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Henson at the North Pole

Henson at the North Pole

by Matthew A. Henson, Robert E. Peary (Foreword by), Booker T. Washington (Introduction)

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In 1909, after two decades of strenuous efforts, the Peary Arctic Club expedition team triumphantly arrived at the North Pole. Commander Peary and his African-American companion, Matthew Henson, had endured several failed attempts to cross hundreds of miles of frozen ocean. But with their growing skill and experience, along with the assistance of Inuit


In 1909, after two decades of strenuous efforts, the Peary Arctic Club expedition team triumphantly arrived at the North Pole. Commander Peary and his African-American companion, Matthew Henson, had endured several failed attempts to cross hundreds of miles of frozen ocean. But with their growing skill and experience, along with the assistance of Inuit guides, the explorers successfully planted the U.S. flag at the top of the world. This is Matthew Henson's firsthand account of the epic adventure—a dramatic tale of danger, courage, and determination.
Hailed by The New York Times as a "really valuable addition" to the literature of polar exploration, and by Commonweal as "fascinating and exciting," Henson's story begins with his early years as a sailor. His navigational expertise proved invaluable to the Peary expeditions, and although racism kept him from receiving his rightful recognition a century ago, there is no doubt that his heroism ensured the enterprise's success. Henson not only mastered the Inuit language, but he built and drove the sleds and broke the trails. He hunted game to keep the starving explorers alive, carrying crew members when they were too weak to walk. His compelling narrative recaptures all the glory of the golden age of exploration. This edition features a Foreword by Robert E. Peary and an Introduction by Booker T. Washington, in addition to six historic photographs.

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Dover Publications
Publication date:
Dover Books on Travel, Adventure Series
Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.30(d)

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Henson at the North Pole

By Matthew A. Henson

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2008 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-78949-1



When the news of the discovery of the North Pole, by Commander Peary, was first sent to the world, a distinguished citizen of New York City, well versed in the affairs of the Peary Arctic Club, made the statement, that he was sure that Matt Henson had been with Commander Peary on the day of the discovery. There were not many people who knew who Henson was, or the reason why the gentleman had made the remark, and, when asked why he was so certain, he explained that, for the best part of the twenty years of Commander Peary's Arctic work, his faithful and often only companion was Matthew Alexander Henson.

To-day there is a more general knowledge of Commander Peary, his work and his success, and a vague understanding of the fact that Commander Peary's sole companion from the realm of civilization, when he stood at the North Pole, was Matthew A. Henson, a Colored Man.

To satisfy the demand of perfectly natural curiosity, I have undertaken to write a brief autobiography, giving particularly an account of my Arctic work.

I was born in Charles County, Maryland, August 8, 1866. The place of my birth was on the Potomac River, about forty-four miles below Washington, D.C. Slavery days were over forever when I was born. Besides, my parents were both free born before me, and in my mother's veins ran some white blood. At an early age, my parents were induced to leave the country and remove to Washington, D.C. My mother died when I was seven years old. I was taken in charge by my uncle, who sent me to school, the "N Street School" in Washington, D.C, which I attended for over six years. After leaving school I went to Baltimore, Md., where I shipped as cabin-boy, on board a vessel bound for China. After my first voyage I became an able-bodied seaman, and for four years followed the sea in that capacity, sailing to China, Japan, Manilla, North Africa, Spain, France, and through the Black Sea to Southern Russia.

It was while I was in Washington, D.C, in 1888, that I first attracted the attention of Commander Peary, who at that time was a civil engineer in the United States Navy, with the rank of lieutenant, and it was with the instinct of my race that I recognized in him the qualities that made me willing to engage myself in his service. I accompanied him as his body-servant to Nicaragua. I was his messenger at the League Island Navy Yard, and from the beginning of his second expedition to the Arctic regions, in 1891, I have been a member of every expedition of his, in the capacity of assistant: a term that covers a multitude of duties, abilities, and responsibilities.

