Polar Research Today:

The Tragedy of
America's Exploited Black Pioneer Polar Explorer
Matthew Henson



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Robert E. Peary: his
'manservant' was
a dupe of his giant
ego and ambition


Matthew A. Henson:
he saved Peary's life
and reputation, to be
denied and refected






1 The tragedy of Matthew Henson America's exploited Black Polar Explorer

For nearly 20 years in the Arctic, Matthew Henson endured as Peary's "manservant," later to be discarded by the man who took all the "glory and honor." His later life was of belated recognition, then a sad revisionist exploitation after his death.

by Russell W. Gibbons

Professional and amateur historians who seek to revise history to fit a political or cultural agenda often fall into the trap of selective analysis ignoring the obvious and making unwarranted conclusions based upon an ideological agenda rather than honest conclusions.

The story of Matthew Henson (18671955) suggests this approach to selective biographical history. Henson was an exceptional participant on the landscape of American Arctic exploration in the last decade of the 19th century and the first of the 20th. His was the classic case of an American Black with abilities not afforded any opportunity in the reconstruction period, and subject to the racism still in place in "official" circles as well as in society.

That he achieved status was largely despite the "manservant" relationship with his employer of 23 years, Robert Edwin Peary. It may be too simple to categorize Peary as a racist; suffice to say that he reflected the class attitudes of his background and the family into which he married. To them Blacks were but a structured servile component of society, an arrangement not to be questioned and not to be challenged.

Henson has his advocates, as well he should, for he was the pioneer black Polar explorer. His place in history was earned, but the commentary in another part of this examination of the Henson-Peary-Cook relationship points out the difficulty of historic revisionism based solely on cultural and racial criteria. Robert Peary, in some of this literature is portrayed as a "lifelong friend and colleague" of Henson, which is anything but the truth.

Peary used Henson and considered him "an extension of the will in my five fingers." Allen Counter achieved the reinterment of Henson and his wife in the shadow of Peary's massive globe monument at Arlington National Cemetery, but was totally naive in ignoring the fact that in life Peary used, excluded and finally rejected his black companion. Consider this letter from Peary to his backer Herbert Bridgeman in stressing that Henson's expedition bonus was not a "bribe" (Peary Family Papers, Oct. 19, 1910):

"If he has any idea whatever that his check was anything especial I hope you will disabuse him of that idea completely and permanently. I would not have him get the idea that I am endeavoring to do anything for him or that I am trying to get solid or any allied idea for a thousand dollars. He has deliberately and premeditatedly deceived me and I am done with him absolutely."

The fiction that the two Arctic travelers considered each other equal in their role and judgment is expressed in the words of both. Peary's rage knew no bounds following Henson's abortive lecture series, in which he suggested that "the old man" had been but sledge baggage, with Henson breaking the trail and, in effect, becoming the first to arrive at what would later be claimed as the North Pole. Henson told the Boston American (July 17, 1910) that:

"After twenty-two years of service with Peary we are now as strangers. Three times in his company I crossed the "Great Lead" north of Cape Columbia on my way towards the Pole, and three times we recrossed together. The last round trip was the successful one. The North Pole was reached. Three hearty American cheers were given for Old Glory as we waved from an icy pinnacle. It was the culmination of a struggle lasting all those years, in which Commander Peary, the employer, and I, plain Matt Henson, the servant, had worked and starved and frozen together. From the moment I declared to Commander Peary that I believed we stood upon the Pole he apparently ceased to be my friend."

This was a sad public acknowledgment that Peary affirmed that Henson was anything other than the "servant" which he (Henson) accepted, and that the man who would later boast that he "was the only white man" to be at the Pole considered Henson as but another of his Inuit "helpers." He accepted his role to his "employer," and in the decade following their return and break, his employer of 23 years did nothing of record to improve Henson's circumstances, despite the considerable political influence which he commanded through his Peary Arctic Club sponsors and the family of his wife, Josephine.

Henson and Peary were inextricably linked in field success and later in the inevitable failures of the 1906 and 1909 expeditions. Henson was dependent upon Peary for virtually all of the working years of his life and the damning sequel of Peary's deliberate abandonment of his "dark companion" is something which the Henson revisionists refuse to accept. Peary could not have survived without Henson in the last decade of his work, yet in the end, he rejected him. Jo Peary called him a "vainglorious braggart" and with the other inner circle bitterly resented his abortive lecture tours and the publication of his book, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole. (Even after his rejection of Henson, Peary did write a forward in which he recalled his message to the 1909 testimonial that "I congratulate you and your race.") Peary's daughter Marie, as late as 1962, wrote a Henson biographer that "there was nothing remarkable about Henson."

Jean Malaurie, the French explorer who spent years living with the Polar Eskimos, and is considered the foremost anthropologist of the Inuit, wrote of the Henson and Peary Arctic progeny in The Last Kings of the Thule, long before they were acknowledged by their American families.

