Matthew Henson: Arctic Explorer

Matthew Henson was only twelve when he walked from his home in Washington, D.C. to Baltimore, Maryland to get a job as a cabin boy on the three-masted merchant ship Katie Hines. At first Captain Childs, a square, tall 60-year-old man with flowing white hair, was reluctant to bring such a young lad on-board. When Henson told him that he was an orphan, Captain Childs relented and made the young man his cabin boy.

Henson had been born on August 8, 1866, in Maryland. His parents were freeborn black sharecroppers. When Henson was four, his family moved to Washington D.C. where more jobs were available. When his parents died, he and his siblings moved in with a nearby uncle. Henson was fascinated by stories about life at sea, so when he saw a chance to become a cabin boy, he took it.

Captain Childs was kind to Henson and under his tutelage Henson became an able-bodied seaman. Childs also instructed him in math, history, geography and the Bible as they travelled to such exotic locations as China, Japan, North Africa and the Black Sea. When Captain Childs died Henson gave up the sea, and eventually found a job as a clerk at a furrier back in Washington, D.C..

Fateful Meeting

It was here fate brought him into contact with Robert Peary. Peary, an officer in the U.S. Navy Corps of Civil Engineers, had already made one exploration trip to Greenland. Peary’s next naval assignment, however, would take him in quite a different direction. He was being sent to the jungles of Nicaragua to study the feasibility of digging a shipping canal there that would connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Peary had brought back some Arctic furs to sell to the furrier and while there he met Henson. Henson seemed to share Peary’s interest in adventure and Peary offered Henson a job as his personal assistant during the Nicaraguan trip. Henson, eager to resume travelling, accepted and spent two years in Central America with Peary. During this time Peary found Henson’s skills as a mechanic, navigator and carpenter extremely valuable.

Peary, who was interested in becoming the first man to reach the North Pole, decided after the Nicaraguan trip to offer Henson a job as a messenger at the League Island Navy Yard in Philadelphia with an eye to having Henson come along on future ventures. Henson accepted. Two years later, in 1891, Peary, who had been granted a leave from the Navy to do more exploration in Greenland, asked Henson join him. This was the chance Henson had been waiting for and he accepted without hesitation.

Greenland Explorations

In July 1891, Henson joined Peary aboard the ship Kite bound for Greenland. The Kite struggled through the icy waters near Greenland to Wolstenholm Sound where the party set up a base camp. Henson’s carpentry skills were called into play to build a two-room house that would serve as the expedition’s headquarters. The building, which came to be called “Red Cliff House,” was completed at about the same time as Henson’s 25th birthday.

In the spring, Peary and his men left the camp with the goal of crossing Greenland from west to east in an attempt to find the northern-most point of the island. Peary would then use this information to help him plan his trip to the Pole.

This first trip led Henson to spend the next 18 years with Peary in Arctic exploration. In 1893, they returned and Henson was the only one that remained with Peary when other members abandoned the expedition.

In 1895 Henson, Peary and Hugh J. Lee charted the entire ice cap of Greenland and discovered the island’s northern terminus. This trip nearly ended in tragedy as the three came close to starving to death.

In 1896 and 1897 Peary and Henson returned to collect three meteorites they’d found on earlier expeditions. These were sold to the American Museum of Natural History and the cash used to finance future assaults on the Pole. The Peary Arctic Club was also formed to raise more money.

Trying for the Pole

Henson and Peary tried for the Pole several times over the next few years. Each attempt was frustrated and in 1902 the trip was disastrous. Six Eskimo helpers died, and the food ran out. They were blocked from progress north across the icepack by melting ice.

In 1906, they returned with a new ship named the Roosevelt after the newly elected President who was a supporter of the drive to the Pole. The vessel was specifically designed for cutting through ice. The hull was shaped so that if the ship was caught in a frozen sea, the pressure would not crush the vessel, but push it upward. With this ship carrying them the first part of the way, the expedition was able to get closer to the Pole than any other human beings – within 174 miles. Melted ice blocked the final distance, and they were forced to leave and try again in 1908.

It was during the 1906 trip that Peary spotted what looked like land to him some 120 miles off the coast of North America. The place, which he dubbed “Crocker Land” was discovered to be an Arctic mirage by a later expedition.

While Peary went off to raise support for this next trip, Henson stayed with the ship to oversee repairs and prepare equipment. On July 6th, 1908, the USS Roosevelt departed from New York for what would be the final attempt on the Pole, success or not. Henson was 40 years old and Peary 50. Both knew they were getting too old for exploring the Arctic. It was then, or never.

The Final Attempt

Peary had carefully hand-picked his team. It included Henson, Dr John W. Goodsell, Donald B. MacMillion, Ross G. Marvin, George Borup and Robert Bartlett, who was the ship’s captain. The plan was to sail to Cape Sheridan on the northern-most part of Ellesmere Island, Canada, then make the assault on the Pole using a relay strategy.

