Home | Table of Contents | Arlington National Cemetery | Photos | Shopping | News | Email

• 1909 "George Borup's letter to his father" - Enthusiastic account of the Peary's expedition
• 1909 "Peary's Negro Lieutenant..." - Miscellaneous newspaper clips
• 1910 "Matt Henson Tells The Real Story..." Boston American newspaper
• 1910 "Testimony From Matt Henson" - letter published in Hampton's Magazine
• 1910 "The Negro At The North Pole" - The World's Work magazine, Henson's first publication
• 1912 Book Reviews of A Negro Explorer at The North Pole - The New York Times & The Nation
• 1932 "Veteran Explorer Finds Radio Enlivens..." - New York Times
• 1939 "Discovery of the Unsung Hero..." - Ken Magazine
• 1939 "First at The Pole" - Lowell Thomas interview (text version)
• 1939 "First at The Pole" - Lowell Thomas interviews Henson - with PDF download

Boston, Sunday, July 17, 1910

MATT HENSON TELLS THE REAL STORY OF PEARY'S TRIP TO POLE

Negro Companion Adds to History

Says top was reached by error

Thinks he was treated unfairly

Eskimos only to share honors

Peril of last day's travel related

U.S. flag run up on hoe handle

Happy group in a wild land cheers

How Dr. Cook fooled the people


Matthew A. Henson

The discovery of the North Pole by Commander Peary (who on his retirement assumed the rank of captain), and Matt Henson is a wonderful tale from any angle. Peary has lectured and written upon it, almost ignoring Henson, his negro companion. Henson is even now lecturing upon it at Wonderland Park with slides, sledges, furs and polar outfit. Each tells his straightforward tale of reaching "the big nail" on top of the earth and the details of hardship and hair-breadth escapes are secondary in the weird glamour of the exploit.

But there are side lights upon the journey to the pole that have been scarcely touched upon by either lecturer. In a recent written article Commander Peary treated his former companion in a way that Henson does not like. Henson has replied by writing for the Boston Sunday American some of the side lights upon Commander Peary. He makes clear things long kept in the background touching the polar discovery, tells of a change of heart that came over commander Peary when he found that they had traveled too fast and were already at the Pole. Henson says Peary intended to visit the Pole entirely alone, or accompanied only by his Esquimo boys.

He also shows how impossible was the story of Dr. Cook. Henson adds that Commander Peary, in spite of his recent unkind attitude was formerly one of the best of men to work for, treats of the fortitude of those engaged in the expedition, and for the first time relates how Commander Peary rode on sledges almost all the way to the Pole and back for the very good reason that ten years before, after a similar expedition, he suffered the amputation of nine of his ten toes, a fact that, if generally known has by most people been long ago forgotten.


By Matt Henson
Copyright 1910 by Boston American
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 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.

Eskimo Boy Discloses Peary's Plan
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.

Found themselves at the North 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 in 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.

Was Peary Offended?
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 nights sleep, while I could bring the party in at my leisure.

Did Not Say Good-by
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.
Peary's Great Disappointment.
It was my boy O-tah who disclosed to me that Peary was to leave me behind in the final few miles to the Pole, and with E-tig-wah he witnesses the disappointment of Commander Peary when a few miles from the camp, his observation told the lieutenant that he had overstepped and gone past the Pole, which we had reached the night before. Our camp itself was practically situated on "the top of the earth." For the crime of being present when the Pole was reached Commander Peary has ignored me ever since.

After twenty-two years of close companionship he refused even to say good bye when we separated in New York. And at Fort Conger, nearly ten years before, we had carried Peary nearly 200 miles with his feet frozen, traveling days and hunting nights for food to keep him and ourselves alive!

Captain Bartlett was glad to turn back when he did. He frankly told me several times that he had little expectation of ever returning alive. Several times he said he had gone far enough and would be "blame glad" when his time came to stop. After parting with him our trail became much easier until on the final day's march we must have made fully thirty miles, and were at our destination.

Bartlett took back two natives, eighteen dogs and one sledge. During the last five days of advance he was engaged to break the trail, but in the roughest ice I had to do it, better fitted through long polar experience.

Leaving Bartlett the morning of April 2 we made twenty miles and the second and following days we made greater distances. No observations were taken. We reached the Pole the night of April 6, when I heard that I was to be deserted on the following morning. Fortunately for me we even then "arrived". On the morning of April 7th I was surely enough deserted, but not for long. Upon his return in an hour Peary ordered out a pole, consisting of a long hoe handle, to hold up an American flag.

He gave the order to the Eskimos and did not mention any part I might take in the ceremony. I did not mind, but pitched in and led the cheering.

Cheers for the U.S. Flag.
I can see now that we could have reached the North Pole in 1906 if we had made haste in the colder season. Instead time was wasted in establishing stations which could never be of value, because the Polar ice is always moving. The warmer season arrived and caught us and we hastened back to avoid the ever-opening "leads" of water.

You ask about Dr. Cook. No, he did not reach the Pole and he could not. I know that with all my experience I could not take two men and the equipment he said he had and get within 200 miles of the Pole. If I should reach within 250 miles of it I would be doing extremely well.

It is true that the Eskimos told me, for I obtained for Peary the details of Cook's performances, which he afterward offered as his own investigation, that Cook was not once out of sight of land. He had tried, and seeing the uselessness of it had made for Jone¹s Sound to catch a whaler home. The ice had kept the whalers out and Cook was left upon his own resources. His Eskimo boys were in the same fix and all had to stay until conditions changed.

Cook's Mind Affected?
Sometimes I think it all affected Cook's mind. He wanted to reach the Pole, tried hard and thought of it so much and so greatly that at last he half hypnotized himself into the idea he had been there and then found easy credence. If Peary had let him alone until the full truth came out Cook would not have skimmed the financial cream from the North Pole situation.

Peary Only Advertised Dr. Cook.
One cannot fake records to convince scientific men of a bogus trip to the North Pole. Peary need not have hurried to unmask Cook. It were much better to have allowed matters to take their course. Contrary to the belief of many, the Eskimos do not like Dr. Cook. He owed them much and paid in promises. Neither do they generally like Peary, though Peary paid his obligations. But the Eskimos who were brought to this country and who afterward denounced Peary were wrong. Peary was not responsible for their condition. Another story is involved. He brought them here, that is all. On others rests the responsibility.

The "Big Lead" Explained.
The "Big Lead" so often spoken of is a break in the polar ice always found north of Cape Columbia. Once it was three miles wide. We waited for "young ice" to cross it. A word for the polar dogs. They are intuitive and cunning and spread out on thin ice with an understanding almost human. When the "young ice" is yielding, elastic and wavy the dogs open out like a fan and do not break through. The men walk respectful distances from the sledges. Occasionally a sledge breaks through.

Lieutenant Peary¹s custom was to request rather than command. Could we do so-and-so at such a time? If we answered in the affirmative he would then hold as to an exact accomplishment of the task as per agreement.

THE END

Copyright © 1999 Bradley Robinson
My restored version has been made possible by the Boston Public Library. This extremely rare paper may only exist as a sole copy on microfilm at the Boston Public Library. The original is in such a deteriorated state that it can not be handled. Special thanks to the Boston Library staff for helping me to obtain this rare document. Bradley Robinson, December, 1999. (updated March 2009)