Season 1
From the Travel Journal: Greenland: Where We’re Going We Don’t Need Roads

The incredible true story of the intrepid African American explorer who was likely the first man to set foot on the North Pole.

by DOMINIQUE FERRARI

Greenland is a place without roads. In the entire country – which is about 3 times the size of Texas, there are just around 150km (90m) of roads – and those roads are strictly within town and city limits. There are no roads connecting communities. To this day, if you want to get around in Greenland, you’ll need a plane, a boat, or a dogsled. 

In 1909 an intrepid African American explorer undertook an incredible journey by dogsled –  and likely became the first man to set foot on the North Pole. There were no roads and no maps for his mission either. But he persevered for years, inching towards his goal. And when he made it, he left more than his footprints in Greenland. After his story was nearly lost to time and racism, eighty years later, his accomplishments would finally be fully seen. And his large Greenlandic family were there to see it. 

THE BIG NAVEL

“The lure of the arctic is tugging at my heart. To me the trail is calling! The old trail, the trail that is always new.”

~Matthew Henson, from The Negro Explorer at the North Pole, published in 1912

Latitude 90° North. The northernmost point on the Earth. When you get there, all compass directions point south, and all lines of longitude converge. It’s literally the top of the world. At the North Pole, temperatures regularly drop below -40° F and there is no sunlight from late October to March. And the man who first set foot on this extraordinary, forbidding piece of planet Earth was a man named Matthew Henson. He had traveled the world as an explorer and adventurer. He spent 23 years exploring the Arctic, getting closer and closer to the North Pole. His life would be shaped by a series of inspiring and fortuitous events – and in turn, he would shape the entire field of Arctic exploration.  

But before we get into Matthew Henson and the tale of his historic journey to the North Pole, it’s worth asking: what drove Westerners to risk life and limb to reach this desolate and, let’s be honest, kind of arbitrary point on the globe in the first place? In fact, the North Greenland Inuit people, known as the Inughuit – the farthest northern people on Earth – literally had no word for the North Pole in their language. Despite false claims by white explorers who were engaged in the race for the North Pole at the time – they didn’t need one. And why would they? There’s nothing for 500 miles in any direction from the North Pole. In truth, they were initially baffled by these mostly white men’s quest for such a strange goal. But as more and more of these odd adventurers found their way to the far northern reaches of Greenland to set up base camps for their expeditions, the Inughuit eventually needed some word to describe where all these Westerners were going. They settled on qalahirriaq (qalaserssuaq in Western Greenlandic), which means “The Big Navel”. 

But for Westerners, by the 1800s and early 1900s, the North Pole had attained a kind of mythic status as “the ultimate”, and I do mean THE ultimate. The main town these explorers would establish as a base camp was named Thule – a reference to ultima thule. In Western literature, ultima thule means: a distant unknown region; the extreme limit of travel and discovery. In a Western imagination that had started to run out of places to “discover” (and here, I can’t emphasize these quote marks enough because we all know they weren’t discovering anything that indigeous people hadn’t already thousands of years earlier – if they even wanted to, that is) the North Pole became the next big thing to hang those imaginations on. It was beyond reach. It required a journey that was as much literal as it was internal. There was no actual prize waiting at the top of the world for explorers – no vista, no new civilization, no stunning or ancient buildings. Making it there was the prize. Reaching one of the last ultima thules on Earth meant reaching your own personal ultima thule. And so, the race for the North Pole was born.

Though the Inughuit remained somewhat confused by this arbitrary crusade to an imaginary belly button, they would eventually become completely intertwined with it. As the quest went on for decades, they became the guides and hunters for various expeditions. And they set up permanent towns centered around the ‘base camps’ these outsiders set up – towns that still exist today. The quest for the North Pole changed northern Greenland forever – in ways good and bad. And to this day, its footprints can still be felt in these communities. And in Thule itself – now known by its Western Greenlandic name Qaanaaq, it literally still runs in their blood. 

Now, I said most of those explorers were white. But there was one notable exception: Matthew Henson.

THE EXCEPTIONAL MATTHEW HENSON

Matthew Alexander Henson was born on August 8, 1866, in Nanjemoy, Maryland, just one year after the end of the Civil War, to a family of freeborn African American sharecroppers. The years after the end of the Civil War were dangerous ones for African Americans and on many occasions, Matthew’s parents were attacked and terrorized by the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups. To escape this horrible racial violence, in 1867 the Henson family were forced to make the heartbreaking decision to leave their farm. They had worked it as free people of color from before the Civil War. And now, they had to abandon it. They packed up and moved to Georgetown, which back then was still an independent town on the outskirts of Washington, DC. But things didn’t get much better. When he was seven, Matthew’s mother died. Just a few years later, his father followed.

