Black History Month: Honoring an Arctic Explorer

Nearly 40 years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, Arctic explorer Matthew Henson became the first African American, and one of the first two humans, to reach the North Pole when he arrived in 1909. Despite the odds stacked against him, Henson’s legacy lives on today through his memoir and Earth features, like Henson Glacier, that have been named in his honor. 

Matthew Henson (Source: Wiki Commons/Robbot)

Henson was born to sharecroppers in Maryland one year after the end of the Civil War. He was forced to grow up quickly after losing his parents at a young age. At just 13 years old he set sail around the world, eventually landing in Washington, DC, where he met a United States naval officer named Robert Peary. Over the next 20 years, Henson would accompany Peary on multiple Arctic missions.

Throughout their years of polar expeditions, Henson assisted Peary in the complete mapping of the Greenland icecap. Henson was honored later in life with a number of awards and commemorations including a special commendation from President Dwight Eisenhower and the Hubbard Medal from the National Geographic Society, which was awarded posthumously.

Less than a decade after reaching the pole, Henson was honored by fellow explorer Knud Rasmussen, who named a glacier after him. Rasmussen was a Danish explorer, born in Greenland, whose journeys across the North American Arctic succeeded Peary and Henson’s expeditions. Rasmussen is thought to be the first person to cross the Northwest Passage via dog sled. He is also remembered for documenting Inuit leaders and legends throughout his journeys. Rasmussen named the Henson Glacier during his second expedition from 1916 to 1918.

Map included in Rasmussen’s account of his second expedition (Source: JSTOR)

Henson was already a well-recognized explorer at the time of Rasmussen’s expeditions. In 1912, Henson published an account of his adventures “The Negro Explorer at the North Pole.” In the book, Henson describes how Peary chose only himself and four Inuit to accompany him on the last stretch to the North Pole. Henson wrote, “in extremity, when both the danger and the difficulty were greatest, the Commander wanted by his side the man upon whose skill and loyalty he could put the most absolute dependence.”

Despite the strong bond between Henson and Peary, it was reported that uncertainty over who should be credited for reaching the North Pole first caused a rift between the men. Born into the aftermath of the Civil War and living in an era defined by Jim Crow, recognition of Henson’s achievement was stifled by a racially divided society. Peary was ultimately recognized as having discovered the North Pole and Henson has gone down in history as merely his assistant.

Initially, Henson received very little recognition for his part in Peary’s explorations. Rasmussen named the Henson glacier in 1917, and for a time remained the only real recognition of Henson’s polar contributions. Henson was eventually made an honorary member of the Explorers Club of New York in 1937, which was then followed by recognition from President Eisenhower in 1954, and the Hubbard Medal in 2000.

Henson’s grave marker in Arlington National Cemetery lists him as a co-discoverer of the North Pole (Source: Wiki Commons/FlickreviewR)

Some uncertainty remains surrounding Rasmussen’s motivation for naming the Greenland glacier after Henson in 1917. According to Agata Lubowicka, assistant professor at the Institute of Scandinavian and Finnish Studies at the University of Gdansk, in Rasmussen’s popular account of his expedition, “Grønland langs Polhavet” or “Greenland by the Polar Sea,” there is no mention of the naming of the Henson Glacier.

GlacierHub contacted several researchers familiar with Henson, Peary and Rasmussen who provided their hypotheses:

Henson (center) with Inuit guides (Source: Wiki Commons/DragonflySixtyseven)

Anders Anker Bjørk, an assistant professor at the University of Copenhagen, explained that it was common practice for explorers to name geographical features over the course of their expedition. “The new place names were often given to celebrate expedition beneficiaries, expedition members, royals, and other explorers and scientists,” said Bjørk, who felt confident in saying that the Henson Glacier was named as a tribute to the explorer. However, Bjørk does not necessarily credit Rasmussen for naming the glacier. He mused that it could have been a member of the expedition that came up with the name or it could have been a local Inuit. Bjørk, who stayed with Henson’s grandson this past summer in Qaanaaq, Greenland, said Henson is known to have been popular among the local Inuit. He also noted the Henson Glacier is not the only one to bear the name, as there are other locations near the glacier, including the Henson Fjord and Henson Valley.

A photograph taken of Henson after his trip to and from the North Pole via dog sled (Source: Wiki Commons/Robbot)

Mark Nuttall, who is an anthropologist at the University of Alberta, also shared his views with GlacierHub. Nuttall explained that Rasmussen did not tend to include his reasoning for naming a place, but instead would simply state in his accounts that he or his colleagues had named a new feature. Nuttall said, “I like to think that he named the glacier after Matthew Henson because, on his way to Peary Land, he came across a letter from Peary near Repulse Harbour.” According to Nuttall the letter is “self-celebratory.” He said the letter contained excerpts including, “[I] Have with me my man Matthew Henson, one Eskimo, 16 dogs and 2 sledges, all in fair condition,” “my furthest north,” and the “arctic work undertaken by me.” Nuttall speculated that Rasmussen may have chosen to honor Henson, as he believed Peary failed to do so. 

American society’s failures to recognize the contributions of African-Americans, like Henson, are the impetus of Black History Month, whose origins date back to 1925. Henson created a legacy not just for himself or African American explorers, but all who push the frontiers of discovery. Matthew Henson broke down barriers to make history, unheralded.

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