This Day in History 4/6: Matthew Henson and Robert Peary Reach the North Pole…in THAT order

Matthew Henson, American explorer.

Matthew Henson, American explorer. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For years, we have attempted to correct a myth held in many classrooms.

Textbooks, history books and the like have propogated the myth that on April 6, 1909, Commander Robert Peary was the first man to reach the North Pole.

He wasn’t.  His colleague–a master of sled dogs, Arctic travel and Inuit languages whom Peary considered a mere servant–got there first.

His name was Matthew Henson.  He was black–which made for an incovenient truth in the racist United States of the turn of the century.

Henson was a skilled sailor and navigator and had joined Peary on numerous expeditions since 1887.  On Peary’s eighth attempt at the pole in 1909, Henson was selected as one of six who would make the final push to the pole.

By the finish, Peary could not continue on foot, either due to frostbite or exhaustion.  Henson was sent ahead as a scout.  On April 6, he made the final run–a run so hard by the time he got his bearings, Henson had overshot the pole by a couple of miles.  Here’s what Henson said in a newspaper interview:

“I was in the lead that had overshot the mark a couple of miles. We went back then and I could see that my footprints were the first at the spot.”

When he backtracked to the spot he crossed, Henson realized he reached the pole.  He planted the American flag as the rest of the team, including Peary, followed.

Peary, the white naval commander, received numerous honors for the expedition.  Yet the man who actually accomplished the goal worked in obscurity as a clerk in the federal customs house in New York City, only receiving recognition near his death in 1955.

Below are some links to find out more about this great African American explorer:

 

 

 

Henson’s 1912 book A Negro Explorer at the North Pole – via Project Gutenberg

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