The narrative that follows is a record of the last and successful expedition of the Peary Arctic Club, which had as its attainment the discovery of the North Pole, and is compiled from notes made by me at different times during the course of the expedition. I did endeavor to keep a diary or journal of daily events during my last trip, and did not find it difficult aboard the ship while sailing north, or when in winter-quarters at Cape Sheridan, but I found it impossible to make daily entries while in the field, on account of the constant necessity of concentrating my attention on the real business of the expedition. Entries were made daily of the records of temperature and the estimates of distance traveled; and when solar observations were made the results were always carefully noted. There were opportunities to complete the brief entries on several occasions while out on the ice, notably the six days' enforced delay at the "Big Lead," 84° north, the twelve hours preceding the return of Captain Bartlett at 87°47' north, and the thirty-three hours at North Pole, while Commander Peary was determining to a certainty his position. During the return from the Pole to Cape Columbia, we were so urged by the knowledge of the supreme necessity of speed that the thought of recording the events of that part of the journey did not occur to me so forcibly as to compel me to pay heed to it, and that story was written aboard the ship while waiting for favorable conditions to sail toward home lands.

It was in June, 1891, that I started on my first trip to the Arctic regions, as a member of what was known as the "North Greenland Expedition." Mrs. Peary accompanied her husband, and among the members of the expedition were Dr. Frederick A. Cook, of Brooklyn, N.Y., Mr. Langdon Gibson, of Flushing, N.Y., and Mr. Eivind Astrüp, of Christiania, Norway, who had the honor of being the companion of Commander Peary in the first crossing of North Greenland—and of having an Esquimo at Cape York become so fond of him that he named his son for him! It was on this voyage north that Peary's leg was broken.

Mr. John M. Verhoeff, a stalwart young Kentuckian, was also an enthusiastic member of the party. When the expedition was ready to sail home the following summer, he lost his life by falling in a crevasse in a glacier. His body was never recovered. On the first and the last of Peary's expeditions, success was marred by tragedy. On the last expedition, Professor Ross G. Marvin, of Cornell University, lost his life by being drowned in the Arctic Ocean, on his return from his farthest north, a farther north than had ever been made by any other explorers except the members of the last expedition. Both Verhoeff and Marvin were good friends of mine, and I respect and venerate their memories.

Naturally the impressions formed on my first visit to the Land of Ice and Snow were the most lasting, but in the coming years I was to learn more and more that such a life was no picnic, and to realize what primitive life meant. I was to live with a people who, the scientists stated, represented the earliest form of human life, living in what is known as the Stone Age, and I was to revert to that stage of life by leaps and bounds, and to emerge from it by the same sudden means. Many and many a time, for periods covering more than twelve months, I have been to all intents an Esquimo, with Esquimos for companions, speaking their language, dressing in the same kind of clothes, living in the same kind of dens, eating the same food, enjoying their pleasures, and frequently sharing their griefs. I have come to love these people. I know every man, woman, and child in their tribe. They are my friends and they regard me as theirs.

After the first return to civilization, I was to come back to the savage, ice-and rock-bound country seven times more. It was in June, 1893, that I again sailed north with Commander Peary and his party on board the Falcon, a larger ship than the Kite, the one we sailed north in on the previous expedition, and with a much larger equipment, including several burros from Colorado, which were intended for ice-cap work, but which did not make good, making better dog-food instead. Indeed the dogs made life a burden for the poor brutes from the very start. Mrs. Peary was again a member of the expedition, as well as another woman, Mrs. Cross, who acted as Mrs. Peary's maid and nurse. It was on this trip that I adopted the orphan Esquimo boy, Kudlooktoo, his mother having died just previous to our arrival at the Red Cliffs. After this boy was washed and scrubbed by me, his long hair cut short, and his greasy, dirty clothes of skins and furs burned, a new suit made of odds and ends collected from different wardrobes on the ship made him a presentable Young American. I was proud of him, and he of me. He learned to speak English and slept underneath my bunk.

