The Black Explorer Who May Have Been The First to Reach The North Pole

In 1909, Matthew Henson, an African American explorer, joined Commander Robert Peary on a difficult journey to the North Pole. Though there is debate about who reached the North Pole first, this journey is a significant event in the history of exploration. On April 6, 1909, Commander Peary ordered his team to make camp, creating uncertainty about whether they had truly reached their goal.

Navigating the harsh Arctic environment presented many challenges. Initially, history credited Peary with being the first at the North Pole, overlooking the important contributions of Matthew Henson, a Black explorer from Baltimore, who played a vital role in the expedition.

After traveling for weeks across the icy polar cap, the team, which also included four Inuit hunters named Ooqueah, Ootah, Egingwah, and Seegloo, kept going, despite feeling very tired and dealing with the harsh environment. They faced many challenges along the way. Commander Peary struggled to recover after falling into freezing open water, and Henson faced similar challenges. These amazing people never gave up on their goal to explore the uncharted areas of the Arctic, and their legacy in the history of exploration will always be remembered.

While on their journey, the team pushed ahead to the north for several miles, with Peary struggling at the rear. They eventually decided to stop for the night. On the morning of April 7th, despite only having a few hours of sleep, Peary woke up and carefully measured their exact location.

In his book “The North Pole Its Discovery in 1909 Under the Auspices of the Peary Arctic Club,” Peary wrote, “We were now at the end of the last long march of the upward journey. I was actually too exhausted to realize at the moment that my life’s purpose had been achieved.” According to his calculations, the team had successfully reached the North Pole, a claim later confirmed by Henson.

Henson, in his account, wrote, “The results of the first observation showed that we had figured out the distance very accurately, for when the flag was hoisted over the geographical center of the Earth it was located just behind our igloos.” However, Peary’s claim of reaching the pole faced skepticism, with even the National Geographic Society, one of Peary’s financial backers, concluding in the 1980s that the team might have fallen short of their goal.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding their achievement, it is intriguing to ponder which member of the team may have been the first to arrive at the North Pole. Some historical records point to Henson as potentially being the first to reach the pole. In a 1936 interview, Henson recollected, “When the compass started to go crazy, I sat down to wait for Mr. Peary. He arrived about forty-five minutes later, and we prepared to wait for dawn to check our exact positions… The next morning when the positions had been verified, Peary said: ‘Matt, we’ve reached the North Pole at last.”

Henson Disregarded

In the late 1800s, exploration was a popular pursuit, with many adventurers seeking to leave their mark on uncharted territories. However, the achievements of indigenous populations and people of color were often overlooked during this time.

Matthew Henson was born on August 8, 1866, in Nanjemoy, Maryland. After becoming an orphan at a young age, he worked as a cabin boy, traveling the world and learning valuable skills.

At 18, Henson met Navy Corps of Civil Engineers Commander Robert Peary in Washington, D.C. Henson joined Peary as an assistant, and they went on extensive journeys together, including voyages through Nicaragua and the rainforests of Central America, and an exploration of the Arctic.

Controversy Over North Pole Claims

Following their return from the North Pole expedition, a discredited former colleague of Peary, Dr. Frederick A. Cook, made claims of reaching the Pole a year earlier, on April 21, 1908, stirring controversy. However, his assertions were later debunked.

The harsh physical environment and the unreliability of navigational instruments at the time made it challenging to ascertain the validity of these claims.

Amid conflicting accounts, it is suggested by anecdotal evidence and original photographs that Matthew Henson was the first to reach what they believed to be the North Pole during the 1909 expedition. This dispute fractured the bond between Peary and Henson, leading to their estrangement.

Despite an enduring association as explorers for over two decades, Peary’s refusal to acknowledge Henson’s contributions, as well as those of the Inuit hunters, to the same extent, led to a rift. Peary claimed sole credit for the “discovery” of the North Pole, denying Henson recognition as a full partner in the endeavor.

