The Quest for the North Pole, Episode 5: Meet Peary and Henson

iHeartRadio/Mental Floss

Subscribe here, or by clicking subscribe above!

It’s summer, 1895, in the northernmost reaches of Greenland. The temperature hovers around freezing. American explorer Robert E. Peary and his assistant Matthew Henson are on a backbreaking journey by dogsled across the ice cap, from Independence Bay, a large fjord on Greenland’s northeastern corner, to their base camp at Bowdoin Bay on the west coast. They’re nearly out of food, and they’re desperately searching for a herd of musk ox to stave off their deaths by starvation. 

The animals they’re stalking weigh up to 800 pounds and are built like battering rams, with a coat of shaggy hair and sharp, curved horns. Musk ox are powerful and unpredictable, and they’re Peary’s and Henson’s last hope for survival. All day, they look for snags of the oxen’s hair on rough rocks and scan the snow for tracks. Finally, they locate hoofprints and follow them across a valley, anticipating fresh meat.

They spot a herd of eight adult oxen and their calves about 150 feet ahead of them, munching on tufts of grass on a windswept slope. According to his biographer, Bradley Robinson, Henson stops his dogs and sled, and lets his lead dog out of its trace. It sprints toward the herd.

The panicked musk ox form a circle around their calves. The adults face outward from the circle, ready to fight. Peary and Henson aim and fire, but they are so weak with hunger that their actions feel like they’re in slow motion.

Most of their bullets hit their targets, and the oxen drop to the ground in heaps. But one big animal is just grazed by the shot. It turns toward Peary ... who has no ammunition left. The ox charges.

Robinson writes that Peary scrambles up the snow-covered slope, shouting at Henson to fire. His legs feel like rubber, his boots slip on the icy ground, and he expects at any moment to feel the animal’s horns in his back. Out of the corner of his eye, Peary sees Henson raise his gun. Over the ragged sound of his breathing, he hears a thud in the snow behind him. Henson has saved his life.

This isn’t the first time that Peary has come within inches of death in his quest to reach the North Pole. And it won’t be the last time that Henson’s skill and quick thinking prevent disaster on one of their expeditions. Peary wanted to be the first person at the North Pole, and he wanted to live to tell the world. Henson would help make it happen.

In this episode, we’ll examine the unique relationship between Robert Peary and Matthew Henson, two adventurers with completely different backgrounds and temperaments. They built one of the most enduring and successful partnerships in the history of exploration, but there were also disappointments, betrayals, and a lot of drama. We’ll tag along as they make their first stabs at the Big Nail—the North Pole itself.

From Mental Floss and iHeartRadio, this is The Quest for the North Pole. I’m your host, Kat Long, Science Editor at Mental Floss, and this is Episode Five: Meet Peary and Henson.

The Canadian historian Pierre Berton writes, “No other explorer in Arctic history was ever as single-minded in the pursuit of his goal as Robert Edwin Peary, no other as paranoid in his suspicion and even hatred of those he considered rivals and interlopers, no other as ruthless, as arrogant, as insensitive, or as self-serving. Of all the bizarre and eccentric human creatures who sought the Arctic grail, Peary is the least lovable.”

Pretty strong words—yet, these unpleasant qualities might have been the keys to Peary’s success. His relentless ambition drove him on when others might have faltered. His hunger for fame would not let him give up even after he lost eight toes to frostbite. His toadying to his superiors, as Berton puts it, resulted in them funding his expensive trips to the Arctic. “Even aside from his quest for the North Pole, he must be given his due as one of the greatest explorers of the period,” Berton writes.

Robert E. Peary is pictured in his author photo from his 1898 book, Northward Over the Great Ice.
Robert E. Peary is pictured in his author photo from his 1898 book, Northward Over the Great Ice. / F.A. Stokes Company, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

But it was the Pole that obsessed him. Unlike earlier expeditions, like Nansen’s, that hoped to answer scientific questions, Peary was not really concerned about useful discoveries or in charting the unknown. He had little training in natural history—unless you count his taxidermy business after he graduated from college. He kept meteorological records as every previous explorer had done, but he was merely collecting data, not interpreting the results to solve a hypothesis. 

His prime purpose was to conquer the North Pole before anybody else. As Berton writes, “Even the conquest of the Pole was not, in Peary’s view, an end in itself but only a means to an end. Peary hungered for fame and fortune; he made no bones about that. The Pole, he knew, would give him both.”

Edward J. Larson: Peary knew himself. He discussed his own drives and personality, especially with his mother, he was devoted to his mother.

That’s Edward J. Larson, historian and author of, most recently, To the Edges of the Earth: 1909, the Race for the Three Poles, and the Climax of the Age of Exploration.

Larson: He was basically raised by his mother and in Maine, and they were devoted to each other. And he would pour out his soul to his mother in letters. And you can really see a man who is totally driven by a sense of a hunger for fame, and acceptance. Maybe that reflects his lack of a father growing up. He said in one letter to his mother, shortly after he moved to Washington, and at that time, he had been trained as an engineer, and he was working for the US Coast and Geodetic Survey, he wrote, "I don't want to live and die without accomplishing anything, or without being known beyond a narrow circle of friends."