This expedition was larger in numbers than the previous one, but the results, owing to the impossible weather conditions, were by no means successful, and the following season all of the expedition returned to the United States except Commander Peary, Hugh J. Lee, and myself. When the expedition returned, there were two who went back who had not come north with us. Miss Marie Ahnighito Peary, aged about ten months, who first saw the light of day at Anniversary Lodge on the 12th of the previous September, was taken by her mother to her kinfolks in the South. Mrs. Peary also took a young Esquimo girl, well known among us as "Miss Bill," along with her, and kept her for nearly a year, when she gladly permitted her to return to Greenlandand her own people. Miss Bill is now grown up, and has been married three times and widowed, not by death but by desertion. She is known as a "Holy Terror." I do not know the reason why, but I have my suspicions.

The memory of the winter of 1894 and 1895 and the summer following will never leave me. The events of the journey to 87°6' in 1906 and the discovery of the North Pole in 1909 are indelibly impressed on my mind, but the recollections of the long race with death across the 450 miles of the ice-cap of North Greenland in 1895, with Commander Peary and Hugh Lee, are still the most vivid.

For weeks and weeks, across the seemingly never-ending wastes of the ice-cap of North Greenland, I marched with Peary and Lee from Independence Bay and the land beyond back to Anniversary Lodge. We started on April 1, 1895, with three sledges and thirty-seven dogs, with the object of determining to a certainty the northeastern terminus of Greenland. We reached the northern land beyond the icecap, but the condition of the country did not allow much exploration, and after killing a few musk-oxen we started on June 1 to make our return. We had one sledge and nine dogs.

We reached Anniversary Lodge on June 25, with one dog.

The Grim Destroyer had been our constant companion, and it was months before I fully recovered from the effects of that struggle. When I left for home and God's Country the following September, on board the good old Kite, it was with the strongest resolution to never again! no more! forever! leave my happy home in warmer lands.

Nevertheless, the following summer I was again "Northward Bound," with Commander Peary, to help him secure, and bring to New York, the three big meteorites that he and Lee had discovered during the winter of 1894-1895.

The meteorites known as "The Woman" and "The Dog" were secured with comparative ease, and the work of getting the large seventy-ton meteor, known as "The Tent," into such a position as to insure our securing it the following summer, was done, so it was not strange that the following summer I was again in Greenland, but the meteorite was not brought away that season.

It is well known that the chief characteristic of Commander Peary is persistency which, coupled with fortitude, is the secret of his success. The next summer, 1897, he was again at the island after his prize, and he got it this time and brought it safely to New York, where it now reposes in the "American Museum of Natural History." As usual I was a member of the party, and my back still aches when I think of the hard work I did to help load that monster aboard the Hope.

It was during this voyage that Commander Peary announced his determination to discover the North Pole, and the following years (from 1898 to 1902) were spent in the Arctic.

In 1900, the American record of Farthest North, held by Lockwood and Brainard, was equaled and exceeded; their cairn visited and their records removed. On April 21, 1902, a new American record of 84°17' was made by Commander Peary, further progress north being frustrated by a lack of provisions and by a lane of open water, more than a mile wide. This lead or lane of open water I have since become more familiarly acquainted with. We have called it many names, but it is popularly known as the "Big Lead." Going north, meeting it can be depended upon. It is situated just a few miles north of the 84th parallel, and is believed to mark the continental shelf of the land masses in the Northern Hemisphere.

During the four years from 1898 to 1902, which were continuously spent in the regions about North Greenland, we had every experience, except death, that had ever fallen to the lot of the explorers who had preceded us, and more than once we looked death squarely in the face. Besides, we had many experiences that earlier explorers did not meet. In January, 1899, Commander Peary froze his feet so badly that all but one of his toes fell off.

After the return home, in 1902, it was three years before Commander Peary made another attack on the Pole, but during those years he was not resting.

He was preparing to launch his final and "sincerely to be hoped" successful expedition, and in July, 1905, in the newly built ship, Roosevelt, we were again "Poleward-bound." The following September, the Roosevelt reached Cape Sheridan, latitude 82°27' north, under her own steam, a record unequaled by any other vessel, sail or steam.