Only a minority of Arctic explorers took Inuit mistresses but Henson and Peary were in that small group. Malaurie wrote of Kali Peary, who told Malaurie that, "I never heard a word from my illustrious father." Annaakkaq Henson had a tormented conversation with Malaurie in the 1960's:

"Have you seen him? Is he happy? If he isn't rich then let him come here and I will take care of him in his old age" Anaakkaq related that the tribe knew that "Piulissuaq" (Peary) not only disavowed his Inuit son, but that he had provided "hardly any financial help" to Henson in America.

Henson's contract was bought up by the lecture management; his book a publishing nonevent. He faced the ultimate rejection from "the old man," who saw both events as disloyalty. "After my looking after him for years," Peary lamented to Bridgeman, "he has now, for the sake of a few dollars, deliberately and intentionally broken faith with me." Henson expresses his feelings of this rejection in the interview with the Boston American (see Part IV). His reward would be a messenger's job in the Federal Court House secured not by Peary but a black politician. It paid $900 a year.

In their fury over denial, the Henson revisionists on the Internet have unleashed an appalling attack on Frederick A. Cook, to whom they attribute the initial suspicion and ultimate doubt over Peary's claims which in time became the Henson-Peary claims. It is not just disagreement with the Cook position it is pure vitriol of an unrestrained nature, an abhorrent assault that would turn off any serious scholar of the topic. This commentary on the author of the Henson website may say it best:

"The person who writes the material for the [Henson] website is by all counts a troubled man, very insecure about himself and his cause and with an apparent irresolute conviction that [Cook] was the cause of the downfall of his two historical heroes. The use of slander and vulgar epithets removes any serious consideration for his arguments [this is] one of the worst examples of misuse of the freedom of the Internet that I have encountered, and is especially distressing because it alleges to be a part of black history and in truth is an embarrassment to that history. I found 'askoj.com' while surfing through it"

This special five part feature on Henson in part addresses the Internet slander, but places in perspective the "codiscoverer" myth, the allegations that Cook "was not an explorer of note" prior to the 190709 expedition, the relationship of Henson to the Inuit, Peary and Cook, and the revealing 1910 Boston American interview.

Matthew Henson will survive in Polar history as a man of courage and talent, as well as a victim of the racism of his times. He deserves better than revisionism. His story deserves the same truth that has emerged about Robert E. Peary and Frederick A. Cook in the past century. That truth will truly set Matthew Alexander Henson free in any honest history of his times.

Matthew Alexander Henson (1866 - 1955)

Henson's book
c 1912, by publisher
Frederick A. Stokes
Company, NY

Forword by Robert
E. Peary, with an
Introduction by
Booker T. Washington
photos by Henson.

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2 Matthew Henson: used and frozen out, calumny and falsehood on the Internet

"...certain (Afro-American web) sites are on the edge in terms of legitimacy" says Professor Lee D. Baker, Columbia University, Afro-American Studies


Black History Month is in February, and this year the New York Times used the occasion to explore the proliferation of web sites on the Internet with concentration on African-American studies and history. The expansion "opens and enlightens a whole new discussion, not just for African-Americans, but for everyone," says black scholar F. Leon Wilson.

Yet with the site growth comes caution "and some important caveats regarding the use of the Internet to search for information on black history," says the Times in a feature by Eric V. Copage on February 16. More to the point was a writer who said that she avoided title searches because of the possibility of linking with pornographic or racist web sites, urging instead that searchers go directly to recognized university research sites (i.e., Harvard, UCLA, Howard, etc.) to "avoid the crackpots."

The caution was expressed in more direct terms by Dr. Lee D. Baker, an associate professor of Anthropology and African-American Studies at Columbia University, who warned of certain sites that were "on the edge in terms of legitimacy," such as those put on line by amateur history buffs. Baker also recommended starting with academic sites as a way of finding reliable information.

What all this has to do with Matthew A. Henson and the web site dedicated to anything and everything about him will soon become apparent. It is a curious story, which involves a webmaster who tolerates no criticism and is quick to play the "race card" whenever any oblique criticism of Henson is suggested through negative commentary about Robert E. Peary, his employer for most of the two decades that both spent in the Arctic.

The webmaster is Verne D. Robinson, the son of the author of the first attempt at a Henson biography, Bradley Robinson, whose Dark Companion was published in 1947. A reprint edition of the book is available through a web site (www.matthewhenson.com). Prepare for a potpourri of everything from books to T-shirts to videos and framed posters. By far, it is the most expansive and exhaustive website for a Polar explorer on the Net. It also may be the most vitriolic.

The sad aspect is that an apparent irrational aversion to any criticism of Robert E. Peary and his claims to Polar discovery is transferred to a racially-rooted assault on Frederick Cook. Baker's "edge in terms of legitimacy" emerges in any objective surfing of the Henson site. The true and honest exploits of an explorer who was used by his employer in the same cavalier manner in which he related to his Inuit (or Polar Eskimos) is thus diminished.