An orphaned Matthew went to live with an uncle in Washington, D.C. While he was with him, his uncle did two things that would forever change Matthew’s life. First, he sent him to a public school for African American boys – the “N Street School”. He studied there for 6 years, having his mind and horizons expanded. And second; when Matthew was 10 years old, his uncle took him to a ceremony honoring Abraham Lincoln. At the ceremony was Frederick Douglass – the renowned orator and former slave, who gave an impassioned speech calling upon African Americans to take all educational opportunities they could and to continue to battle racial prejudice. The speech stuck with Matthew and inspired him for the rest of his life. When his uncle passed away a few years later, at just 12, Matthew seized life by the horns. He left for the port city of Baltimore. He was ready.

Once there, he found work as a cabin boy aboard a sailing ship called Kitty Hines which was to set sail for China. Matthew climbed aboard and never looked back. He writes in his autobiography The Negro Explorer at the North Pole:

“After my first voyage I became an able-bodied seaman, and for four years followed the sea in that capacity, sailing to China, Japan, Manilla, North Africa, Spain, France, and through the Black Sea to Southern Russia.”

As he traveled the world, he served under the mentorship of the ship’s captain, Captain Childs. Captain Childs took a liking to him and helped him continue his education in addition to teaching him all sorts of technical and trade skills that would go on to serve him well – and probably save his life more than once – during his Arctic explorations.

Matthew served on the Kitty Hines for six years until Captain Childs passed away in 1887. Matthew, now a young man of 21, landed back in D.C. and found a job as a shop clerk for a furrier. Then one day in November of 1887, the hand of fate stepped in again. 

A naval officer came into the shop to sell a collection of seal and walrus pelts that had just arrived from his expedition to Greenland. Matthew had to know more. He grilled the tall, lithe man, Lt. Robert Peary, for more information. Peary, a civil engineer in the US Navy, was more than impressed with Henson’s passion and his former experience as a cabin boy. Peary asked him to join him on his next expedition as his personal assistant. Henson jumped at the chance. The expedition was to Nicaragua for a canal survey. On the trip, Peary was so impressed with Henson’s seamanship, that he recruited him to become his “first man” – or right hand man – from that moment forward. From that day on, their incredibly close relationship would last for decades and eventually take them to the top of the world. 

Their next mission? Back to Greenland – the place that had brought them together in the first place.

THE TRAIL IS CALLING

In June of 1891, Matthew Henson, Robert Peary, and a small party departed on what they named the “North Greenland Expedition”. Along the way, two men died – one, a mineralogist, fell into a glacier crevice never to be found and the other, a professor from Cornell University, drowned in the Arctic Sea. Though their party had made it closer to the North Pole than anyone else had before, they had paid a steep price, and they were still far from the prize.

There would be seven more expeditions to Greenland over the course of the next 18 years. Each time, they got closer and closer to the North Pole. And though they failed to reach it, they made other discoveries along the way. They were able to map the entire Greenland Ice Cap. And in expeditions in 1896 and 1897, they found three enormous meteor fragments. They sold the meteorites to the American Museum of Natural History in New York for a total of $40,000 at the time – a whopping $1.23m in today’s currency. The largest piece, called the Cape York meteorite weighed 58 tons and took three years to extract. To date it’s one of the largest meteorites ever discovered and the heaviest ever carried by humans. Of course, Peary and Henson were merely the first Westerners to find the meteorites. The Inughuit had known of them for centuries and had specifically set up camps nearby to mine them for metal. Their name for the Cape York meteorite was the Innaanganeq. That said, Peary was able to use the money to continue to fund his and Henson’s expeditions for the next decade. Today, you can still view parts of the Cape York/Innaanganeq meteorite at the museum.

As they continued to push for the Pole, Henson was absolutely indispensable. If Peary brought the money and the face of the expedition to the table, Henson was the brains and skill of the operation. He built and maintained all their sledges. He learned to build igloos. And he also learned to speak fluent Inughuit. While so many explorers of the time treated the Inughuit poorly or looked down on them, Henson grew to love them. He wrote:

“Many and many a time, for periods covering more than twelve months, I have been to all intents an Esquimo, with Esquimos for companions, speaking their language, dressing in the same kind of clothes, living in the same kind of dens, eating the same food, enjoying their pleasures, and frequently sharing their griefs. I have come to love these people. I know every man, woman, and child in their tribe. They are my friends and they regard me as theirs.”

