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Henson, age 25.
Colorized and composited

first met
Robert Peary

by Robert Peary Stafford
(Peary's great grandson)

Peary, picture from a
1925 cigarette card.

"Henson's evidence, coupled with his reputation as an Arctic explorer of vast experience and complete honesty, constitutes one of the most indisputable and irrefutable sources of independent proof that Peary and Henson and four dedicated Eskimos did indeed reach the North Pole in 1909."

When Matthew Henson first met Robert Peary, it was Henson the stock room clerk, and not the tall, red headed Naval Engineer, who had already spent a winter north of the Arctic Circle. Furthermore, after five years as a sailor under his first mentor, Captain Childs, it was twenty year-old Matt Henson rather than thirty year-old Bert Peary who had traveled most extensively.

Henson said it was with "the instinct of my race" that he made his shrewd, sure judgment of Lieutenant Peary. Perhaps so, but it is equally true that his years of experience working with hard, sailing men under the trying conditions of life at sea, provided a unique basis for Henson's insight into the character of the reserved New Englander. What he saw, he liked - intelligence, strength, determination and ambition. Henson unhesitatingly accepted the offer of a menial job from Peary, not only because he like the idea of further travel (Peary intended to survey in Nicaragua for a trans-isthmus canal), but also because it meant working directly and intimately with Peary. Henson knew opportunity when it knocked.

It took Peary a little longer to assess the true value of Matt Henson, but well before their year-long venture in Nicaragua ended, he had come to recognize in Henson such a high degree of intelligence, reliability, endurance, and flexibility that he never again left the shores of the United States without this diminutive African American as his special assistant.

The end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries were Jim Crow days, and Peary was not heroically above the prevailing prejudices of the times. It would be historically inaccurate to say that Peary and Henson were "friends" as that term is commonly understood. Henson never called Peary by his first name, neither man attended the other's wedding, and there were no social dinners or outings together -- such cross racial activity was virtually unheard of in those times. But what saved and fostered their relationship over a period of more than twenty years, was Henson's accurate perception that no amount of conventional prejudice could ever blind Peary to unvarnished merit. Since both men possessed unique and varied skills and were capable of remarkable feats of physical endurance as well, they developed a relationship based on deep mutual respect, and abiding confidence in one another, and a color-blind appreciation of the other's extraordinary abilities. Thus, Henson and Peary had, to paraphrase Allen Counter, as good a relationship as a black and white man could have in those benighted times.

After their first expedition together in Greenland in 1891, that relationship was further cemented by a shared dream and driven by a shared ambition. As the years passed both men almost routinely saved each other's lives, shared raw food, cold igloos, hardship, frostbite, heart break, exhaustion and failure. Their shared dream became so over powering, and their ambition developed so flinty an intensity, that ultimately their condition could reasonably have been described as an obsession. More than anything in life, they wanted to be the first men to reach the North Pole and claim it for the United States of America.

In the end, despite years of hardship and disappointment, they did indeed succeed, and they succeeded together. Henson made that last dash to the Pole with Peary because, in Peary's own words, "I cannot get along without him." While Henson reported that because Peary "was with us, and we could depend upon him ... we were able to keep up the break-neck pace that enabled us [to get back from the Pole successfully] .... and we never forgot that he was still the heart and head of the party.

In addition, both Peary and Henson acknowledged the vital role of the four Eskimos who accompanied them -- Ootah, Egingwah, Seegloo and Ooqueah. Henson pointed out how particularly fitting it was that all three major racial groups -- black, white and yellow -- were represented in the first expedition to reach the Pole. This was diversity in its most natural, truest and finest sense, based not on government mandate or social convention, but solely on merit. Everyone who stood at the North Pole on April 6, 1909 did so for one reason only: he was, regardless of race, the person best qualified in the world to accomplish the awesome task of getting there. What they did was done as a unified team in which the contribution of each member was critical to success. There is very good reason to believe it could not have been done at the time in any other way.

Afterward, when false competing claims and armchair critics purported to cast doubt on the accomplishments of the 1909 Expedition, Henson's unwavering and consistent testimony was disregarded as "unreliable" for no other reason -- as we see clearly from our post-Martin Luther King era perspective -- than that Henson was an African American. Now that such specious and invidious reasoning is no longer acceptable, Henson's evidence, coupled with his reputation as an Arctic explorer of vast experience and complete honesty, constitutes one of the most indisputable and irrefutable sources of independent proof that Peary and Henson and four dedicated Eskimos did indeed reach the North Pole in 1909.

In doing so, they created for themselves an enduring and honored place in History.


Robert Peary Stafford. 1998

Copyright 1999 Bradley Robinson