History

Matthew Henson, a black man, became the first American to set foot on the North Pole

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by Frederick H. Lowe

One hundred and seven years ago this month, an American set foot on the geographic North Pole.

Matthew Henson, the first American to step on the North Pole
Matthew Henson, the first American to step on the North Pole

Although  U.S. Navy Commander Robert E. Peary at one time had been solely honored for this accomplishment, Matthew A. Henson, a black man and the most-important member of Peary’s expedition team, was the  first American to achieve this  honor, which took place on April 6, 1909.

While working in a Washington, D.C., clothing store, Henson met Peary who recruited him after learning of his sea experience. Henson, who at age 12 worked as a cabin boy on the merchant ship Katie Hines, accompanied Peary for more than 20 years on expeditions to the Arctic.

In 1908 and 1909, Peary and Henson made an eighth attempt to reach the North Pole, which is 90 degrees north. The region’s temperatures plummeted to 63 degrees below Fahrenheit. The ship, The Roosevelt, left Greenland in early 1909.

Peary selected Henson and five Eskimos to form a six-man team. The four Eskimos were Ootah, Egingwah, Seegloo and Ooqueah.

The men had 40 sled dogs and provisions to make the final trip of 413 nautical miles to the North Pole. They traveled from the Crane City camp on Ellesmere Island to the North Pole.

Henson spoke Inuit, and Eskimo men and women provided Henson with furs and their best dogs.  The men and women called Henson ” Matthew,  the kind one.”

There was big split in the ice and the expedition waited six days for it to freeze over, according to the book “Dark Companion: The Official Biography of Matthew Henson,” by Bradley Robinson with Matthew Henson.

Before the team could reach its goal, an exhausted Peary couldn’t continue on foot.  He lost eight of his toes when he attempted to reach the North Pole on his first expedition. Peary had other remaining two toes amputated prior to his eighth attempt to the North Pole.

For a while, Peary rode in a sled where he remained as the others pushed their sled dogs the final distance to the North Pole.

Peary’s exhaustion scuttled his plans. Initially Peary had intended to visit the North Pole alone or with a few Eskimos, which caused tension between him and Henson, according to a July 17, 1910, article published in the Boston American newspaper. Henson wrote the article.

Before the Henson Party left, Peary pulled five flags from a large canvas bag. He gave four of the flags—the Navy League, the Red Cross, the flag of the D.A.R. (Daughters of the American Revolution) and his Bowdoin fraternity flag, which was Delta Kappa Epsilon—to the Eskimos, according to “Dark Companion.”

An American flag, a fifth flag, was given to Henson. “Line the men up for a photograph, Matt,” Peary instructed as he removed his camera from its case, according to Dark Companion. The photograph was taken of Henson and others at the North Pole, but Peary is not in it. The photograph was of Ooqueah, Ootah, Egingwah, Seegloo and Henson.

Henson offered Peary a congratulatory handshake, which confused the Eskimos because the North Pole was a sheet of ice.

The two men did not part of friendly terms. Peary left the Roosevelt without speaking to Henson who believes Peary was offended because the other teams were well ahead his sled.

“We kept ahead or just out of his reach so that he might not load himself upon our sledges,” Henson wrote in the newspaper article. “He was very heavy for the dogs to haul….Much of my work was ahead of the main party breaking the trail and caring  for advance things.” Henson noted that Peary could walk very little in rough ice.

Peary then went on a nationwide speaking tour never mentioning Henson. Henson reached out to Peary, but he never responded. Henson went on his own speaking tour.

Initially, Peary received all or most of the honors for being the first American to set foot on the North Pole. However, Congress in 1944 awarded Henson and five other aides duplicates of the silver Peary Polar Expedition Medal. President Harry S. Truman and Dwight David Eisenhower honored Henson before he died in 1955. Henson was born on August 8, 1866, in Nanjemoy, Md.

Now considered a hero, he is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

 

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