Peary had moved to Washington, D.C., in 1879 after graduating from Bowdoin College with a degree in civil engineering. He worked for the Coast and Geodetic Survey for two years, then joined the U.S. Navy’s Civil Engineer Corps, and was assigned to survey territory in Nicaragua for a potential site to build a canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The expedition into the tropical forests of Central America gave Peary a taste of the world beyond his Yankee upbringing.

He also began to view daring adventure as his ticket to fame. After reading about the little-known interior of Greenland, he formulated a plan for traversing its ice sheet, the largest in the Northern Hemisphere—despite having zero experience in cold-weather exploration. Ignorance never stopped Peary once he had a goal in mind, and unlike many of the British Admiralty’s expeditions earlier in the 19th century, Peary actually learned from his experiences and adapted his plans as needed.

In 1886, Peary embarked on his first trip to the polar regions. He hitched a ride on a whaler going north, and once he arrived near Disko Island on Greenland’s west coast, he hired a Dane named Christian Maigaard as his sole companion for the trek. He tried to hire Native helpers, but they refused to go with him. Peary estimated the provisions and equipment he would need, bundled it on sledges, and then set off. He claimed he ascended to 7500 feet in elevation and marched about 100 miles into the interior before a shortage of food forced him and Maigaard to turn around. We have only Peary’s word for the distance he traveled, though.

Larson: We don't know how far he did make it because he didn't take along the proper instruments for calculating a longitude.

Quick refresher here: if you’re traveling west or east, you measure the distance you travel in degrees of longitude. Calculating it requires special instruments, like a chronometer. Peary had brought one, but claimed it “had the usefulness shaken out of it” after Peary had climbed a glacier.

Larson: And so he claimed 100 miles but Fridtjof Nansen, who was the greatest explorer of the time said, "That's ridiculous. He didn't make it that far."

Proving his achievements once he returned home was a running issue with Peary—more on that later.

As we mentioned in our third episode, Nansen has traversed the Greenland ice sheet from east to west in 1888, after Peary had returned to the U.S. Though he was a novice explorer, Peary was already extremely competitive. Once he heard about Nansen’s achievement, Peary altered his plans for his next trip to Greenland. He decided to attempt a crossing on a longer, more northern route from west to east that would be more difficult than Nansen’s route.

Larson: When he got back, he wrote to his mother, "My last trip has brought my name before the world. Remember, mother, I must have fame," he underlined the word must, "I must have fame and cannot reconcile myself to years of commonplace drudgery and a name late in life when I see an opportunity to gain it now." And then he later wrote as he was building toward his later expeditions, because he kept going back. He wrote, "Fame, money and revenge goad me forward, till sometimes I can hardly sleep. Lest, something happened to interfere with my plans." Now here is a driven man.  In this case, with Peary, it was not only a personal goal, but it was also a public goal, that gave his life meaning and gaining meaning for his life. And you can see this in Teddy Roosevelt going down the River of Doubt in South America. By accomplishing this, it gave Peary's meaning to his life, and his life was not worth living to him without meaning.

Before Peary embarked on his next trip North, he would meet the person who would go further than anyone toward making Peary’s dreams a reality.

Matthew Alexander Henson grew up about as far away from the North Pole as can be imagined. He was born in 1866 in Nanjemoy, Maryland, a village in Charles County on the eastern shore of the Potomac River, about 40 miles south of Washington, D.C. The Civil War had ended just the year before, but southern Maryland remained sympathetic to the Confederacy. To illustrate that fact, John Wilkes Booth had fled through Charles County after assassinating Abraham Lincoln because he knew he’d find like-minded Marylanders to help him escape.

Matthew Henson wears his Arctic furs in this studio picture from before 1910.
Matthew Henson wears his Arctic furs in this studio picture from before 1910. / The World's Work, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This feels like a good place to say that, while we know some things about Henson’s early life, other details, even some pretty big events, vary widely. Even Henson published two versions of his own childhood. Here’s what we know for sure, and where we tried to fill in the gaps.

According to two biographies published in 1954 and 1963, Henson’s parents were free-born Black sharecroppers on a large farm near Nanjemoy. Henson’s mother died when he was young and he was raised by a cruel stepmother. When he was about 10 years old, he ran away to Washington, where he worked for a woman in her cafe for a year, and then walked to Baltimore, where he signed up as a cabin boy on a ship called the Katie Hines commanded by Captain Childs. He sailed all around the world before coming back to Washington when he was about 18.

In Henson’s own book about reaching the North Pole, published in 1912, he says he moved with his family from Nanjemoy to Washington D.C. His mother died when he was 7, and he went to live with an uncle, who sent him to a prestigious high school for Black students for more than six years. Then Henson signed up on a vessel and sailed to ports around the world.