The love went both ways. The Inughuit became so fond of Henson, who kept a cheerful attitude even in the coldest and darkest of days, that they gave him a special nickname: 

Mahri Pahluk, or “Matthew, the Kind One”.

As Matthew the Kind One and Lt. Robert Peary continued their attempts to reach the Pole, Henson got better and better. By this point, in addition to all his carpentry, seafaring, and building skills, Henson was also a master fisherman, hunter, and dog handler. And though he and Peary continued to fail in their ultimate goal, each time they came back alive to tell the tale, in no small part because of those skills. Finally in 1906, they got as close as they had ever come. President Theodore Roosevelt had equipped them with a brand new, state-of-the-art ice breaker named, fittingly, The Roosevelt (so modest). Lt. Peary wrote in his journal: 

“When my observations were taken, they showed that we had reached 87°6′ north latitude, and had at last beaten the record, for which I thanked God.”

Close, but still not quite 90° N

However, the expedition hadn’t been for naught. During it, Henson had taken on yet another role: lover. He had found an Inughuit lover in Smith Sound on Canada’s Ellesmere Island, a woman named Akatingwah. They shared a bed for the months the men prepped for their expedition, further imeshing Henson in the Inughuit community.

But it was soon back to business. Following this “close but no cigar” attempt in 1906 – Henson and Peary both agreed that they would give it one last shot. Both in their 40s by now, they knew that it had to be now or never. And there was no question for Peary that Henson had to be with him. He wrote:

“Henson must go all the way, I can’t make it there without him.”

On July 6th, 1908, they set sail for their final attempt from NY once again on The Roosevelt. They arrived at their starting point in Greenland in September and spent the entire winter gathering the necessary supplies for the trip. Inughuit families came in from all corners to help them prep and gather the materials and foodstuffs they would need. And then, with the dark, Arctic Winter finally on the wane, Henson took off with the first group of sledges. The date: March 1, 1909. Henson wrote:

“Day does not break in the Arctic regions, it just comes on quietly the same as down here, but I must say that at daybreak on March 1, 1909, we were all excitement and attention. A furious wind was blowing, which we took as a good omen; for, on all of Commander Peary’s travelings, a good big, heavy, storm of blinding snow has been his stirrup-cup and here he had his last. Systematically we had completed our preparations on the two days previous, so that, by six a. m. of the 1st of March, we were ready and standing at the upstanders of our sledges, awaiting the command “Forward! March!”

And they did. For the next five weeks, Henson, Peary and their team raced furiously for the Pole. 

They began with a larger team – and all along the way, teams would advance ahead to drop supplies and then turn back, so that a steady trail of supplies was always waiting and different teams could rest. And then, as they neared the Pole, parts of the expedition peeled off and headed back to base camp. So that, by the time the final push had arrived, it was just Peary, Henson, and four Inughuit members of the expedition: Ooqueah, Ootah, Egingwah, and Seegloo.

They drove their dog sleds at a breakneck pace for days, using a sextant and dead-reckoning to find their way through the often blinding snow and darkness. For most of the last push, Henson had taken his sledge far out ahead – laying tracks for Peary and the team following him. He was miles ahead. They continued this way until finally, on April 6th, 1909 Henson felt as if they must have made it. And he turned back to find his team. They met up, dug in, and built igloos for the night. When they woke up the next morning, and conditions were clear, Henson and Peary emerged from their igloos and took the measurements. 

They were on the North Pole.

THE PARTY’S OVER

After 18 years of trying, they had done it.  Henson wrote of the completion of their journey:

“The long quest for the North Pole is over and the awful space that separated man from the Ultima Thule has been bridged. There is no more beyond; from Cape Columbia to Cape Chelyuskin, the route northward to the Pole, and southward again to the plains of Asia, is an open book and the geographical mind is at rest.”

For his part, recounting their fateful expedition, Commander Peary would later recall:

“It is an interesting fact that in the final conquest of the ‘prize of the centuries,’ not alone individuals, but races were represented.” He continued, “On that bitter brilliant day in April, 1909, when the Stars and Stripes floated at the North Pole, [[we all]] stood side by side at the apex of the earth, in the harmonious companionship resulting from hard work, exposure, danger, and a common object.”

It does seem to be a pretty picture, doesn’t it? The idea of two Americans – white and black – and a group of Inughuit, for whom the Arctic was rightfully their domain in the first place – somehow had all banded together to make it to the North Pole and had done it with cooperation and teamwork? Of course, real life is more complicated.