The story of Peary's relationship with Henson and his Eskimo companions was recently revived with the new publication of author Kenn Harper's book, Give Me My Father's Body (Steerforth Press, 1999) which received favorable reviews. The story of Minik, "the New York Eskimo," recalled all of the worst aspects of white imperialism at the turn of the century. Harper places both explorers into a perspective of the true racism that existed in the far North at that time:

"But although Peary lived among the Eskimos, he clearly did not feel them to be his equals. They and Matthew Henson, his black servant and dog driver whom he once berated for not calling him "Sir" often enough, were in Peary's estimation members of inferior races."

This critique is accepted by virtually all biographers of Peary and those writers and scholars who have concentrated on the exploration of the Arctic, including the 1908-09 period of the conflicting claims of discovery of the geographical North Pole. In the 1960's, John Edward Weems, the "official" biographer of the Peary family, did not deal with Peary's racism. Earlier biographers Fitzhugh Green (1929) and William Herbert Hobbs (1935) matter-of-factly acknowledge Peary's message at the Pole, in which he said that he was accompanied by five men, "Matthew Henson, colored and four Eskimo."

The issue is not that Matthew Henson is an unimportant personage in black history. By far, he beats out Peary and other American Polar explorers with books in print, posters, films, plays, memorials, markers, works-in-progress and other benchmarks of historic activity. The Home Page lists more than 50 topics and even has award certificates for Henson supporters. 

The issue is that the webmaster has decided to use his domain for a vicious, unsubstantiated character assault against another explorer, Frederick A. Cook, in a pathetic effort to somehow deflect the fact that Peary's Polar star has been receding for over a decade. Because the younger Robinson has convinced himself that Henson is the "co-discoverer" of the Pole, any attack on Peary or any advocacy of Cook is seen as an assault on Henson.

The calumny and falsehood which he has initiated and reproduced on the Internet (with all its protections against libelous activity) provides a sad departure from serious scholarship, and the difference of opinion that responsible historians deal with in assessing controversy and history. A few citations from the Henson web pages:

A Disagreeable Citric One can disagree without being disagreeable, but Robinson is both. Of Cook's expedition: "The little SOB Cook went on a sleigh ride." Of his return to Denmark: "he accepted awards from the King of Copenhagen (sic!)." His assessment of the controversy: "Yes, it was a great ugly wound that Cook's lies createdCook ruined Peary."

Truth as a Casualty Caption under a circa 1938 picture: "After prison Cook became an alcoholic." No news clipping, no unfriendly writer or author, or any paper in the Peary or Cook collections give credence to this falsehood. Caption under Cook entering prison: "Freddy the Fraud etc." No reference to the wealth produced from Cook's wells after he was convicted of misrepresenting their value, the Presidential pardon, or the Justice Department's role in the pardon.

Abandonment The Coulter book and cemetery re-interment celebrated the Inuit kin of both explorers with the "Black-White-Eskimo" theme, while skirting the obvious: both abandoned their sons without any acknowledgment and without any provision for their well-being in the Arctic. In effect, they emulated each other as very possibly the first American deadbeat dads in the Arctic.

Inverting Racism Peary saw Henson as just "an extension of the fingers of my hand" and never considered him equal to his white associates, yet Robinson twists the Peary criticism from Cook supporters and others as those who "don't like the fact that an African-American made it possible for Peary to reach the Pole."

Burn this book. The Henson webmaster has a solution for any book which does not accept the Henson/Peary school: "burn it." Of Wally Herbert's book The Noose of Laurels, he says "Wally and his dumb theorieswhere do these idiots come from?" Of Robert Bryce and his Cook & Peary, "This ridiculous bookis the best candidate for burning we know of."

Peary on Henson Peary and Henson returned from their last Arctic expedition in September 1909. Peary lived until February 1920. With the exception of Peary sending a message (later the forward to Henson's book) in circa 1910 paternalism ("a credit to your race" etc.) at a black dinner honoring Henson, there is no evidence that the "Discoverer" would again meet with his Arctic associate of three decades until he sent for him on his death bed. Peary, however, wrote on October 10, 1910 that "Henson, after my looking after him for many yearsand after permitting him to go with me to the Polehas deceived me."

Whose equal? Peary dismissed Henson form his service as soon as they reached New York in 1909. For a decade there is no record that he invited Henson to his home or to any gathering of explorers, and it is known that he did nothing to obtain Henson the parking attendant's job that was secured by a black politician. Cook, on the other hand, took Henson into his home and had his snow blindness treated by a specialist. It is the sort of kindness that racists disapprove of.

Henson's Real Story Perhaps because the webmaster is so consumed with everything about Henson, he did not recognize the damning document that he posted on the site: "Matt Henson Tells the Real Story of Peary's Trip" which was published in the Boston American on July 17, 1910. Peary's behavior "at the Pole" and after, his confiscation of Henson's diary and film, and failure to respond to his telegrams is all detailed. You can access it on the Henson site:



Matthew A. Henson portrait from
"The Noose of Laurels"
(right) the "co-discoverer" became
"the first man to reach the North Pole"
in this 1980's comic book revisionism


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4 Henson tells real story of Peary's trip to Pole
On the return trip, "Peary scarcely spoke to me"

From the 'Boston American,' Sunday, July 17, 1910, article by Matt Henson.