In all three books, Captain Childs emerges as a kindly father figure to Henson. I wanted to know more about Childs, his ship, and his travels. I dug deeper into newspaper archives, scholarly databases, and even, but couldn’t find any evidence of an ocean-going vessel called the Katie Hines. This was really perplexing, because U.S. merchant ships were registered with government agencies, and their voyages were often reported in newspapers. So I brought in our fact-checker Austin Thompson, who looked in other sources, including the Annual List of Merchant Vessels of the United States. And there was no Katie Hines

But in several old articles in Maryland newspapers, I did find that a W.S. Childs was appointed captain of a police sloop with that name in 1878, about the same year that Henson says he signed up as a cabin boy. This Katie Hines patrolled Maryland’s waterways for illegal oyster dredgers. Austin found an article that definitively placed Childs and the Katie Hines in Maryland in 1881. And, The Baltimore Sun reported that W. S. Childs, captain of one of the state’s oyster police boats, died in 1883 in his home near Nanjemoy, Md. That matches the year of Childs’s death in the Henson biographies. Could this be Henson’s Captain Childs? We think so. But we may never know for sure.

So, it’s not easy to know exactly where and how Henson spent his youth. But whether Henson sailed around the world, or just the Chesapeake Bay, all biographical accounts suggest that he returned to Washington at age 18 or 19. He gets a job as a clerk at B. H. Stinemetz & Son, a well-known men’s furrier and hat shop located three blocks east of the White House. Working in retail will become a turning point in his life.

In 1887, Robert Peary entered the store to buy a sun helmet for his second trip to Nicaragua.

Here’s James Edward Mills, a freelance journalist, independent producer, and faculty assistant at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin. He’s also the author of The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors.

James Edward Mills: He and Henson struck up a conversation, and I'm not sure exactly how it went, but the upshot of it was that Henson joined Peary ostensibly as his assistant. And it's difficult to know exactly what the nature of their overall relationship was, but Henson basically was his primary right-hand man.

From that point on, Henson joined Peary on all of his expeditions—which, after their trip to Nicaragua, would abandon warm climates for the farthest reaches of the Arctic.

Mills: If you take a look at Henson, I think that he might have taken that polar exploration to escape the Jim Crow South. I mean, this was the one place in the world where he could be judged by the content of his character, not the color of his skin, and I think that there's a lot to be said for that.

Between 1891 and 1898, Peary and Henson embarked on four expeditions to Greenland and northeastern Canada to explore the territory and scout out a possible route even further north. On these arduous, lengthy journeys, they developed a unique working relationship: Peary was the expedition leader, navigator, financier, and planner, while Henson was the project manager, carpenter, mechanic, and translator. Peary was the visionary, and Henson made the vision a reality.

Before any expedition, Peary first had to obtain funding for the enormous expenses they would incur, which included borrowing or buying a ship, strengthening the vessel for Arctic conditions, hiring the crew, buying provisions and equipment, buying items to trade with the Inughuit for their services, and a ridiculous number of miscellaneous costs, like books, tents, clothing, maps, tools, guns and ammunition, scientific instruments, spare parts, and much more. The disaster of the Greely Expedition, a U.S. Army foray to the Arctic that resulted in death by starvation, was still fresh in people’s minds, so Peary’s early expeditions to Greenland were mostly self-funded. He had secured book deals, lecture tours, and newspaper exclusives to offset the huge costs of the journeys.

But when Peary made the North Pole his sole focus, he was able to gather a group of donors to pay for his adventures: The Peary Arctic Club. The group comprised the wealthy industrialists and philanthropists of New York’s Gilded Age. They enjoyed big-game hunting and other manly pursuits championed by Theodore Roosevelt in his doctrine of the strenuous life. Roosevelt said it was the “highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.”

Susan Kaplan: Many of them are major business people in New York. But there is also a whole set of them who are worrying that all these technological advances are weakening white males and they're losing their manliness. So Peary becomes this example of this outdoor, strong, successful man.

That’s Susan Kaplan, director of the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum at Bowdoin College and the author of Peary's Arctic Quest: Untold Stories from Robert E. Peary’s North Pole Expeditions.

Kaplan: That sort of feeds into the whole North Pole narrative as well. Peary's backers, many of them are very focused on him as this symbol of strong, tough masculinity. Kat Long: That is so interesting. That's probably why he and Teddy Roosevelt were such good friends. Kaplan: Yep. It's not simply that he's this strong, masculine man, but he's a white, Western, strong, masculine man. Becomes very important.

The club members had money to spare and a desire to have their names enshrined on the Arctic map. Peary’s biggest supporter was banker Morris K. Jesup, one of the founders of the American Museum of Natural History. He formed the club in 1898 with Chase National Bank president Henry W. Cannon and journalist Herbert L. Bridgman. 

