July 17, 1910
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
group in a wild land cheers
How Dr. Cook
fooled the people
Matthew A. Henson
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 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
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
"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
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
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
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 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
for the U.S. Flag.
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
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.
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
Only Advertised Dr. Cook.
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.
"Big Lead" Explained.
"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.
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.
© 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)