After twenty-two long years of service with Peary, we are now as strangers. Three times in his company I crossed the "Great Lead" north of Cape Columbia on my way towards the Pole, and three times we recrossed together. The last round trip was the successful one. The North Pole was reached. Three hearty American cheers were given for Old Glory as we waved from an icy pinnacle. It was the culmination of a struggle lasting all those years, in which Commander Peary, the employer, and I, plain Matt Henson, the servant, had worked and starved and frozen together. From the moment I declared to Commander Peary that I believed we stood upon the Pole, he apparently ceased to be my friend.

I could never understand it and cannot now. He was an exact but very kind man in authority. He was never understandable.

On the evening of the fifth day after Captain Bartlett willingly turned back with his little division of Eskimo dogs and sledges, we encamped practically at the Pole. I, who had walked, knew that we had made exceptional distances in those five days. So did the Eskimos, for they also had walked. Lieutenant Peary was the only surprised man. He, because of his crippled feet, had ridden on the sledges the greater part of the journey up, as he did upon the return. Riding, one cannot so well be judge of distance traversed. He made no observation in the five days, merely knew we had 132 miles to go, and he supposed that we could nearly make it in the five days of marching.


When we went into camp on the evening of the fifth day, actually the sixth day of April, one of my Eskimo boys I could talk their language spoke sneeringly to one of Commander Peary. He said it was mean that Peary had quietly planned with him and one other Eskimo boy to leave me in camp the following morning and go off to the Pole by himself. It was mean, said the young native, because we were all so near, and I had worked so hard to make the trip a success.

It stunned me at first, because Commander Peary had spoken nothing of it to me. My first impulse was to protest, but on second thought I decided to wait. In fact, I believed that the full distance had already been covered. One can tell to within a mile or so how far he walks in that northern ice, and I reckoned that we were even now at the very Pole.


True enough, on the following morning Commander Peary set out with the two Eskimos and one sledge with a tin of pemmican and instruments, leaving me repairing a sledge and in charge of the camp. I was sorely disappointed, but somehow I had an abiding faith that he was wrong in his calculations. In about an hour the Commander returned. His face was long and serious. He would not speak to me. I quietly learned from the boys accompanying him that he had made observations a few miles further on.

"Well, Mr. Peary," I spoke up, cheerfully enough, "we are now at the Pole, are we not?"

"I do not suppose that we can swear we are exactly at the Pole" was his evasive answer.

"Well, I have kept track of the distance and we have made exceptional time," I replied, "and I have a feeling that we have just about covered the 132 miles since Captain Bartlett turned back. If we have not traveled in the right direction then it is your own fault."

Commander Peary made no reply, but going off by himself made three separate observations. I can make observations myself, but of course, I did not meddle at this time. At the conclusion of his tests he ordered out the American flag, selected a hillock of ice and gave the word to erect the Stars and Stripes thereon. With the assistance of the native boys I did this. Then I led a cheer for Old Glory. We remained in the encampment for about thirty-three hours when word was given for the return.

From the time we knew we were at the Pole, Commander Peary scarcely spoke to me. Probably he did not speak to me four times on the whole return journey to the ship. I thought this over and it grieved me much.

I thought of the years we had worked together for the great aim. I remembered his many acts of kindness and naturally I did not forget what I had done for him. One never does that in summing up to strike a balance of friendship. 


It came over me that possibly he had taken offence at us on the journey up, because so frequently we kept ahead or just out of his reach so that he might not load himself upon our sledges. He was very heavy for the dogs to haul. We wanted him to remain in his own division. We knew he could walk but little in rough ice. Only one of his little toes remained from that terrible frosting of 1900. He was compelled to ride. But we did not court his presence. Much of my work was ahead of the main party breaking the trail and caring for advance things.

I wondered if he remembered with any gratitude those awful days in 1900 when he lost his toes and became a cripple on my hands. Those were days that even now stand out from all the rest. How I kept the men and dogs in order, traveling 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, chase 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.

It nearly broke my heart on the journey from the Pole that he would arise in the morning and slip away on the homeward trail without rapping on the ice for me, as was the established custom. As we approached our goal, he vouchsafed a few words in effect that he hurry on ahead, losing one night's sleep, while I could bring the party in at my leisure.


On board the ship he addressed me a very few times. When we left the ship he did not speak. I wrote to him twice and sent a telegram, but received no reply from him.

I had worked for Commander Peary all those years for the sum of $35 a month and found, until this last trip, when I received $50 a month and keep, and I had scarcely enough money to support my family in the States. In my letters I hoped for some understanding.

But no reply came until I was signed for a series of lectures. When I had given my first lecture I received a telegram from Commander Peary warning me not to use the pictures. At once I sat down and wrote him another long letter. He never replied to it. I have kept my lectures and illustrations.