The Peary Arctic Club convinced Peary’s employer, the U.S. Navy, to give him a five-year leave of absence so he could pursue his Arctic ambitions. The club also raised funds to send a supply ship to Peary’s party for each year he pursued the Pole: Bridgman organized the relief missions, and was the only one of the club’s leaders who took part in one of Peary’s adventures. Finally, club members committed to contributing a set sum each year to support Peary’s goals. For their sustained generosity, Peary told them, “the names of those who made the work possible will be kept through the coming centuries, floating forever above the forgotten and submerged debris of our time and day.” In other words, they could bank on an Arctic cape, mountain, bay, or glacier being named after them—much like donors today get their names on a museum gallery or library building.

The Peary Arctic Club helped Peary borrow a ship from Alfred Harmsworth, the British publisher of the Daily Mail. The Windward was the same vessel on which Frederick Jackson brought Fridtjof Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen back to Norway after their attempt at the North Pole in 1896. 

The ship would be their main transport for only the first leg of their journeys, however. Once they anchored the ship in a safe location to act as a base camp, Peary and Henson traveled by dogsled—and that’s where Henson’s talents came into play. Here’s James Edward Mills again.

Mills: I think what's really remarkable about Henson is that he doesn't get a lot of credit and certainly hadn't got a lot of credit for his contributions to that expedition, mainly because of his race as an African American. He was, I guess, by design, made to play second fiddle to the white explorers in this party despite the fact that Henson was a master craftsman and built all the sleds and helped to design the polar suits working with the Native Inuits.

On their first expeditions together, Peary and Henson visited the Inughuit community at Etah and hired many of the people to drive the dogsleds. Henson intimated that he was interested in learning the skill—and he must have seen what he would be in for.

The Greenland sled dogs were powerful, furry, and ferocious. They retained their wolf-like instincts and seemed only barely domesticated, more wild animal than family pet. The dominant dog, called the king dog, led the team of eight animals, each with its own trace connected to the sled. The traces spread into a fan shape as the dogs ran at top speed, egged on by the Inughuit driver’s whip and verbal commands.

Robert Peary stands on the deck of the Roosevelt with a few of his Greenland sled dogs
Robert Peary stands on the deck of the Roosevelt with a few of his Greenland sled dogs / Bain News Service, Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // No Known Copyright Restrictions

It took weeks for Henson to learn the right way of shouting commands that the dogs would respect and to crack the whip at the king dog’s ear. He had to get comfortable with the sled itself, which was often loaded with heavy gear. Many times, he wiped out and ended up in a snowbank as his Inughuit teachers laughed hysterically. But after more weeks of practice. Henson finally got the hang of it. By their 1908-1909 North Pole expedition, Peary said Henson “can handle a sledge better, and is probably a better dog-driver, than any other man living, except some of the best of the Eskimo hunters themselves.”

A quick note about the term Eskimo, since this isn’t the last time we’ll hear it. It’s a complicated word. It was used by colonizers to describe Native people, not one that Native people used to describe themselves. Many consider it offensive, while some Native people still choose to use it. The Inuit Circumpolar Council charter of 1980 defines the Indigenous peoples of the Inuit homeland—which includes Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Russia—as Inuit, an Inuktitut word meaning “the people.” Groups within the Inuit homeland have more specific names for themselves, such as the Inughuit of northwestern Greenland.

Henson showed that he was eager to adopt other Inughuit ways. The Inughuit taught him how to hunt walrus, build igloos and stone huts, and stay warm by sleeping in furs and packing the soles of his sealskin boots with moss for insulation. Henson also achieved fluency in Inuktitut, or possibly the related Inughuit language Inuktun, which went far toward establishing trust and a respectful relationship with them.

Peary, like earlier explorers, learned a few important words and left it at that.

Henson also performed a million other miscellaneous tasks for the expedition team, from building and repairing sledges to butchering meat to patching clothes to negotiating with Inughuit families.

Here’s James Edward Mills.

Mills: He obviously had the ability to communicate across cultural boundaries, but at the same time, I think that he had the humility to learn their language. He had the vulnerability to be taught how to do these critical and important things. And I think that it's probably a certain amount of comradery that comes with this because I could imagine that, especially at the time when you have this still incredibly colonial attitude towards relationships with people of color and other parts of the world as the dominant white culture of Europe and North America.

Instead of telling the Inughuit to make clothes and sledges, Henson was more likely to have said, “Can you teach me how to do it?”

Mills: I think that it is indeed that relationship between people of color and native people around the world. There's a certain sense of fellowship, and I think that probably translated itself in Henson's relationships with the Inuit.

From 1898 until 1909, Peary’s sole focus became the North Pole. He will forge a sea route as far as the ice will let him sail, he’ll rely on the Inughuit communities in northwestern Greenland for supplies, dogs, and manpower, and most of all, he’ll depend on Henson’s expertise in Arctic survival to reach his goal.

We’ll be right back.

In December 1898, after leaving their ship Windward on the western edge of Kane Basin in the Canadian Arctic, Peary and a small team are racing north along the coast of Ellesmere Island. They’re aiming for an abandoned fort where Peary hopes to cut off a Norwegian rival, Otto Sverdrup—the same man who captained Nansen’s ship Fram in its incredible journey across the Siberian sea. Ever paranoid that someone else will reach the North Pole first and steal his shot at glory, Peary is convinced that Sverdrup intends to use the fort as a base camp for his own dash to 90° North.

