In April 1909, many people believed that explorer Robert Peary was the first of his expedition to have landed at the geographic North Pole. Only a few at the time knew that it was rather his servant, Matthew Henson who first set foot on the northernmost point on Earth in that on the expedition, making him the second man to reach there after American explorer Fredrick Cook who made it in 1908.
Born in Nanjemoy, Maryland, in 1866, Henson was only 11 and without any formal education when he left home after the death of his parents.
He started working on the high seas, first serving as a cabin boy on a merchant’s vessel. Henson spent about a decade at sea before meeting Peary, an admiral in the U.S. Navy, who hired him to join an expedition to Nicaragua.
For the next 22 years, the two men would be working with each other, going through freezing temperatures and periods of hunger and starvation.
But when the most sought-after feat came, the two would separate over confusion as to who rightfully deserved all the praise and acknowledgement.
The decision to reach the North Pole was fueled by the fact that by the end of the 19th century, there were still things left in the world that needed to be explored.
Peary had, by 1886, began visiting Greenland on several occasions before making his first attempt at reaching the top of the earth.
For the journey, Peary and his team decided to rely on many practices of the native Inuit people in order to survive.
They used sled dogs, built igloos, wore heavy fur pelts and dispensed with tents and sleeping bags, according to accounts by legacy.com.
Henson had then embraced the local Eskimo culture in Greenland, learning the Inuit language and their Arctic survival skills.
Being a skilled craftsman, most of the sledges and igloos used for the expedition were built by him.
Between 1895 and 1902, Peary and Henson had made many attempts at reaching the top of the world, collecting the world’s largest meteorites and going further north but the Pole still eluded them.
Henson would later claim how he helped preserved Peary’s life through those aborted attempts as they suffered from scurvy after eating canned food that was almost 18 years old.
“Those were days that even now stand out from all the rest. How I kept the men and dogs in order, travelling days and during the night. How I foraged with the dogs, like a dog myself, hunting for food to keep him alive and get him back to civilization. We hunted and captured any living thing that was good to eat, chased hares with wolfish desperation, and I finally saw him back to the ship in the hands of the surgeon, crippled for life in a way, but safe and eventually well,” he said.
Despite these challenges, they were not perturbed, and on March 1, 1909, Peary and Henson made their last attempt at reaching the North Pole.
They left the ship Roosevelt at Cape Sheridan at Canada’s northern tip to cross 413 nautical miles of ice to find the Pole.
This time around, they were accompanied by a large expedition made up of “22 Inuit men, 17 Inuit women, 10 children, 246 dogs, 70 tons (64 metric tons) of whale meat from Labrador, the meat and blubber of 50 walruses, hunting equipment, and tons of coal.”
“In February, Henson and Peary departed their anchored ship at Ellesmere Island’s Cape Sheridan, with the Inuit men and 130 dogs working to lay a trail and supplies along the route to the Pole,” according to accounts.
Only five men were with Peary on the final run to the Pole, and Henson was the only non-Inuit.
During the final moments, it is said that Peary was unable to continue the journey on foot and had to be pulled on a sledge as he was believed to be exhausted and ill. He sent Henson on ahead as a scout.
On April 6, 1909, they finally reached their goal, after 36 days of trekking over the ice.
They set up camp and planted the American flag, with Henson leading a spontaneous cheer.
After retracing their steps, it turned out that 49-year-old Henson was actually the first person to step on the geographic North Pole.
“I was in the lead that had overshot the mark a couple of miles. We went back then and I could see that my footprints were the first at the spot,” Henson would later state in an interview.
When they returned home to the States, Peary received all the praise for the improbable accomplishment, despite getting to know that his rival, Cook had claimed to have reached the North Pole the year before. Though who got there first is still being debated to this day, Peary’s claim was widely accepted then.
Henson was ignored, particularly because he was African-American and would later spend most of his next 30 years working as a customs clerk in New York while lecturing on his experiences.
Henson also recorded his Arctic memoirs in 1912, in the book A Negro Explorer at the North Pole.
Fortunately, in 1937, when he was 70, he received some recognition, as he was granted an honorary membership in the prestigious Explorers Club.
Henson was also awarded several honorary degrees, and in 1954 he received a personal commendation from President Eisenhower for his role in discovering the North Pole.
In 1988, a stamp from the United States Postal Service was issued with the pictures of Peary and Henson.
Henson died in 1955 at the age of 88. He was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery but his remains were reinterred in 1988 at Arlington National Cemetery, near the monument erected to Robert Peary.