He would have preferred to return to the snow-blanketed interior of Greenland, which he had begun exploring while on leave the year before. But given no choice in the matter, Peary instead set about outfitting himself for jungle duty. One important stop was at the hat store of Steinmetz & Sons, where he requested a tropical helmet and mentioned to the owner that he was looking for a young man who could go to Central America as his valet. Although he was sorry to lose him, Sam Steinmetz recommended his stock boy, Matthew Henson.
Proving himself more useful as a colleague than a man servant, Henson would go on to join Peary’s crossings of northern Greenland in 1891-92 and 1893-95, and he would lend invaluable support during the explorer’s repeated struggles to reach the North Pole. With Peary, Henson hiked and sledded thousands of miles; lived for months in Arctic darkness; built igloos in weather that threatened frostbite; hunted musk oxen and walruses; and endured both the delirium of starvation and the displeasure of lice-filled fur clothing. He pushed Peary forward during periods of despair, and saved the explorer’s life one more than one occasion. Henson’s assistance was most advantageous in dealing with the Inuits whom Peary recruited on his various expeditions. Because of his black skin, the northern natives accepted Henson as a brother, calling him Marri Palook, or “dear little Matthew.” They taught him to drive dogsleds and survive in their world, and when the arrogant Peary couldn’t convince them to lift a finger on his behalf, Henson usually succeeded.
These two men were never friends; Peary was always taciturn and aloof in their relations. Yet he rewarded Henson’s loyalty by taking him along for his ultimate moment of triumph,
when in 1909 he “discovered” what his instruments said was the North Pole.
The euphoria that Henson and Peary felt with this accomplishment was short-lived, however. Just five days before Peary could announce his victory, Dr. Frederick Cook, a former associate and fellow member of the distinguished Explorers Club, told the press that he had reached the Pole almost eight months earlier. Peary spent years after that substantiating his own claim and destroying Cook’s. (Today, there are questions as to whether either man actually attained his goal.) And before the U.S. Congress would recognize his feat, Peary had to submit to humiliating cross-examination, during which he downplayed Henson’s role in the 1909 expedition, refusing--for primarily egotistical reasons--to acknowledge in public what he had said in private: that he couldn’t get along without the black man.
After the fall of 1909, Matthew Henson wrote a book, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole, and continued to speak highly of Peary, though the two didn’t see each other again until Peary (by this time an admiral) was on his deathbed in 1920. Henson, who slowly settled into the civil service, received numerous commendations, but mostly from African-American institutions, until the late 1930s, when he won membership in the Explorers Club. In 1945, Congress presented him with a silver medal and citation for “outstanding service to the Government of the United States,” and nine years later, when he was 88 years old, Henson left his home in New York to lay a wreath on Peary’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington.
It was his last public act; he died in 1955 and was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York. However, in 1988, Henson’s remains were reinterred with full honors next to Peary’s. And in 1996, the Navy’s newest oceanographic survey vessel was named the USNS Henson, a belated but still poignant tribute to Matthew Henson’s adventuring spirit.