The only way to reach the fort, which is 250 miles north of the ship as the snow goose flies, is on dogsled, over glaciers, mountains, and ice floes in the dead of polar winter. Henson tries to talk his leader out of this dangerous idea, but Peary will not be dissuaded.

Now Peary, Henson, the expedition’s surgeon, and four Inughuit guides push on through 24-hour darkness and temperatures around -60°F. They barely stop to eat or rest, and they grow exhausted and disoriented. At any moment, a person or sledge could disappear through the ice to their death.

After nearly three weeks of constant travel, they burst through the front door of Fort Conger at Lady Franklin Bay on Ellesmere Island. The shelter was built by the American army officer Adolphus Greely and his crew during their 1881 expedition, which eventually ended in disaster when relief ships failed to rescue them. Now, the party finds the notorious hut just as Greely had left it, with biscuits on the table, overturned cups, and piles of supplies and papers strewn about.

Henson lights a fire, the Inughuit tend to the dogs, and Peary notices a worrisome wooden feeling in his feet. Henson removes the leader’s outer boots and sees that Peary’s legs are like marble up to his knees—a sure sign of severe frostbite. As Henson takes off the undershoes, several of Peary’s frozen toes pop off at the joints.

Peary stares at his feet. Finally, he says, “A few toes aren’t much to give to achieve the Pole.”

"Spring-time at Lady Franklin Bay" is the title of this painting by Albert Operti, seen here in postcard form. The caption on the reverse of the postcard reads, "The building shown is Fort Conger in Lady Franklin Bay, as Commander Peary found it eighteen years after its abandonment by the Greely Party 1881-1883. The cairn in sight is the one reared by the Nares Expedition in 1875. The Discovery party wintered here."
"Spring-time at Lady Franklin Bay" is the title of this painting by Albert Operti, seen here in postcard form. The caption on the reverse of the postcard reads, "The building shown is Fort Conger in Lady Franklin Bay, as Commander Peary found it eighteen years after its abandonment by the Greely Party 1881-1883. The cairn in sight is the one reared by the Nares Expedition in 1875. The Discovery party wintered here." / Newberry Library, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

It wasn’t just his cavalier attitude towards his toes that made Peary different from his polar peers. Though he was a naval officer, Peary’s plan for the execution of his expeditions was completely different from the British naval methods of old. He took cues from Nansen and adopted Inughuit ways that put his own mark on polar travel. Here’s Susan Kaplan.

Kaplan: Early on in his career, he went to the Arctic having built what he thought, for instance, was the ideal sledge. Once he was up there, he started to look and realize that the Inughuit had these technologies, from sledges, to the kind of fur clothing they were wearing, to the implements they were using for hunting and processing skins, that were really effective and ingenious. He had the openness of mind to recognize that there were technologies that they had developed that were ahead of anything that any Western culture had come up with. So from that perspective, he really respected them, the Inughuit. And in employing them, he also realized that they had hunting skills and travel skills that the men he was taking north with him just simply did not have. So what he conceived of were teams of Westerns and Inughuit who would work together. They all arrived in the Arctic months before he was going to try to get to the North Pole, and he sent these people out in teams hunting and doing tidal readings. That was both because they needed meat and because he had promised scientific results from his expeditions, but it was also a way to get people from completely different cultures who had no common language to figure out how to work together.

Like Nansen, Peary opted to pull light sledges with minimal supplies. Instead of hauling every item he would need with him from the U.S., he obtained supplies from Inughuit villages—like Etah on the northwestern coast of Greenland—or from existing camps from previous expeditions, like Fort Conger. Peary read books and journals by previous explorers and decided the British method of multiple ships and large crews was a recipe for failure. Instead, he concluded that a mode of exploration based as closely as possible on Inughuit techniques had the greatest chance for success.

Perhaps his biggest divergence from the old way was hiring and integrating Inughuit families into the expedition’s plan, something that only Charles Francis Hall—whom we met in our previous episode—had done before, and on a much smaller scale. Peary hired entire families to perform certain tasks, knowing that the men would be reluctant to leave their wives and children behind. Women prepared furs and sewed them into clothing for the explorers, while men served as dog drivers, hunters, and guides. Peary paid them with trade goods and supplies, forging loyalty so that quote-unquote “his” Inughuit wouldn’t work with any other explorers—which was also a way to ensure that his quote-unquote “right” to claim the Pole wasn’t infringed. Here’s Ed Larson.

Larson: Peary, especially coming from Maine, was probably more open to this view of that in their place, at their time, and in their own ways. These peoples had learned to navigate and live in a way that if we use and exploit, we can succeed. Think of the early Americans, the Westerners going through asking for Native American help, adopting Native American ways, the early fur trappers, Lewis and Clark, whoever you want to talk about. And that was just different because America and Britain, just to use an analogy, both competed for the Pacific Northwest, the British sailed there with people like Vancouver, the Americans went across the mountains with Native American guides, and Peary sort of fits in that American tradition.   So what he did is he tried to figure out, "All right, these people already live up there, how did they live? They're already able to travel up there." And so he built on this. And that's what I'm getting at the question of what sort of a leader, he was willing to build an organization, which was very different than virtually all the other explorers. He developed a team of local Inuit people and he used their methods.