And bear in mind that all the pictures were taken by me. Besides those I am now exhibiting, I exposed 110 films about the Pole which, upon his request, I loaned to Commander Peary. It was my camera. I paid for the films, exposed and developed them. He borrowed the films saying he would use some and return them to me. He has never done this, and for all I know, has my 110 films in his possession.

Matthew Henson aboard Peary's ship, the 'Roosevelt,' photo from North Pole Legacy by S. Allen Counter.

The caption to this photo reads:  "The four North Pole Eskimos, from Henson's own photograph." from his book, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole, 1912.

In the book, North Pole Legacy:  Black, white, and Eskimo by S. Allen Counter, 1991, the caption to this photo reads:   "The four Polar Eskimos who accompanied Henson and Peary to the North Pole.   Left to right:  Egingwah, Ootah, Ooqueah, and Seegloo.  Peary Collection, National Archives."

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5 Matthew Henson and Robert E. Peary:  Co-discoverers or Co-conspirators? Matthew Henson and Robert E. Peary:  Co-discoverers or Co-conspirators?

Critics see Henson as a tragic figure and innocent dupe of Peary's giant ego and ambition, yet he was a significant Arctic traveler, without whom Peary would never have achieved any note.

by Ted Heckathorn

During the past few years, several individuals have advanced the novel theory that AfricanAmerican Arctic explorer, Matthew Henson, was a codiscoverer of the North Pole in April 1909. In fact, a few of the more fanatical Henson advocates have gone so far as to suggest that Henson actually got to the North Pole before Peary did. Peary's critics have portrayed Henson as a tragic figure and an innocent dupe of Peary's giant ego and ambitions.

Curiously, this recent promotion of Henson's role as Peary's essential-other has occurred simultaneously with stunning disclosures from Peary's longsuppressed personal papers that document their failure to reach the North Pole in 1909. Peary's own written records also substantiate a series of prior spurious geographical claims. Since Henson participated in all of Peary's expeditions between 1891 and 1909, his degree of complicity in these exploring hoaxes merits serious examination by polar historians.

A study of the available information indicates Henson did not have a happy childhood and ran away from his step-mother's home at an early age. He had no formal schooling, and went to sea as a ship's cabin boy at age twelve. A kindly captain served as Henson's mentor during his formative years, and provided the only stable home and family he had ever known. After the captain's death, Henson returned to the Washington, D.C. area, where he worked in menial jobs until he met Peary.

Henson went to the Arctic on Peary's first North Greenland Expedition in 189192, as Peary's servant. No doubt his experience as a seaman was useful, but he did not play a significant role in the expedition in either the scientific or geographic accomplishments. He did gain experience in Arctic travel and became acquainted with the Inuit of Smith Sound. On the other hand, his frequent quarrels with one of the scientists, Verhoeff, had a detrimental effect on the morale at the base camp, and may have been a factor in Verhoeff's mysterious disappearance shortly before the expedition's return to the United States.

The main accomplishments of the expedition were the icecap journey of Peary and the Norwegian, Eivind Astrup, the ethnology work by Dr. Frederick Cook, bird studies by Langdon Gibson, Verhoeff's weather observations, and Mrs. Peary's being a female member of the party. Peary claimed to have discovered the Peary Channel that split Greenland. This was the first of Peary's major geographic hoaxes, but it was not publicly exposed until two decades later.

In 1893, Henson again returned to Greenland with Peary and Astrup. Cook had withdrawn from the expedition when Peary refused him the right to publish the scientific results of the 189192 expedition. Mrs. Peary gave birth to a daughter. Bad weather and misfortune prevented any serious exploration. At the end of the first year, Peary lacked enough food to supply the expedition for another year, so he sent his wife and everyone home except for Henson and Hugh Lee. Not long thereafter, he fell in love with a 14year-old Inuit girl. The three men spent the winter with their Inuit friends and planned a new journey.

In the spring of 1895, they were shocked when they could not find the supplies they had cached on the icecap the previous year. Without such supplies and equipment there was little chance of making new geographical discoveries in the interior of Greenland. Although such a journey bordered on insanity, Peary was in a bind. If he returned without making any new discoveries, his expedition would be branded a failure, and eventually someone would expose his Peary Channel hoax. His only hope was to make some astounding new find that would enable him to disavow his Peary Channel scam as an "honest" mistake. Henson and Lee did not have as much experience on the ice, and obviously did not realize what a great gamble Peary was taking with their lives.

By the time they reached the vicinity of Peary's accursed channel, all three were starving, and Lee could go no further. Luckily Henson and Peary located and killed a few musk oxen. With this meat and by eating their dogs, they barely made it back to their base on Smith Sound, but were too weak to hunt. Peary admitted they would have starved to death in their own comfortable building near plentiful hunting grounds, if the Inuit had not come to their rescue. Later Peary would attack a prior explorer, General Greely, because many of that party died of starvation in a makeshift stone hut on the bleak shores of Cape Sabine, Ellesmere Island. Peary was more fortunate that his outside help arrived in time.

