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Matthew Henson: First Man on the North Pole?

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Matthew Henson: First Man on the North Pole?

On April 6, 1906, explorer Robert Peary became the first Westerner to visit the geographic North Pole. But few at the time knew that it was his manservant Matthew Henson who likely put the first footprints on top of our planet.

Born in Nanjemoy, Maryland, in 1866, Henson was only 12 and had no formal schooling when he left home to venture on the high seas, first serving as a cabin boy on a merchant vessel. He spent a decade at sea before meeting Peary, an admiral in the U.S. Navy, who hired him to join an expedition to Nicaragua. Over the next 22 years, the two men would work side by side, facing freezing temperatures and starvation – making their eventual falling out after achieving their most celebrated goal a sad tale, if perhaps one indicative of the time's prevailing social mores.

By the end of the 19th century, precious little of the world was left undiscovered by explorers. As early as 1886 Peary was setting sights on the North Pole, and he would visit Greenland several times before mounting his first attempt. Unlike many of his contemporaries who stubbornly relied on European methods (often at their peril), Peary adapted many practices of the native Inuit people for his survival. He wore heavy fur pelts, used sled dogs for travel, built igloos and dispensed with tents and sleeping bags. Sometimes hard-won knowledge wasn’t enough to overcome the harsh conditions – over the course of his Arctic exploration, he would have no fewer than eight of his toes amputated.

Henson later claimed he was largely responsible for preserving Peary’s life during their aborted attempts at the Pole between 1895 and 1902. They suffered from scurvy after consuming canned food that turned out to be 18 years old, were forced to eat some of their sled dogs to survive, and probably still would have died had the Inuit not come to their rescue. Recalled Henson:

“Those were days that even now stand out from all the rest. How I kept the men and dogs in order, traveling days and during the night. How I foraged with the dogs, like a dog myself, hunting for food to keep him alive and get him back to civilization. We hunted and captured any living thing that was good to eat, chased hares with wolfish desperation, and I finally saw him back to the ship in the hands of the surgeon, crippled for life in a way, but safe and eventually well.”

This brush with death wasn't enough to dissuade them. Peary mounted another expedition in 1905 and claimed to have traversed the furthest point north yet reached by any explorer (a claim much disputed), but the Pole itself still eluded him.

In 1909, 23 men joined Peary’s final Arctic expedition, leaving New York City onboard the Roosevelt bound for Greenland. Only five men were with Peary on the final sled dash north, and Henson was the only non-Inuit. Exhausted, Peary was unable to walk and had to be pulled on a sledge for the final days of the journey. At the very last, he sent Henson ahead as a scout. After decades of near fatal struggle, reaching the actual Pole itself seemed from Henson's recollections a study in anti-climax: “I was in the lead that had overshot the mark by a couple of miles. We went back then and I could see that my footprints were the first at the spot.”

They planted an American flag, camped there for 33 hours and then turned around to go home.

Only upon returning did Peary learn that his rival Frederick Cook had claimed to have reached the North Pole the year before. Who got there first is still debated to this day, but Peary’s claim became the more widely accepted in his time and he was showered with accolades, receiving a Thanks of Congress by special act and being awarded a generous federal pension that allowed him to retire two years after his famous expedition.

Henson fared less well. Almost immediately upon reaching the Pole, he sensed that Peary resented him for accidentally traversing it first. In an article published in the Boston American, he wrote of their return journey:

“On board the ship he addressed me a very few times. When we left the ship he did not speak. I wrote to him twice and sent a telegram, but received no reply from him. I had worked for Commander Peary all those years for the sum of $35 a month…and I had scarcely enough money to support my family in the States.”

His appeals to Peary rebuffed, Henson next tried taking his story on the lecture circuit, but the move further angered Peary, who wrote to a friend, “After my looking after him for years, he has now, for the sake of a few dollars, deliberately and intentionally broken faith with me.”

While Henson may have felt himself a friend or at least colleague of Peary’s, Peary clearly did not share the sentiment, never allowing Henson was anything more than a hired servant. His dismissive attitude was no doubt in part due to the prevailing racism of the time (his treatment of the Inuit was even worse), though a Peary biographer also categorized him as being “the most driven, possibly the most successful, and probably the most unpleasant man in the annals of polar exploration.”

Henson spent the next 30 years working as a clerk in a New York customs house at a salary of $900 a year. But late in life he finally received some recognition, being honored by Presidents Truman and Eisenhower.

Henson died in 1955 at the age of 88. After being buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, his remains were reinterred in 1988 at Arlington National Cemetery, near the monument erected to Robert Peary.

Quarrel though Peary might, history had deemed the two men inseparable.