Matthew Henson played a unique role in building the organization and negotiating with the Inughuit. He may have been the one person able to persuade the Inughuit to travel so far from their homes and hunting grounds, as James Edward Mills notes.

Mills: He convinced them to go with them. It's actually, this is a place that they had never gone before, and so there had to have been something to that. Again, drawing a lot of conclusions here, don't know for a fact, but I would imagine that Henson's ability to bridge the cultural gaps as a thoughtful and respectful person of color was pivotal to the success of the Peary expeditions.

At the same time, the Inughuit never really got the whole point of Peary’s quests, but they understood the Pole to be a tangible thing. As Berton writes, “its name suggested a perpendicular object projecting from the ice. They called it the Big Nail, after a useful trade article with which they could identify.”

By availing himself of the Inughuit’s skills and endurance, Peary was able to develop a system that would get him to the Pole with the least amount of extraneous labor. The system involved sending out small advance parties along the intended route from the base camp to the Pole. Each party would haul supplies to a designated point and build an igloo. Successive parties would use some of the supplies and shelter at these spots, then deposit their own caches of supplies at points farther along the route. Each of the advance parties would return to base camp, leaving Peary and his hand-picked comrades to push on through the final leg of the journey to the Pole.

Members of Peary's expedition cross a lead of open water by using an ice floe as a raft.
Members of Peary's expedition cross a lead of open water by using an ice floe as a raft. / Frederick A. Stokes and Company, Library of Congress // Public Domain

Without the need to lug tents or food on their sledges, each party would travel extremely lightly—unlike past explorers.

Peary’s lean margin for error meant that a delay caused by a storm or bad ice would ripple through the system. The carefully allotted food caches could run out as parties waited to cross open water, or one party could eat more than its share, leaving too little for the subsequent teams. Despite all the planning, they were still at the mercy of nature.

After deciding that conquering the North Pole was his ticket to fame, Peary’s next and most ambitious expeditions took place between 1898 and 1906. The first ended up being a four-year ordeal that started with his frostbitten toes and slid downhill from there. Peary’s will was tested constantly by physical injury, emotional turmoil, and the belief that other explorers from Norway and Italy were gaining on him. Here’s Susan Kaplan.

Kaplan: He's not the only one who has their sights on the North Pole. Nations were vying to get to the North Pole for national prestige and, as I mentioned, because if there was land there, what resources were on that land? So Peary is not driven to go to the North Pole in total isolation. There are a number of other people sort of sniffing around and trying to figure out how to get there.

As he planned for departure in the summer of 1898, Peary learned that Otto Sverdrup was again sailing the Fram in Arctic waters, this time somewhere around Kane Basin—the same locale that Peary anticipated as his jumping-off point for a dash to the Pole. Sverdrup actually had no interest in being the first man at the Pole. He was in the region to map unknown lands and gather scientific data. But Peary, consumed by a desire for fame, didn’t believe that Sverdrup was not planning to sabotage his plans. He used the alleged threat to squeeze more money out of the Peary Arctic Club.

In July, 1898, Peary, Henson, and the rest of the crew departed New York on the Windward. They sped up the Canadian coastline as far as Kane Basin, where Peary ran into Sverdrup’s party in October. Peary called the Norwegians “the introduction of a disturbing factor in the appropriation by another of my plan and field of work.” Sverdrup was amused by the encounter and noted how Peary tried to hide the patches on his trousers. After a few minutes of chitchat, Sverdrup later wrote, “I took Peary down to the sledge, and watched him disappearing at an even pace, driven by his Eskimo driver. As I was turning round to go back to the tent, I caught sight of [my crew member] Fosheim driving like mad along the ice. My heart felt quite warm with patriotism.” 

Now that Peary knew he had competition, or thought he did, he accelerated his plan. Since Sverdrup was around Kane Basin, just south of Fort Conger, Peary assumed Sverdrup intended to appropriate the old hut for shelter and supplies. Peary was determined to get there first.

After the ill-fated race north from the Windward by dogsled, Peary’s party reached Fort Conger on January 6, 1899. As they thawed out in front of a fire, Peary realized his feet were frostbitten. Off went his toes with the undershoes. The surgeon was forced to fully amputate seven. Peary later lost another one.

Of course, Sverdrup never showed up. By March, the party had carried Peary on a sledge back to the Windward.

Over the next year and a half, Peary traveled hundreds of miles across the northern limits of Greenland and Canada’s Ellesmere Island, employing and testing his staging system, and scouting a possible route to the Pole. In spring 1900 he and Henson located the northernmost point in Greenland, which Peary named after his chief backer, Morris K. Jesup. He went forth across the treacherous sea for several miles, but concluded that this route was too difficult.

