Six men on dog sledges are in the record books for being the first to reach the geographic North Pole on April 6, 1909: Four Inuit guides named Egingwah, Ooqueah, Ootah, and Seeglo, and two long-time partners in exploration named Matthew Henson and Robert Peary. For decades, top credit for the accomplishment was given to Peary, but this National Geographic video explains why “the first person to stand on top of the world” was Henson. From National Geographic:
“The results of the first observation showed that we had figured out the distance very accurately, for when the flag was hoisted over the geographical center of the Earth it was located just behind our igloos,” Henson wrote.
The party had indeed reached the North Pole. But the question remained who had arrived there first. “I was in the lead that had overshot the mark by a couple of miles,” Henson was quoted in a newspaper article upon their return. “We went back then and I could see that my footprints were the first at the spot…”
With a difference of a few hours at most it would be reasonable to give Peary and Henson equal credit for having reached the North Pole together as a team. But the racially divisive climate of time would not give an African-American man the same standing in the public eye for the accomplishment of such a monumental feat of human achievement. Peary was the recognized discoverer of the Pole while Henson was relegated to the role of trusty companion. Despite Henson’s indispensable contributions to their efforts for almost 20 years he received very little acknowledgment.
“The son of two freeborn black sharecroppers,” Matthew Henson was born in 1866 and traveled the world as a cabin boy from age 11. In 1887, he joined Peary and became an accomplished explorer. From National Geographic:
Henson was the front man in the field. With his skills as a carpenter and craftsman, Henson personally built and maintained all of the sledges used on their expeditions. He was fluent in the Inuit language and established a rapport with the native people of the region. He was known by all he encountered as “Matthew the Kind One.” Henson learned the methods the Inuit used to survive and travel through the incredibly hostile landscape of the Arctic…
Henson was a very capable hunter, fisherman, and dog handler. And it was he who trained even the most experienced of Peary’s recruits on each of the eight attempts they made to reach the North Pole.
Read more about his life in The Legacy of Arctic Explorer Matthew Henson. See more photos in this slideshow: Historic Photos Celebrate Pioneering Black Explorer. Read more about the expedition in a reissue of his 1912 memoir: A Journey for the Ages: Matthew Henson and Robert Peary’s Historic North Pole Expedition.
Watch more videos about exploration and two more adventurous firsts: Bessie Coleman, The First Female African American Pilot and Dr. Mae Jemison, NASA Astronaut: I Wanted To Go Into Space.