Robert Peary was not the first man to the North Pole and he knew it. Not only did he know it but others of the day knew it, and I have two adventure/history books on my shelf at home, both printed in the last 15 years, that still list him as the first man to the North Pole.
Matthew Henson took to the sea at the age of twelve. He went everywhere. I have a laundry list of places I want to see before I die. Henson saw most of them before he was 18. Henson and Peary met in Washington D.C. and then spent 22 years sailing and exploring together.
When the two of them ventured with a team to the pole in 1908, Henson led the way. Henson spoke the language of the Eskimo, Henson was an expert driving a dog sled. Peary had frostbitten feet and rode, not drove, a sled. At one point the two argued, Henson believed they were already there, Peary did not. Peary sped off by himself chasing glory, only to return later, having taken instrument readings that confirmed Henson was right. Henson was not only there first, but was the first one to know where they were.
When they returned to civilization Peary borrowed the photographs that Henson had taken, developed, and transported, so he could present at all the prestigious clubs and organizations that cared about exploration. Peary never returned the pictures. He also never spoke to Henson again.
Peary got famous. Henson did not. the books I have on my shelf say Peary was first. they don’t mention Henson. In fact, I just hopped over to Wikipedia and under Robert Peary they list him as the first to the Pole and the only mention of Henson is in a laundry list of others who were on Peary’s staff.
This story was never really a secret. people in the early nineteen hundreds knew. But things were different then and Black men were known to be inferior and no matter the timeline nor the trail, Black people weren’t allowed to be first to the North Pole. They could drive the sled, lead the expedition, plant the flag, and make first tracks, but not be first.
Peary was awarded an Admiral’s pension for his exploration and inducted into high society and history books. His home is a national monument. Henson was finally made an honorary member of the New York Explorers Club. Henson was 70 years old, Peary had been dead and buried at Arlington for 17 years.
Henson was buried in the Bronx.
In 1987, I was alive then, Henson was re interred at Arlington, an honor long overdue.
Happy American History Month!