Meanwhile, the Windward returned to New York, picked up Peary’s wife Josephine and their young daughter Marie, and returned to Etah. The whole winter, Peary’s family stayed less than 200 miles from where he was spending the winter at Fort Conger, but neither of them knew it. Worse, Josephine met an Inughuit woman in Etah, Allakassingwah, with whom Peary had had a child. Josephine was a formidable adventurer herself, and had even given birth to Marie in the Arctic on Peary’s 1893 expedition. But the awkward situation in Etah shook her. She wrote to her husband, “You will have been surprised, perhaps annoyed, when you hear I came up on a ship … but believe me had I known how things were with you I should not have come.”

At Fort Conger, the mood was deteriorating. Members of the party were getting on each other’s nerves. The surgeon was jealous of Henson, and Peary tried to smooth things over by unfairly chastising his right-hand man. A relief ship brought the news that Peary’s mother had died; Josephine was mad at Peary for carrying on with Allakassingwah. Then Frederick Cook, a doctor who had served on one of Peary’s early expeditions, arrived, and the news was not good. He recommended returning to New York at once. Peary ignored him. But that’s not the last we’ll hear of Cook.

At long last, in March 1902, Peary, Henson, and the Inughuit guides made a serious stab at the Pole. Having lived in the region for the past three years, Peary may have felt confident in his chances. But it was a struggle from start to finish. The party was already worn out from the previous seasons’ traveling, and they were forced to detour around hummocks and open water, adding distance to their journey. Sometimes they had to chop through barriers of solid ice to make a path for the dogs.

Then they came to a treacherous expanse of open water between ice floes, called a lead. This particular lead marked the edge of the continental shelf and butted up against the shifting ice of the deep Arctic Ocean. The ice was constantly coming together and pulling apart without warning. Now, Peary found it wide open, and there was nothing to do but wait for the floes to join again, or the temperature to drop so ice could form, so they could cross it. Frustrated, Peary dubbed it the Big Lead, the Hudson River, and the Grand Canal. As they waited, they consumed their provisions. On April 21, Peary realized their journey to the Pole would be impossible—and he was still 395 statute miles from their destination. They had reached 84°17’ North.

On the Windward for their homeward journey, Josephine Peary gave them more bad news. Two years earlier, Italian naval officer Umberto Cagni had led a dash for the Pole from Franz Josef Land. While facing incredible hardships, Cagni turned back after reaching 86°34’N—a new farthest north that beat Nansen and Johansen’s record by 20 nautical miles and Peary’s turnaround point by 158 nautical miles. And to twist the knife a little deeper, Peary’s alleged arch-nemesis Otto Sverdrup had also spent four years in the Arctic between 1898-1902 and had more to show for it. He located and mapped three massive islands to the west of Ellesmere (now called the Sverdrup Islands) and mapped more than 100,000 square miles of territory in the Canadian high Arctic. 

Not only did Peary not reach the Pole, he didn’t even set a farthest north record. He lost eight toes. His marriage was shaky and his mother, his closest confidant, was no longer there to provide moral support. His personal and professional life was at a crossroads, but one person continued to believe in his mission. Henson had assisted him at every turn, and with his help, Peary had a chance to try again.

Let’s take a break here. We’ll be right back.

Robert Peary once wrote that one should never expect anything of the Arctic except the worst. The four-year odyssey that he and Henson spent in the Arctic was a test of their endurance and sanity. But on their second attempt at the North Pole, which followed the same route they had mapped out on their previous voyage, they would experience some of the worst moments in all their 15 years together.

On this expedition, beginning in 1905, Peary would finally get his own ship. He raised $120,000—about $2.7 million in today’s dollars—from the Peary Arctic Club and mortgaged his own house to pay for the design and construction of the , named for one of his biggest supporters, President Theodore Roosevelt. It had a rounded, flexible hull inspired by Nansen’s Fram. A system of horizontal trusses within the hull strengthened it against the force of ice, while its bow could drive through ice that blocked its way.  

Peary's custom-designed steamer Roosevelt chugs down the Hudson River in 1909.
Peary's custom-designed steamer Roosevelt chugs down the Hudson River in 1909. / Detroit News Service, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Following his four-year expedition, Peary realized that his usual bare-bones crew would not have enough manpower to complete the relay stages in his system. He would hire a larger expedition team, which of course included Henson, and divide them into three groups. The first would break the trail for the dogsleds and build igloos along the route. The second would lay caches of supplies at those stages, and the third would be the polar party—the men who would actually go to the North Pole. Peary would continue to enlist Inughuit families and their dogs in his scheme.

The Roosevelt left New York harbor on July 16, 1905 and sailed up the Canadian coast, passing landmarks that were by now extremely familiar to Peary and Henson. By mid-August, they were at Etah to pick up about 40 of their Inughuit colleagues, including Ootah, the community’s lead hunter; 200 dogs, and several tons of walrus meat, which were frozen and hung in the Roosevelt’s rigging. Then the ship’s captain, Bob Bartlett, drove full steam ahead north into the pack ice. They overwintered at Cape Sheridan, where Sir George Strong Nares in the Alert had hunkered down about 30 years earlier, and prepared for their dash the following spring.