Henson and Lee obviously would have seen that the Peary Channel did not exist, but like Astrup, chose to keep the information from the public. Astrup, however, had privately shared the secret with Dr. Cook. One other nasty little secret that the public (and Mrs. Peary) did not know was that Peary, Lee and no doubt Henson had taken Inuit mistresses in the Arctic.

Peary and Henson rewarded the Greenlanders for all of their generosity in a rather peculiar fashion. They opened graves, both old an new, and took the bodies and effects of the deceased men, women and children to be used as exhibits in American museums. Peary also took several living specimens to New York for scientific study. When the unfortunate visitors died of disease, they too were cleaned and mounted as exhibits in the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). One little boy, Mene (Minik) Wallace who survived, thought that his father had been buried. It later turned out that the funeral was a sham, and the skeleton of this man who had served Peary so loyally, was put on display to entertain the public. Neither Peary nor Henson uttered a word of protest to this outrage, and in fact Henson happily took a job with the museum, and Peary continued to receive generous contributions from the AMNH.

Besides this disgusting trade in human bodies, Peary directly and Henson indirectly benefited in a scheme to import furs and ivory without paying the required import duty. Peary shipped the "scientific specimens" merchandise directly to the AMNH to evade the tax. The museum then rebated part of the merchandise back to Peary to sell to other museums around the country. Again, neither Peary nor Henson expressed any civic remorse about evading the federal taxes that other citizens were required to pay.

Another bit of scientific thievery occurred in 1895 and 1897, when Peary with Henson's able assistance took three meteorites from North Greenland. For generations these heavenly gifts were the only source of iron for the Greenlanders who had carefully concealed their whereabouts from outsiders. Unsuccessful at first, Peary eventually found a native that succumbed to bribery and revealed the location. Within two years Peary had absconded with all three meteorites and sold them for a large sum; the Greenland community was never compensated for their loss. Now they were totally dependent on outsiders for iron for their harpoons, arrows, knives and other essential items for their basic needs. Henson complained about the hard work of moving the largest meteorite, but not a word about robbing his beloved "Inuit brothers" of this valuable asset.

On the following PearyHenson trip to Greenland in 1898, another explorer, Otto Sverdrup, appeared on the scene. Sverdrup planned to circumnavigate Greenland rather than seek the North Pole. For Peary, that created an even greater danger. If Sverdrup succeeded, he would undoubtedly discover the Peary Channel hoax, and Peary's exploring career would end in disgrace. In a rash attempt to disrupt Sverdrup, Peary risked an insane journey north to prevent the Norwegians from using Greely's old base at Fort Conger. Greely's large building could easily have accommodated both expeditions, but such international polar cooperation in the field was not an option that Peary would consider.

In December 1898, Peary, Henson, Dr. Thomas Dedrick and four Greenlanders set off for Fort Conger, a trip that resembled the mad journey of 1895. By the time they reached their destination, Peary had frozen both of his feet. Peary lost most of his toes, but the diligent medical care by Dr. Dedrick saved his feet. Years later, Henson biographer, Bradley Robinson, totally expunged Dedrick from the trip to Fort Conger and claimed that it was Henson's medical care that saved Peary's feet. Henson, who furnished information for the biography, never renounced this bit of dishonesty or any of the other false statements, distortions or outright fabrications that appeared in the book.

For example, in the biography on page 196, Robinson alleged a fictitious dialogue between Koodlooktoo and Henson at the Big Lead in March 1909. Koodlooktoo was not even there at the time. He was back at Cape Columbia and attempting to desert the expedition. Only vigorous efforts by Professor Ross Marvin foiled this AWOL attempt by Peary and Henson's prize Inuit protégé. Since nearly all of the other principals were dead when this book was written, Henson was clearly responsible for correcting this and other false statements in the book. One also would expect biographer Robinson to make at least a token effort to read Henson's prior autobiography and Peary's account of the various expeditions, and check a few of the known facts. Many of the other quoted conversations in Robinson's book are doubtful and, where they can be cross-checked, they are usually refuted. 

Peary's effort succeeded in turning Sverdrup away from Greenland. The Norwegians relocated to Jones Sound and proceeded to discover thousands of miles of new land, as well as many islands and waterways of present day Nunavut. On the other hand, Peary, Dedrick and Henson were rewarded with the discovery of only a few miles of Northern Greenland to show for their four year expedition. Peary did become the father of a son by his Greenland mistress, but there was not much else of a positive nature. During the summer of 1900 at Fort Conger, the three demolished Greely's building, as Henson and Dedrick struggled for the affection of an Inuit woman. Dedrick won but later regretted his victory. Peary, and probably Dedrick and Henson, developed scurvy from eating the 18-yearold canned food left by the Greely expedition, and as a result were unable to do field work in 1901. During this period Henson became insubordinate with both Peary and Dedrick, who was second in command, and Peary had to take action. This may have been a side effect of the scurvy.