Henson’s poignant recollection of Peary’s demeanor upon reaching the Pole further exemplifies the strain in their relationship. He noted, “From the time we knew we were at the Pole, Commander Peary scarcely spoke to me.” The apparent disregard for their established customs and lack of acknowledgment deeply affected Henson.

The achievements of Henson and Peary as a team were remarkable. They successfully mapped the coastal perimeter of Greenland, transported the Cape York Meteorite, the second largest of its kind, from the Arctic to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and set a new “Farthest North” record by reaching Cape Morris Jesup, Greenland’s northernmost point, during expeditions from 1898 to 1902. Their subsequent expeditions in 1905-1906 further solidified their status as accomplished explorers.

Maripaluk

During their many challenging expeditions, Peary consistently claimed credit for their achievements, while Henson was responsible for constructing and maintaining all the sleds. In addition to this arduous task, Henson also trained the other western members of their team. He was not only fluent in the Inuit language but also established a strong rapport with the native people of the region.

Within the community, he was known as Maripaluk, which translates to “Matthew the Kind One.” Henson dedicated himself to learning the survival and travel techniques used by the Inuit, further demonstrating his commitment and value to the team.

A fellow team member, Donald B. MacMillan, highlighted Henson’s invaluable contribution, stating in a report issued in the April 1920 issue of National Geographic Magazine that “[Henson] was indispensable, with years of experience equal to Peary himself.”

While the actual attainment of the North Pole in 1909 remains a subject of debate, it is undeniable that all members of the expedition, including Henson, played crucial roles in the endeavor. Notably, Peary himself emphasized Henson’s significance, stating during the journey’s planning phase, “Henson must go all the way. I can’t make it there without him.”

After their return from the North Pole expedition, Dr. Frederick A. Cook, a former colleague of Peary, made claims of reaching the Pole a year earlier, on April 21, 1908. However, his claims were later proven to be false.

It’s hard to confirm the truth of these claims, given the challenging physical environment and the unreliable navigational instruments at the time.

Despite differing accounts, it is suggested by stories and original photographs that Matthew Henson was the first to reach what they thought was the North Pole during the 1909 expedition. This disagreement between Peary and Henson caused them to drift apart.

Despite working together as explorers for over two decades, Peary didn’t acknowledge Henson’s contributions, as well as those of the Inuit hunters, to the same extent. This led to a rift between them. Peary claimed sole credit for the “discovery” of the North Pole, denying Henson recognition as a full partner.

Henson remembered Peary’s behavior upon reaching the Pole, noting, “From the time we knew we were at the Pole, Commander Peary scarcely spoke to me.” This lack of appreciation deeply affected Henson.

Henson and Peary achieved remarkable feats as a team. They mapped the coastal perimeter of Greenland, transported the Cape York Meteorite from the Arctic to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and set a new “Farthest North” record by reaching Cape Morris Jesup, Greenland’s northernmost point, during expeditions from 1898 to 1902. Their subsequent expeditions in 1905-1906 further established their status as accomplished explorers.

Reference:

  • Henson, M. (1912). A Negro Explorer at the North Pole. Frederick A. Stokes Company.
  • Peary, R. E. (1910). The North Pole: Its Discovery in 1909 Under the Auspices of the Peary Arctic Club. Frederick A. Stokes Company.
  • MacMillan, D. B. (1920). The Friendly Arctic: The Story of Five Years in Polar Regions. Doubleday, Page & Company.
  • National Geographic Society. (1988). Evaluation of Peary’s Polar Claims. National Geographic Magazine, April Issue.
  • Interview with Matthew Henson. (1936). In The New York Times.
  • Cook, F. A. (1909). My Attainment of the Pole: Being the Record of the Expedition that First Reached the Boreal Center, 1907-1909. Mitchell Kennerley.
  • Herbert, W. (1989). The Noose of Laurels: Robert E. Peary and the Race to the North Pole. Atheneum.
  • American Museum of Natural History. (n.d.). Cape York Meteorite. Retrieved from AMNH website.
  • Peary’s Arctic Club Records. (1908-1910). Archives of the American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.

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