Early the next year, the negotiation of the Arctic Ocean was commenced, not as oceans usually are negotiated, but as this ocean must be, by men, sledges, and dogs. The field party consisted of twenty-six men, twenty sledges, and one hundred and thirty dogs.

That was an open winter and an early spring, very desirable conditions in some parts of the world, but very undesirable to us on the northern coast of Greenland. The ice-pack began disintegrating much too early that year to suit, but we pushed on, and had it not been for furious storms enforcing delays and losses of many precious days, the Pole would have been reached. As it was, Commander Peary and his party got to 87°6' north, thereby breaking all records, and in spite of incredible hardships, hunger and cold, returned safely with all of the expedition, and on Christmas Eve the Roosevelt, after a most trying voyage, entered New York harbor, somewhat battered but still seaworthy.

Despite the fact that it was to be his last attempt, Commander Peary no sooner reached home than he announced his intention to return, this time to be the last, and this time to win.

However, a year intervened, and it was not until July 6, 1908, with the God-Speed and good wishes of President Roosevelt, that the good ship named in his honor set sail again. The narrative of that voyage, and the story of the discovery of the North Pole, follow.

The ages of the wild, misgiving mystery of the North Pole are over, to-day, and forever it stands under the folds of Old Glory.



July 6, 1908: We're off! For a year and a half I have waited for this order, and now we have cast off. The shouting and the tumult ceases, the din of whistles, bells, and throats dies out, and once again the long, slow surge of the ocean hits the good ship that we have embarked in. It was at one-thirty P.M. to-day that I saw the last hawse-line cast adrift, and felt the throb of the engines of our own ship. Chief Wardwell is on the job, and from now on it is due north.

Oyster Bay, Long Island Sound: We are expecting President Roosevelt. The ship has been named in his honor and has already made one voyage towards the North Pole, farther north than any ship has ever made.

July 7: At anchor, the soft wooded hills of Long Island give me a curious impression. I am waiting for the command to attack the savage ice- and rockbound fortress of the North, and here instead we are at anchor in the neighborhood of sheep grazing in green fields.

Sydney, N.S., July 17, 1908: All of the expedition are aboard and those going home have gone. Mrs. Peary and the children, Mr. Borup's father, and Mr. Harry Whitney, and some other guests were the last to leave the Roosevelt, and have given us a last good-by from the tug, which came alongside to take them off.

Good-by all. Every one is sending back a word to some one he has left behind, but I have said my good-bys a long time ago, and as I waved my hand in parting salutation to the little group on the deck of the tug, my thoughts were with my wife, and I hoped when she next heard of me it would be with feelings of joy and happiness, and that she would be glad she had permitted me to leave her for an absence that might never end.

The tenderfeet, as the Commander calls them, are the Doctor, Professor MacMillan, and young Mr. Borup. The Doctor is a fine-looking, big fellow, John W. Goodsell, and has a swarthy complexion and straight hair; on meeting me he told me that he was well acquainted with me by reputation, and hoped to know me more intimately.

Professor Donald B. MacMillan is a professor in a college in Massachusetts, near Worcester, and I am going to cultivate his acquaintance.

Mr. George Borup is the kid, only twenty-one years old but well set up for his age, always ready to laugh, and has thick, curly hair. I understand he is a record-breaker in athletics. He will need his athletic ability on this trip. I am making no judgments or comments on these fellows now. Wait; I have seen too many enthusiastic starters, and I am sorry to say some of them did not finish well.

All of the rest of the members of the expedition are the same as were on the first trip of the Roosevelt:—Commander Peary, Captain Bartlett, Professor Marvin, Chief Engineer Wardwell, Charley Percy the steward, and myself. The crew has been selected by Captain Bartlett, and are mostly strangers to me.


Excerpted from Henson at the North Pole by Matthew A. Henson. Copyright © 2008 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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