Although Robert Peary (1856-1920) is venerated as the first person to reach the geographical North Pole, there was actually another individual who shared this status during the same Northern expedition. This is none other Matthew Henson (1866-1955), an African American explorer who journeyed the North Pole with Peary and 4 other explorers in 1909, commissioned by the National Geographic Society. Henson accompanied Peary on this monumental expedition and due to his ability to speak Inuktitut, the local Inuit language, he supported the team with translating directions and obtaining key resources along the journey. However, Peary was the only one awarded for his accomplishments in the North Pole, and his role of being “first” was canonized in expedition history. To celebrate Black History Month, it is important to recognize the accomplishments and successes of Black individuals, and for Matthew Henson, we must acknowledge his key role in reaching the North Pole.
Matthew Henson was initially an avid explorer who spent many months traversing Central America with Peary and switched gears to set for an expedition in Greenland with his co-explorer. It was during this time that Henson quickly picked up the Inuktitut language and customs to help stave off difficulties in harsh northern weather conditions. He learned to professionally handle sledding dogs, manage crew in icy waters, and create much needed nighttime shelters. These skills would be transferred over to the three treacherous attempts for the North Pole with Peary, with the final one in 1908 being successful. Henson was a critical member of the expedition teams, and upon arrival at the Pole, he said: “I think I’m the first man to sit on top of the world.”
Unfortunately, due to racism, Henson’s statement did not resonate with the press and expedition societies as Peary solely received awards and the recognition of America and the world. Henson’s role was largely overlooked and dwindled in the historical memory of the event. With increasing awareness of the pivotal role of Black North Americans in the development of our societies, we can have a better understanding of their impact on many historical milestones and events. Black History Month aims to highlight individuals who were systemically erased and declined recognition. It is furthermore important to recognize that expedition history is rooted in systemic racism, especially when it is the ‘discovery’ of a place where its native people have already traversed the land for years before the arrival of explorers.
In past decades, Samuel Allen Counter Jr, an African American Professor at Harvard, revived Henson’s story and brought this racial-based historical inequity to light. As a result, Henson was posthumously awarded the National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Medal, almost a century after Peary had been awarded the same honour for their shared 1909 expedition.