On September 5, 1908, the Roosevelt reached Cape Sheridan. They spent the long dark winter night there (remember above the Arctic circle the nights are six months long) preparing to strike out toward the Pole in the daylight of spring. The time was spent hunting musk-ox, deer and rabbits for food. Henson made ready the equipment. Donald MacMillon recalled, “with years of experience equal to that of Peary himself, [Henson] was indispensable.” Henson used his carpentry skills to build all the sledges and trained the less-experienced members of the group on handling the dogs.

In February, Henson and some of the Eskimos travelled by sledge to Cape Columbia which would serve as a base camp for the attempt. They built several igloos and cached supplies there. Soon the rest of the group joined them.

On March 1, 1909, Henson pointed his sledge north and, under Peary’s orders, stated breaking the trail across the icepack toward the pole. Bartlett and Borup had left the day before.

There are few activities more dangerous than Arctic exploration on land. One of those, though, is Arctic exploration on the icepack. While travelling across the icepack there are all the hazards of the far northern climate: Sub-freezing temperatures, sudden storms, slow starvation, plus those particular to the great ice sheets that cover the Arctic Ocean.

One might picture that with the low temperatures near the North Pole the ice there must be thick, hard and smooth. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The movement of currents under the icepack cause constant changes on its surface. Small, steep mountains of ice, called “pressure ridges” well up blocking the path. Sections of the pack are often rent apart creating open lanes of water called “leads.” Anyone slipping into a lead can drown, or freeze to death in minutes.

Henson, and the rest of Peary’s party, constantly ran into these dangerous obstacles. Peary fell into leads twice during the trip. Henson also slipped into one and was rescued just in time by his Eskimo assistant Ootah. Bartlett and his team nearly floated out to sea on an ice island formed by leads opening around their igloo in the middle of the night. Fortunately they were able to dash to safety.

Each of the Americans knew that not all of them would be able to go all the way with Peary to the Pole. The plan called for each team to go so far along the path, then cache the supplies it was carrying to be used by the other teams going closer to the Pole. However, Peary had stated from the beginning that “Henson must go all the way. I can’t make it there without him.” Perhaps this was to fulfil a promise to Henson Peary had made when Henson had saved his life in Greenland years ago, but more likely it was because Henson was simply the best and most skilful of Peary’s assistants. His loyalty and dependability had been proven over 20 years of exploration. Still, Henson knew he would only go to the Pole if conditions were right. Injury or sickness could easily force a change in plans.

As supplies ran out, teams started to turn back. The first were those led by MacMillan and Goodsell. Then Borup. Then Marvin.

Henson went to Marvin’s igloo to say goodbye, expecting to see him back on the ship. He never did. Marvin died on the return trip.

The final team to turn back was Bartlett’s. Bartlett had wanted to go on to the Pole, but admitted “Henson was a better dog driver than I.” It was Henson’s observation that “Captain Bartlett was glad to turn back when he did. He frankly told me several times that he had little expectation of ever returning alive.”

Bartlett did make it back to the ship, but his fear of death was well-founded. As the Arctic spring continued, the icepack grew softer and more leads opened. The only way to get past a long, wide lead was to wait for it to freeze over again. If a big one opened behind the explorers, they might well starve to death as they waited for the lead to close.

Henson and Peary were only 174 miles from the Pole. They drove forward at an almost reckless pace. Peary used his sextant and chronometer-watch to constantly check their progress. Henson, using his astounding ability to reach a destination through “dead reckoning” broke the trail. He had once won a bet with Peary by estimating their position in his head to within twenty miles after a thousand mile trip. Now he let his sense of direction guide him north.

Five days after they had separated from Bartlett, they arrived at the top of the world. Peary made numerous measurements to check his position. Then they found a thin section of ice and broke through to do a sounding. The rope ran out at 9,000 feet. This surprised them as they hadn’t thought the ocean would be so deep at the Pole.

Then they started the return. They were exhausted, but the planning they had put into the expedition paid off. With igloos and supplies already in position, they made the return to the base camp at Cape Columbia in record time. Four hundred and thirteen miles in sixteen days. When they finally arrived, Henson and Peary went to their igloos and collapsed in exhaustion.

Belated Honours

It wasn’t until 1937, at age 70, that Henson got some of the attention he deserved. In that year he was made an honorary member of the famed Explorers Club in New York. In 1946 he was honoured by the U.S. Navy with a medal. His most-prized award, though, was a gold medal from the Chicago Geographic Society.

Henson died on March 9th, 1955, and was buried in a small plot at the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. In 1987, Dr S. Allen Counter, a Henson biographer, led a movement to have the remains of both Henson and his wife moved to lay adjacent to Robert Peary in Arlington National Cemetery, a more fitting location for an American hero.

President Ronald Reagan granted permission and on the 79th anniversary of the discovery of the North Pole, Henson was laid to rest near his old friend. On Henson’s tomb is written a quote from his autobiography:

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. (Adapted)