“I was in the lead that had overshot the mark a couple of miles,” Matthew Henson told a reporter in March 1955, relating the moment when, 46 years earlier, he knew he had conquered the world. “We went back then, and I could see that my footprints were the first at the spot.”
“The spot” was the geographic North Pole, the literal roof of the planet. Achieving that distinction had long been the Holy Grail for explorers, adventurers and scientists. Henson’s claim to being the first human to set foot on the Pole on April 6, 1909, has been a sore point with others inclined to believe, as has been insisted for generations, that superstar Arctic explorer Robert E. Peary was the first to reach the Pole.
Over the last century, a growing body of credible evidence has come to the conclusion that 100 years ago today, Henson, not Peary, reached the Pole first. Still the Peary myth remains. That lingering distortion of fact is the result of the combination of the early bloom of our celebrity culture and the persistence of 20th century racial bias. Peary was a star and Henson was black; those two factors merged to virtually eclipse Henson’s role in conquering the top of the world.
Henson’s relatives and others are marking the occasion of Henson’s and Peary’s not-quite joint achievement. Centennial observances of just about anything are a lock for media attention in today’s culture. But honors for Henson, who died in March 1955 at the age of 88, are a tribute to his own longevity and a quiet celebration of the idea that eventually the truth will take hold.
Henson had an edge over Peary in advancing the historical narrative. First, there was the natural advantage of outliving his friend and rival by 35 years (Peary died in 1920 at 63). But the suppression of the Henson perspective during the early years of the Peary mythos has given way to a positive fascination with Henson’s side of the story, a side that has increasingly convinced people that it is the truth.
By the spring of 1909, Henson and Peary had been friends for more than 20 years, since they first met on an expedition to Nicaragua in 1888. An expert navigator who spoke the Inuit language, Henson joined Peary several times on various Arctic expeditions.
It was on one such assault on the North Pole that Peary, Henson and another 22 men, 133 dogs and 19 sleds set off from Ellesmere Island on March 1, 1909.
Henson and Peary had been pursuing the Pole in separate dog sleds, alternating responsibility for blazing trails through the Arctic’s arduous weather. On April 6, the expedition —now streamlined by lighter loads and reduced to Henson in one sled, followed by Peary and four of the Inuit crew in another — made one last assault on the Pole.
Anna Brendle of National Geographic wrote in 2003: “On April 6, 1909, Henson arrived at Camp Jesup, 89°47', 45 minutes ahead of Peary, concluding by dead reckoning that he had reached the Pole. Henson greeted Peary, “I think I'm the first man to sit on top of the world.”
It was probably no idle boast. The acclaimed science writer John Noble Wilford wrote in the New York Times in August 1988: “A new analysis of the expedition diary and other archives, focusing on navigational errors, suspect distance records and inexplicably blank pages in Robert E. Peary's diary, has raised the strongest doubts yet about the credibility of the explorer's claim that on April 6, 1909, he became the first person to reach the North Pole.”
Russell W. Gibbons, a contributor to the Arctic Profiles Project of the Arctic Institute of North America, theorized in a June 1987 op-ed that race may have been the elephant in the room, that Americans were more socially predisposed to the idea of Henson as Peary’s loyal Sherpa, his man Friday, the Sancho Panza to his Don Quixote.
“Henson was an American citizen, but no one, Peary evidently reasoned, correctly, would think of a black man as being eligible to share polar laurels,” Gibbons noted. “The ‘long and close friendship’ of Peary and Henson was not apparent after they returned from their expedition: In the decade before Peary died, he did not see his fellow explorer once, never invited him to his home and made little effort to obtain financial help or recognition for him. Henson read of Peary's death in the newspaper.”
Henson, who worked a number of menial jobs after the expedition, remains an object of fascination, in no small part because of the relative eclipse of his accomplishments. Henson’s 1912 autobiographical account, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole, was republished in 1997.
Original copies were once so rare they fetched between $1,700 and $3,000 each, according to Bradley Robinson, son of Bradley Robinson Sr., who wrote the Henson biography Dark Companion with the explorer in 1947.
Henson was the beneficiary of honors and accolades bestowed, as is often the case, after the fact of the honoree himself. Over the last 20 years, he has been the object of a cascade of recognition. In 1988, at the urging of a dogged Henson champion, Harvard professor Allen Counter, President Reagan authorized the move of Henson's remains to Arlington National Cemetery.
In 1996, the U.S. Navy named the oceanographic survey ship USNS Henson for him. Kevin Hooks’ film Glory and Honor (1998) starring Delroy Lindo and Henry Czerny, also celebrates Henson’s exploits.
In November 2000, Henson became the only person to be posthumously awarded the National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Medal, “for distinction in exploration, discovery and research.” He joined a select group of explorers to have received this prestigious award; others include Sir Earnest Shackleton, Charles Lindbergh, John Glenn, Neil Armstrong—and Robert Peary.
This year, of course, in the centennial, the accomplishments of Henson and Peary have captured the attention of explorers, endurance athletes and thrill-seekers re-enacting Henson’s North Pole expedition on a tour-group basis. One outfit, Polar Explorers, assembled a three-day expedition intended to arrive at the Pole today with guests celebrating with champagne and souvenir photos, after ponying up about $30,000 each for the privilege.
Another centennial expedition is also under way, with three new explorers recreating the 500-mile Henson-Peary route and charting their slow daily progress online.
Aviaq Henson, the explorer’s great-granddaughter, writes on the Matthew Henson Web site that Greenland’s national postal service, Filatelia, will release a commemorative Matthew Henson stamp on June 21, the day Greenland acquires increased self-rule within the Danish Commonwealth. Greenland, colonized by Denmark since the 1850s, was granted home-rule status in 1979.
“The step will be a big event for our history in Greenland,” she wrote.
She also announced plans to trek to the North Pole this month with her father, Vittus Henson, and his brothers, Ajako, Uusaqqak and Qillaq Henson—part of a seriously thriving family tree with sprouts and branches that turn up everywhere.
Even Hollywood. Taraji P. Henson, nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar for her role in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, revealed in a 2008 interview that the explorer was “my great-great cousin.”
One hundred years on, as the Henson clan celebrates its patriarch, the accomplishments of Henson and Peary are increasingly seen through a lens that rescues Henson from disappearing into the whiteout of wrong but accepted facts. It’s not a revision of history, but a re-visitation of history, one meant to reconcile the differences between the magnetic north of written history with the true north of what apparently actually happened.
Michael E. Ross is a regular contributor to The Root.