When they returned to the ship from their successful mission, the explorers were greeted with much praise and fanfare. And of course, everyone wanted to know the answer to the million dollar question: who had actually stepped foot on the North Pole first?

The answer of course, was almost certainly Henson. He’d gone out ahead. He’d laid the tracks for them. He’d likely even overshot the North Pole before finally turning back. But there’s no doubt that he had crossed it. However, Peary didn’t take too kindly to that. From the moment they made it to the Pole, Peary fell somewhat silent and began giving the cold shoulder to Henson.

Things got worse when they returned to the US. As so often has happened in American history, credit was given to Peary alone and Henson was relegated to a kind of ‘assistant’ or trusty companion who’d merely been along for the ride. Peary received the attention and the awards. Peary was promoted to Rear Admiral and spent his final years traveling the world as a hero of exploration until his death in 1920. Meanwhile, Henson took a job as a clerk with the federal customs house in NYC after a recommendation from Theodore Roosevelt. He would work there in relative anonymity for 30 years. 

It wasn’t until 1937 that the tide started to turn. That year, Henson was admitted as a member to the prestigious Explorers Club in New York City. Then, in 1944 Congress awarded him and five other Peary aides duplicates of the Peary Polar Expedition Medal, the silver medal that had been given to Peary. Eventually, Presidents Truman and Eisenhower both honored Henson.

Henson passed away in 1955 having finally received a bit of the credit he deserved.

But there was still one piece of the puzzle that was missing. In the final chapter of his autobiography, Henson writes:

“I long to see them all again! the brave, cheery companions of the trail of the North… I yearn to be with those who reach the South Pole, the lure of the Arctic is tugging at my heart, to me the trail is calling! The Old Trail! The Trail that is always New!”

Until his last days, Henson thought of his time in the Arctic. It’s clear from the loving and effusive way he talks about it throughout his entire amazing chronicle. Then, in the appendix of his book, Henson lists the names of the 218 Inughuit who lived in Smith Sound on Ellesmere Island from all those years ago. And among them is the name Akatingwah, Henson’s lover from that failed 1906 expedition. And there’s another name of note on the list. A boy named Ahnaukaq… their son.

ULTIMA THULE

On their failed expedition 1906, both Henson and Peary had taken on what were called back then “country wives”. And both had fathered a son with them. But once Henson and Peary had finally reached their own personal ‘ultima thules’, they left Greenland in 1909 and had never returned. Their sons, Ahnaukaq Henson and Kaala Peary, grew up without their fathers. But in time, they had each grown up to become fathers themselves… then grandfathers and great-grandfathers. Until today, there are dozens and dozens of descendants of the two men living together over a hundred years later in Qaanaaq, formerly Thule – in the far northwest of Greenland. Their descendents have become friends, some have married, others have studied at Harvard, and some have even gone on to become world explorers themselves. 

RANDOM ALERT: Though Henson had no American-born children, it’s believed that he is a brother of the great-great-grandfather of actress Taraji P. Henson.  

In 1987, an American professor at Harvard named S. Allen Counter learned of the mostly-forgotten story of Matthew Henson. He tracked down his son, Ahnaukaq, by then an old man. Ahnaukaq told Counter that he had grown up hearing stories about his father, who had been welcomed by the tribe. Counter was able to bring Ahnaukaq to the US to visit his father’s country of birth. Counter then took Henson’s case to the US Government and secured the right to have Henson’s gravesite and body moved from New York City to Arlington National Cemetery, right next to the big monument to Robert Peary there. Ahnaukaq was there to see it. It had been his dream to see America and to know more about his father. And he got his wish. He died soon after.  

Today, Henson and Peary lie near each other in Arlington Cemetery. Finally, the two explorers on equal footing.

Stories about Mahri Pahluk, aka Matthew the Kind One are still passed down to this day. The last name Henson abounds in Qaanaaq and there is a new generation of Hensons dedicated to keeping his memory alive. In 2009, his great-granddaughter Aviaq Henson worked with the Greenlandic post office to commemorate the 100th anniversary of their successful expedition to the North Pole with a stamp. 

 There is no doubt that the legacy Matthew Henson left behind lives on today in Greenland.  

 For further reading on this amazing story check out:

Image Credits:
Banner image: Iceberg at Scoresby Sund, Greenland: Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
Ilulissat, Greenland: photo by Jennifer Latuperisa-Andresen on Unsplash
Greenland: Photo by Alexandra Rose on Unsplash
Self Portrait: Photo by Robert Peary, 1909
Peary Grave Marker: Photo by dctim1 used under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike Generic License

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© 2018, Frequency Machine Studios.