During the summer of 1901, they returned south to meet the expedition ships. By the time they arrived, Dedrick and Peary were angry with each other, and Peary fired Dedrick. Despite the loss of his toes, Peary was adamant about remaining in the Arctic until he had achieved something of significance. Dedrick also insisted on remaining without pay because of his professional obligation to provide medical care. Peary refused to allow Dedrick to stay at his Cape Sabine base or allow Dedrick to treat the sick Inuit at the base. As a result, a number of Peary's most loyal Inuit died during the fall of 1901. Again Henson's biographer Robinson, preferred to avoid discussing this cruel and unnecessary treatment of those generous people who had shared their homes, food and wives while risking their lives to help the explorers. In the spring of 1902, Peary and Henson achieved a local "Farthest North'' record on the Arctic Ocean, but it was far short of the world record set by Norwegian and Italian expeditions and the loss of the Inuit lives was glossed over.

Peary and Henson returned to the Arctic in 1905, with high hopes for discovering the Pole. Peary's new ship, the Roosevelt, succeeded in reaching the Arctic Ocean, with a large contingent of Inuit men, women and children. The muskoxen herds of northern Ellesmere Island were decimated to near extinction to feed so many people. Peary's 1906 journey on the ice quickly ran into trouble. Henson, who was leading the advance party veered far off course to the west, but pace was too slow to have any hope of success. Storms and open leads also delayed them, and their dogs were starving from lack of food.

After separating from the rest of the literate expedition members, Peary reported that he and Henson had made incredible speed to set a new world's record beyond 87 degrees. British explorer, Wally Herbert, in recent years examined Peary's personal records and found that the claim belied known facts of human endurance. In order to have reached such a latitude, Peary and Henson would have had to travel 86 miles on the ocean ice in one day "without resting," all of this without detours and with starving dogs providing the transportation.

In an attempt to salvage something from the expedition, Peary made a subsequent journey West to try to discover some new land. Henson was left at the ship, and Peary took only Inuit with him. After the expedition arrived back in the United States, Peary announced that he had made a major new discovery, Crocker Land, named in honor of San Francisco banker, George Crocker. This land does not exist, and we now know from Peary's own diary and letters that it was a fund raising hoax. Although Henson was not with Peary at the time, he later must have learned from conversations with his Greenland friends that there was no such land. As with the Peary Channel affair, Henson remained silent while this geographical hoax was perpetrated on the scientific world, and erroneous maps printed.

On Peary's final expedition in 190809, Henson again led an advance party on the ice. Again they quickly ran into trouble when the long, heavy sledges that he built broke apart on the rough ice. An even more serious problem emerged when leaks occurred in the fuel cans that Henson made. Professor Ross Marvin, the expedition navigator and a veteran of the 190506 expedition, made an emergency trip back to land to get more fuel. After much difficulty he found his way back to Peary's party. Peary had been dissatisfied with Bartlett and Henson's progress in the advance party so he assigned Marvin to lead and increase the daily distance. Peary's diary is critical of Henson and suggests a lack of initiative. This does seems unfair since Henson was breaking trail and doing hard work while Peary was riding on a sledge much of the time.

A short time later, Peary sent Marvin back to land with Koodlooktoo and a hottempered Greenlander nicknamed "Harrigan." This eliminated the best navigator in the party, and a few days later, Captain Bartlett was also sent back. Peary now was the only navigator left and the only one who could determine where they were on the Arctic Ocean.

As in 1906, suddenly the daily distances jumped sharply once the other literate witnesses were gone. When Henson thought they had gone far enough to reach the Pole, Peary brushed off his congratulations. In fact, after Peary made his solar observations, he became very cold with Henson, declined to shake hands with him and from that time, rarely spoke to him. Even more puzzling, Peary later confiscated the 110 photographs that Henson took at their farthest-north camp. They have never been located since that time. Between 1989 and 1993, this writer made a diligent search of the Peary records in the National Archives, the National Geographic Society and many other organizations to locate the Henson photographs. Neither those nor Henson's alleged diary could be located.

After Henson and Peary returned to the ship, Henson made contradictory statements to Dr. John Goodsell about the appearance of the sun at the Pole. Also after their return they learned that Marvin had died during his return journey. Goodsell had questioned Koodlooktoo about the death, but the Inuit suddenly departed on a trip to the north coast of Greenland with Donald MacMillan and George Borup. During their journey, Koodlooktoo wrote a confession in the snow that he killed Marvin. MacMillan and Borup both saw the writing but did not realize what it was. Marvin's other companion was aboard ship, but there is no record that Henson, who had the best knowledge of the native language, ever made any serious effort to question the two companions.

When the expedition returned to the Greenland settlements, they learned that Dr. Cook had arrived there a few months previously, and reported that he had reached the North Pole in 1908. Henson now showed more interest in questioning the Inuit, and at Peary's behest, interrogated Cook's two companions. From Borup's transcription we now know that both Peary and Henson made false statements about what the two Inuit said. In this case Peary personally denied Dr. Goodsell permission to question these two Inuit. Although Goodsell was not as fluent in the language as Henson, he was better qualified than MacMillan and Borup who were with Henson at the interrogation (Borup was the scribe).

