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"Mister Peary was a noble man, and it was a privilege to serve him. He was always my friend. I have been fortunate, indeed. I have not expected much, and I have not been disappointed. One does not need pride and position to be considered worthy. When a man has been out of the world, away from everything, he learns something that the world can never teach him. And when he comes back, nothing can confound him."

"I am not used to this, a man coming here to my office to shake my hand. I thank you for this abrupt honor, of course, but I must admit that you make me a little unhappy. For more than 20 years I have been waiting for a stranger to come through this door to say, 'Matt Henson, you did your duty as a man should.’ Now it has happened to me. And it hurts me to know you are a white man. All these years I have hoped that the person who should first seek me out would be one of my own race."

[KEN magazine 1939]

Discovery of
the unsung
hero of
polar discovery
 
(restored 1939 magazine article)

Nevertheless, Matt today (r.) seems happier than in 1909 (l.)

Matthew Henson, Peary's Negro servant, broke trail for the explorer right up to the North Pole, after others of the party had turned back. But he didn't expect much reward, and wasn't disappointed: Few have heard of him.
It was a quarter to three on the day of New York's greeting to a famous explorer just returned from the Antarctic. The Broadway parade was over; the homecoming hero had been welcomed.

I stood for a moment on the sidewalk below the broad, worn stone steps of the Customs House. It seemed strangely quiet there at that moment. Then I mounted upward between the sooted statuary and stepped inside the dirty vestibule doors.

The interior of the Federal building was stifling with stale air and tobacco smoke. But I knew the rest of the way—to the left, up one flight, around the corner and down a dark corridor on the shadowed side, facing Whitehall, away from the glare of afternoon light on Broadway. There, upon an unfrequented door, would be the number of a small inside room-the remote office of a forgotten man.

Behind the translucent doorlight an office lamp was burning. My quarry was in his lair. I knocked, just above the doorknob, lightly in a polite signal, then dropped my hand to open the door. But the pane and panel moved backward without my touch, and in the opening appeared a cordial, coffee-colored face, appraising me with a business-like examination, silently challenging me for credentials.

"Good afternoon," came the melodic voice. "You perhaps have made a mistake. You knocked here? May I help you to find someone?"

"You are Matthew Henson?" I inquired, studying his quiet features, intelligent eyes and mouth, clerk's ears, and the fringe of kinky white hair that crowned his temples.

"So you have come here to see me? Come in, sir. Will you be seated?" He offered me his desk chair.

"First let me shake your hand. I want to shake the hand of a man who never forgot his duty and still performs it." And I introduced myself, remaining standing as I bade Mr. Henson take his chair.

Immediately I tried to think back to April 6, 1909. 1909…Matt Henson was 42 years old then—a ripe age, at the prime, to break the first trail to the top of the world and be the first man to stand at the North Pole.

"You've been here more than 20 years, Mr. Henson?"

"Yes. After the final Arctic expedition, a place was made for me here in the customs service. I shall retire in 1936, at the full age of 70, and then I may devote my entire leisure to the memory of the active years in the northland and my pleasant quiet years here at my desk."

What a synopsis of contentment. Matt Henson had been man-servant and attendant to Robert Edwin Peary, the much-decorated dean of American exploration. He accompanied Peary on his expedition of ultimate discovery. He went north aboard the ship that was skippered by Captain Bob Bartlett, and led one of the sledge parties that broke a trail across the white wilderness toward the North Star. Henson was a man of talents and patience, a competent fellow. He served, and was content in his competent accomplishment of service.

Peary's crowning achievement came on April 6, 1909. The final expedition left New York in the Roosevelt in July, 1908, and established winter quarters in September at Cape Sheridan. Preparations were made there for the dash to the pole, and on the first of March the journey northward across the ice fields was begun. There were five parties, four of which carried provisions to ice-packed stations and returned to the base camp. The fifth detachment, comprised of Peary, Henson and four Eskimos, proceeded.

Across the Arctic wastelands the swift expedition moved: the white men; Henson, the Negro; 17 Eskimos; 133 dogs; 19 sledges. At scheduled stations on the route, the separate parties deposited their stores and returned to the ship anchorage at open water. Dr. Goodsell reached 84° 29' North Latitude; George Borup, 85 ° 57'; Ross G. Marvin, who drowned, 86° 38'; Captain Bartlett, 87° 48'. Finally, at ten o'clock on the morning of April 6, 1909, Peary, Henson and four Eskimos reached 90° North—the Pole!

The spot was held for 30 hours, during which observations verified the location. The return trip was accomplished in 16 days and the Roosevelt reached Indian Harbor on her return voyage on September 5, from which point Peary sent his famous dispatch to the Peary Arctic Club of New York: "Stars and Stripes nailed to the North Pole." Commander Peary was elevated to Rear Admiral, and decorations from kings and courts were bestowed upon him. Henson was rewarded by receiving a life post in the customs service.

"Mister Peary was a noble man, and it was a privilege to serve him. He was always my friend. I have been fortunate, indeed. I have not expected much, and I have not been disappointed. One does not need pride and position to be considered worthy. When a man has been out of the world, away from everything, he learns something that the world can never teach him. And when he comes back, nothing can confound him."

"But I must confess you have caught me a little unaware. You see, I am not used to this, a man coming here to my office to shake my hand. I thank you for this abrupt honor, of course, but I must admit that you make me a little unhappy. For more than 20 years I have been waiting for a stranger to come through this door to say, 'Matt Henson, you did your duty as a man should.’ Now it has happened to me. And it hurts me to know you are a white man. All these years I have hoped that the person who should first seek me out would be one of my own race."

The door was opened for me and I stepped out into the corridor. Then out into the blinding sunlight and the brisk, salt air of downtown, the confusion of traffic at Bowling Green and the reverberant afternoon noise of Broadway. Yet, inside me, an impression of peaceful quiet and darkness—like the smile of a coffee-colored face—remained, diffused from the personality of a modest man, an unsung hero, a man. that nobody had ever heard of, a man named Matt Henson.

—Carl John Bostelmann

June 15, 1939.  An obscure magazine 70 years ago named KEN (magazine) published this story. I purchased this June 15, 1939 issue on eBay in order to restore the story about Matt. You may download a high resolution PDF. What I found so interesting was the "like you are there" description of the federal building where Matt worked with it's stale odor of tobacco smoke, the
"reverberant noise of Broadway." New York City was my home once—40 years ago.