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The Mass Media

Did You Know That?!

With Alberta Clippers and below freezing temperatures in Boston recently, our proximity to the North Pole is not far from our minds. However like this year’s “January Thaw”, one name in Arctic Exploration has been forgotten among the endeavors of the well known Robert Peary and Roald Amundsen: that of African American Adventurer Matthew Alexander Henson.

Born shortly after the Civil War in Nanjemoy, Maryland, Henson’s life was sparked by tragedy. The premature death of his parents, his mother at two and his father at 11, left Henson in a loveless home headed by his father’s abusive third wife. It was these traumatic events that served as a catalyst for Henson to leave home. At the age of 12, he found work as a cabin boy on the Katie Hines a merchant ship in Baltimore. Captain Childs of Katie Hines saw great promise in Henson’s abilities. After recording his age as 15 instead of the illegal 12, Captain Childs taught his new cabin boy various skills including sailing, mathematics, nautical skills, reading and writing. These skills gave Henson opportunities that many African Americans did not have previously.

After years of service on the Katie Hines and the death of Captain Childs in 1883, the 17 year old Henson worked odd jobs in New York, Philadelphia and Boston until finally he became employed as a stock boy in a Washington, D. C. hat shop. About this time, the then Lieutenant Robert Peary was preparing for his 1887 expedition to Nicaragua and was in need of a good crew. Upon meeting, Peary hired Henson as his valet. Peary, impressed with his abilities, promoted Henson to the transit crew. Following their work mapping the Nicaraguan Jungles, Henson would leave his job at the haberdashery and serve in the Naval stockyard of Philadelphia under Peary. This made Henson available to serve Peary in various capacities in his earlier Artic expeditions starting in 1890 through 1902 in which they covered over 9,000 miles of Arctic territory from Northern Greenland to Ellesmere Island in Canada. It was in their 1909 expedition where each man would gain recognition.

The 1909 expedition was to be Peary’s last attempt at reaching the North Pole. He took no risk in his selections of crewmembers for the Roosevelt, the ship under Captain Bartlett. Peary chose Henson because of “his physical strength, long experience and ingenuity in difficult situations” Peary was later to say of Henson “I can’t get along without him.” Naturally, Henson was his choice for the physical demands of the last leg of the journey. Despite all of Peary’s efforts, it was Henson who reached the pole forty-five minutes before and greeted his fellow explorer with a toothy grin “I think I’m the first man to sit on top of the world.” This of course prompted the frustrated Peary to slam into the ground the American flag they carried.

Due to the racism and claims that Fred Cook had reached the pole the previous year, Henson’s role in reaching the North Pole was questioned before the Congress. Peary’s previous respect towards Henson was a stark contradiction to his testimony at the 1910-1911 Congressional hearing that challenged the expedition. The sharply racist criticism of House Representative Robert C. Macon of Arkansas argued that Peary’s choice of Henson over the Canadian Captain Bartlett was controversial as Henson “had not, as a racial inheritance, the daring or initiative of Bartlett.” Peary, however, did not want to share the discovery with another white man, especially a non-American like Armundsen (a Norwegian), or lose Bartlett, for his skill allowed the ship to navigate through the pack ice and was needed for the return voyage. Cook was found to be a fraud and Peary was rewarded by Congress and the Navy with a promotion.

In the end, Henson was not without his own rewards. He was presented with two honorary Masters degrees in Science, a postage stamp and accolades from President Eisenhower and the African American Community. In 2000, Henson was posthumously awarded the prestigious National Geographic Hubbard Medal for his polar exploration which he could not receive while alive because of his race. Ironically, Peary was awarded the medal nearly a hundred years before.