By the early 1900s, most of the big “prizes” of discovery exploration had been claimed. The era of the imperialist adventurers was coming to a close, as technology and transportation were rapidly making the world smaller. On the list of remaining places that men and women were vying to reach first, the North Pole was at the top.
The first explorers to reach the North Pole were bound for glory and worldwide fame, not to mention certain sponsorship for any other expedition they concocted. The stage was set for drama, but no one would predict the twists and (still) unsolved controversy that would unfold. Central to the story, though rarely invoked by name, was Matthew Henson. Henson deserves to be known for much more important qualifications than the color of his skin, but at a time when many African-Americans were facing unbearable social restrictions, Henson became an global adventurer of the first degree.
At 12, Henson (1866-1955) left the care of his uncle in Washington, D.C., and persuaded a sea captain to give him a job as a cabin boy. As a sailor, he traveled to the Far East, the Black Sea, and North Africa. The captain took Henson under his wing and taught him the art of sailing as well as more traditional, academic subjects. His natural instincts and aptitude uncovered through these lessons would prove invaluable for the next phase of his life.
A few years after returning to D.C., Henson had a chance meeting with Robert Peary. Peary was a harsh man, driven by the notion of “discovering” new lands and unencumbered by the reality that native people had lived for centuries in many of the regions he “discovered.” Nonetheless, Peary’s ambition had earned him intriguing assignments from the Navy Corps of Civil Engineers. Henson found in Peary a kindred spirit of adventure. Peary found in Henson a competent and motivated partner.
Their first shared adventure was to Nicaragua, where Peary was charged with identifying a suitable location to build a cross-continent canal (which would eventually be built in Panama, of course). Two years in the tropics were followed by a several small expeditions to Greenland, the first of which began in 1891. With anywhere from one to four other partners, Henson and Peary explored the Greenland Ice Cap and reached the northernmost tip of the island.
By 1897, a new goal was firmly established: Peary and Henson were going to seek the as-yet-unvisited North Pole. They made several attempts, each one thwarted by different scenarios: unstable ice pack, lack of supplies, and in the most tragic failing, the death of six of their Native comrades. They took a brief break, but their goal was rekindled when Teddy Roosevelt was elected president and he reinvigorated a mini-wave of exploration worldwide. In 1906, Henson and Peary set out with a new ice-breaking ship named in the president’s honor. The ship made it possible to get closer to the North Pole by sea than ever before.
After another failed go, Peary, Henson and a crew set out in the fall of 1908 for one last attempt. They sailed as far north as possible and overwintered in the ice, using the time to prepare for the overland (more accurately = overfloating icepack) crossing. Henson was universally recognized as “indispensable” for his vast experience, his contributions in building the dog sleds, training the men, and handling the dogs. Peary didn’t travel light, and Henson made it all work.
When the push for the pole came, the members broke into teams that essentially leap-frogged one another. One team would push forward and cache supplies for the next. Henson was a frequent leader, trusted to navigate well. One by one, each team would drop away, leaving only Peary and his select team to make the final attempt at the North Pole. The final leg was obviously the glory round – dangerous and difficult, to be sure – but the most desired position all the same. Peary made his intention clear. He said, “Henson must go all the way. I can’t make it there without him.”
The final leg for Henson and Peary and four Inuit men was 174 miles. They drove themselves with what could be called a sort of “Arctic summit fever.” On April 6, 1909, they determined that they’d reached the geographic North Pole.
For a few weeks, as they made the arduous journey home, they actually believed it.
An expedition led by Frederick Cook, an old colleague of Peary’s from one of the Greenland adventures, claimed to have stepped on the North Pole a year earlier, on April 21, 1908. Though his group’s travel to reach the pole was fairly straightforward, the return home was marred by disaster and took nearly a year. Just one week before Peary claimed success to the world media, Cook was able to get his story to the papers. The world chose sides, mostly swayed to Peary’s claim. To some, Cook’s records were more meticulous, but large chunks were missing. Few people doubted Peary and Henson reached the Pole, but the thought of potentially landing in “second” place cast a shadow over the event.
To this day, a review of five sources will likely result in five differing opinions – each with their own set of proof. What can be stated with relative certainty is that Roald Amundsen flew over the North Pole in 1926, and Sir Wally Herbert lead the first “undisputed” overland expedition to the North Pole in 1969. In 1988, the National Geographic Society pored over details from the Peary and Henson expedition. The society determined that Peary and Henson missed the North Pole by approximately 175 miles.
Despite the controversy, there was never any question of the intellect, skill, savvy, and enthusiasm that Henson brought to all of his explorations. Yet while Peary was honored publicly, Henson quietly went back to work as a civil servant. It wasn’t until 1937 that Henson’s contributions were honored by way of earning a membership to the renowned Explorer’s Club of New York City. In 1944, Congress gave Henson a duplicate of the same medal they had given to Peary just after the North Pole expedition. The U.S. Navy and Chicago Geographic Society also honored him with medals in the late 1940s. It was recognition long overdue, but well-deserved.