How African-American Explorer Matthew Henson Became the First Person to Reach the North Pole, Then Was Forgotten for Almost 30 Years

The his­to­ry of explo­ration is replete with famous names every­one knows, like Robert Peary, the man most often cred­it­ed with first reach­ing the North Pole. Those who work along­side the legends—doing the heavy lift­ing, sav­ing lives, mak­ing essen­tial calculations—tend to be for­got­ten or mar­gin­al­ized almost imme­di­ate­ly in the telling of the sto­ry, espe­cial­ly when they don’t fit the pro­file for the kinds of peo­ple allowed to make his­to­ry.

In Peary’s case, it seems that the most impor­tant mem­ber of his team—his assis­tant, African Amer­i­can explor­er Matthew Hen­son—may have actu­al­ly reached the North Pole first, along with four of the team’s Inu­it crew mem­bers.

Hen­son and Per­ry first met in a Wash­ing­ton, DC cloth­ing store where Hen­son worked. When they struck up a con­ver­sa­tion, Peary learned that Hen­son had fled Mary­land “after his par­ents were tar­get­ed by the Ku Klux Klan,” as Messy Nessy writes. He had then signed on as a cab­in boy at 12 and sailed around the world, includ­ing the Russ­ian Arc­tic seas, learn­ing to read and write while aboard ship.

Peary was impressed and “hired him on the spot,” and “from that point for­ward, Hen­son went on every expe­di­tion Peary embarked on; trekking through the jun­gles of Nicaragua and, lat­er, cov­er­ing thou­sands of miles of ice in dog sleds to the North Pole.” Also on their last expe­di­tion were 39 Inu­it men, women, and chil­dren, includ­ing the four Inu­it men— Ootah, Egig­ing­wah, See­gloo, and Oogueah—who accom­pa­nied Hen­son and Peary on the final leg of the 1909 jour­ney, Peary and Henson’s eighth attempt.

As the six men neared the pole, Peary “grew more and more weary, suf­fer­ing from exhaus­tion and frozen toes, unable to leave their camp, set up five miles” away. Hen­son and the oth­ers “scout­ed ahead,” and, accord­ing to Hen­son’s account, actu­al­ly over­shot the pole before dou­bling back. “I could see that my foot­prints were the first at the spot,” he lat­er wrote.

Peary even­tu­al­ly caught up and “the sled-bound Admi­ral alleged­ly trudged up to plant the Amer­i­can flag in the ice—and yet, the only pho­to­graph of the his­toric moment shows a crew of faces that are dis­tinct­ly not white.” Either Peary took the pho­to­graph as a “way of hon­or­ing the crew” or he wasn’t there at all when it was tak­en. The for­mer does­n’t seem like­ly giv­en Peary’s eager­ness to claim full cred­it for the feat.

Peary accept­ed the sole hon­or from the Nation­al Geo­graph­ic Soci­ety and an award from Con­gress in 1911, while Henson’s “con­tri­bu­tions were large­ly ignored” at the time and “he returned to a very nor­mal life” in rel­a­tive obscu­ri­ty, work­ing as a U.S. Cus­toms clerk for 23 years, unable to mar­shal the resources for fur­ther expe­di­tions once Peary retired.

In his writ­ings, Peary char­ac­ter­ized Hen­son accord­ing to his use­ful­ness: “This posi­tion I have giv­en him pri­mar­i­ly because of his adapt­abil­i­ty and fit­ness for the work and sec­ond­ly on account of his loy­al­ty. He is a bet­ter dog dri­ver and can han­dle a sledge bet­ter than any man liv­ing, except some of the best Eski­mo hunters them­selves.” The pas­sage is rem­i­nis­cent of Lewis and Clark’s descrip­tions of Saca­gawea, who nev­er emerges as a full per­son with her own moti­va­tions.

Sad­ly, in his 1912 account, A Negro Explor­er at the North Pole, it seems that Hen­son inter­nal­ized the racism that con­fined him to sec­ond-class sta­tus. “Anoth­er world’s accom­plish­ment was done and fin­ished,” he writes, pas­sive­ly elid­ing the doer of the deed. He then invokes a trope that appears over and over, from Shakespeare’s Tem­pest to Defoe’s Robin­son Cru­soe: “From the begin­ning of his­to­ry, wher­ev­er the world’s work was done by a white man, he had been accom­pa­nied by a col­ored man. From the build­ing of the pyra­mids and the jour­ney to the cross, to the dis­cov­ery of the new world and the dis­cov­ery of the North Pole.”

The kind of his­to­ry Hen­son had learned is obvious—a white­wash­ing on a world-his­tor­i­cal scale. It would take almost 30 years for him to final­ly receive recog­ni­tion, though he lived to become the first black mem­ber of The Explor­ers Club in 1937 and “with some irony,” Messy Nessy writes, he “was award­ed the Peary Polar Expe­di­tion Medal” in 1944. Since then, his name has usu­al­ly been men­tioned with Peary’s in his­to­ries of the expe­di­tion, but rarely as the first per­son to reach the pole. Watch two short pro­files of Hen­son’s accom­plish­ments above, and see many more pho­tos from the expe­di­tion at Messy Nessy.

via Messy Nessy

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Explor­er David Livingstone’s Diary (Writ­ten in Berry Juice) Now Dig­i­tized with New Imag­ing Tech­nol­o­gy

Watch the Very First Fea­ture Doc­u­men­tary: Nanook of the North by Robert J. Fla­her­ty (1922)

African Amer­i­can His­to­ry-Eman­ci­pa­tion to the Present: A Free Course from Yale Uni­ver­si­ty 

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

by | Permalink | Comments (3) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (3)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Kayanesenh says:

    First per­son to get to the pole?

    Even the pho­to­graph shows the four Inu­it, each of whom may have been the first “per­son” to reach the pole.

    Con­demn­ing the racism against Hen­son while he even­tu­al­ly got some recog­ni­tion and the Inu­it got none is…more racism. Dang!

  • Hazel says:

    I just can’t believe it first man to get to the pole it is totes so cool can’t wait 2 hear more about him so u c black peo­ple can do great things to

  • ruby says:

    Omg real­ly I need to hear more about this guy

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.