After returning to the United States, Peary became very hostile towards Henson. His correspondence with the president of the Peary Arctic Club clearly reflects his fears about what Henson might tell reporters. In one newspaper interview, Henson provided information that seriously damaged Peary's North Pole claim, but it was generally ignored at that time. Peary reaped significant money and honors for attaining the North Pole, while Henson was mostly ignored. When Congress investigated Peary's North Pole claim, it is significant that Henson was never called as a witness.

Some historians have suggested that race was a factor. None of Peary's own personal papers ever suggested that he wanted Henson to testify, or that his North Pole claim would be damaged because he could not use Henson as a witness. A few years later, when MacMillan offered to bring Cook's two companions to the United States to testify about Cook's claim, Peary strenuously objected on the basis of "who knows what they might say." Apparently Peary felt the same way about Henson.

In retrospect, Matthew Henson was a significant American Arctic explorer. Without Henson's assistance there is no doubt that Robert Peary would have achieved far less than he did, and Peary probably would have died on the ill conceived 1895 icecap trip. Henson certainly had great physical courage and he served Peary faithfully for nearly two decades for little more than room and board.

On the other hand, Henson repeatedly showed a lack moral courage and honesty in regards to Peary's major geographical hoaxes such as the Peary Channel and the 1906 "Farthest North" claims. Other than a minor complaint about Peary cheating the Greenlanders on the purchase of sled dogs in 1908, he remained silent about years of Peary's exploitation of the Inuit. These actions included robbing their graves and their invaluable meteorites (where he was an active participant), not making an objection when they were denied available medical attention in 1901, and abandoning his own half Inuit son in Greenland. For many years both Bartlett and MacMillan made annual voyages to North Greenland, and he could have at least sent some message or small gifts to his only child. French explorer Jean Malaurie described the anguish of his son in The Last Kings of Thule.

Henson personally and knowingly made false statements about Dr. Frederick Cook and General Greely to damage their reputations. These included the 1909 interrogation of Cook's companions and details about the conditions at Fort Conger in 1899, because the Inuit had been there after Greely departed in 1883. Additionally he did not disavow Robinson's biography, Dark Companion (1947). He either knew or should have known was filled with false statements and blatant fabrications. Even if illiterate, as historians such as Weems and Rawlins have suggested, it is inconceivable that no one read the book to him, or told him what it contained.


Bartlett, Bob.  Diary, 1909 Peary Arctic Expedition.   Library of the American Geographical Society, NY.
Borup, George.  A Tenderfoot With Peary.  1912, NY: Frederick A. Sokes Co.
Cook, Frederick A.  My Attainment of the Pole. 1913, Mitchell Kennerley & Co.
Hall, Thomas F. Has the North Pole Been Discovered? Boston: R.G. Badger Co.
Harper, Kenn. Give Me My Father's Body. 1999, VT: Steeforth Press.
Hayes, J. Gordon. Robert Edwin Peary. 1929, London: Grant Richards.
Heckathorn, Ted. In Cook Reconsidered, Symposium Proceedings No. 18, Byrd Polar Research Center, 1993, Columbus, OH: Ohio State Univ.
Henson, Matthew. A Negro Explorer at the Pole. 1912, NY: Frederick A. Stokes Co.
Herbert, Wally. Noose of Laurels. 1989, NY: Atheneum Publishing Co.
Goodsell, John.  On Polar Trails. 1993, Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
Malaurie, Jean.  The Last Kings of Thule. 1955, NY: E.P. Dutton Co.
Peary, Robert. Northwards Over the Great Ice. 1898, NY: Frederick A. Stokes Co. (See also Peary Papers, National Archives.)
Rawlins, Dennis. Peary at the North Pole:  Fact or Fiction? 1973, NY: Luce.
Robinson, Bradley. Dark Companion. 1947, NY: McBride Co.

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Ahikasingwah and her baby, Kali, the younger of Robert Peary's two sons, from My Attainment of the Pole by Frederick Cook, 1913.

The designation as "the first man to reach the North Pole" was accorded henson in this series of minibusts distributed as the "Seagram Gallery of Famous Negro Americans," c. 1970.

wpe25.jpg (13484 bytes) "Henson immediately after the sledge journey to the pole and back." Photo from A Negro Explorer at the North Pole.

Peary "riding the homeward trail," photo from The Noose of Laurels by Wally Herbert.

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wpe161.jpg (22488 bytes) ... The three meteorites delivered by Peary -- some say stolen -- to the American Museum of Natural History.
President Dwight Eisenhower receives 88-year-old Matthew Henson and his wife Lucy on April 6, 1954, the 45th anniversary of Peary's alleged arrival at the North Pole.  Photos from
To the Top of the World: The Story of Peary and Henson by Pauline K. Angell, 1964.

Copyright 2005 - The Frederick A. Cook Society