In February 1906, Peary gathered his crew and sent the advance parties to stockpile supplies at Point Moss, a spot on the northern coast of Ellesmere Island from which Peary would leave the security of land and travel over the ice for more than 400 miles to the Pole. From Point Moss, Henson, Ootah, and the advance parties went ahead to break the trail for the sledges and to build igloos along the route at 50-mile intervals. Peary led the final party.

Headwinds thwarted their progress through fractured ice fields. The parties encountered hummocks, rotten floes, and open leads that slowed their travel and caused Peary mounting frustration. While the dog teams rested at each of the pre-built camps, Peary fumed about falling behind his planned pace. On March 26, Peary, Henson, and their teams came upon the Big Lead—and once again, they just had to wait until they could cross it with the sleds. Unlike Nansen and earlier explorers, Peary never took any boats or kayaks with him over the sea ice.

They were delayed for a week before a thin film of ice formed on the Big Lead, just enough to support the weight of the sledges. They continued their dash for three days before Peary admitted to himself that the delay had again cost him the Pole. There was no way they could now attempt the next 360 statute miles to the Pole with their dwindling food. But he could not return home and face the Peary Arctic Club empty-handed—to do so would cost him another chance to try for the Pole. While a ferocious storm kept them inside their igloo for several days, Peary dwelled on Nansen’s and Cagni’s farthest north records. The least he could do would be to try and set one himself.

Peary, Henson, and the Inughuit threw all excess weight off their sledges and drove like crazy. They were truly in a race against time—because for every day they spent going north, they consumed more food, and had less food for their return journey. Finally, Peary took a navigational reading and discovered they were at 87°06’ North—a new record.

Or was it? Berton writes that Peary claimed he traveled 130 statute miles between April 14, when he left their igloo, and April 21, when he took the reading. That breaks down to an average speed of 19 miles a day without any obstacles in the form of hummocks or open water. In contrast, the average speed he traveled between Point Moss and the Big Lead, when he was still attempting a run for the Pole, was about seven miles per day. And the only proof for their alleged record was Peary’s word, since only he could make the navigational calculations. As Ed Larson explains, this was totally on purpose.

Larson: There was one, I think, indirect advantage for Peary in all this. And that is he could feel, and in a way was, superior to these people, he was superior to them in that only he could calculate where they were, only he could take... He wasn't very good at longitude, but he could take latitude and he could plot the course. And he didn't have to worry, as Scott and Shackleton and the others did, about somebody he took along [...] He didn't have to worry about anybody trying to challenge his power.

Wherever they were, they didn’t stop to celebrate. Peary had already pushed them to the limit. He later wrote, “As I looked at the drawn faces of my comrades, at the skeleton figures of my few remaining dogs, at my nearly empty sledges, and remembered the drifting ice over which we had come and the unknown quantity of the “big lead” between us and the nearest land, I felt that I had cut the margin as narrow as could reasonably be expected.” 

Now they were in a race against death. On their retreat, the wind that had blown in their backs on the way north blasted them in the face. Tiny snow particles felt like “red-hot needles” on their exposed skin. Each day became a mad dash from one former camp to the next, where they had shelter but no fresh supplies of food. Peary wrote, “At the end of every march we stumbled into our old igloos utterly exhausted, with eyes aflame from the wind and driving snow, but thanking God that we did not have to put ourselves to the additional effort of building igloos.” 

Eventually they came upon the Big Lead stretching clear to the horizon in either direction. While they waited to cross it, they killed and ate most of their dogs and broke up the sleds for fuel. On their northward journey, Peary had dubbed the channel the Hudson River. “Now as we lay in this dismal camp,” Peary later wrote, “watching the distant southern ice beyond which lay the world, all that was near and dear, and perhaps life itself, while on our side was only the wide-stretching ice and possibly a lingering death, there was but one appropriate name for its black waters—’the Styx.’”

Finally, a crust of ice two miles wide covered the lead a short distance from their camp, possibly thick enough to support a man in snowshoes. There was only one way to find out.

The lightest and most experienced Inughuit guide went first, leading the dogs and their one remaining sledge. Behind him, each man on snowshoes followed at 50- or 60-foot intervals to avoid breaking the ice. “We crossed in silence, each man busy with his thoughts and intent upon his snowshoes. Frankly I do not care for more similar experiences,” Peary wrote. “Once started, we could not stop, we could not lift our snowshoes. It was a matter of constantly and smoothly gliding one past the other with utmost care and evenness of pressure, and from every man as he slid a snowshoe forward, undulations went out in every direction through the thin film incrusting the black water. The sledge was preceded and followed by a broad swell. It was the first and only time in all my Arctic work that I felt doubtful as to the outcome.”

Halfway across the ice, Peary’s boot broke through, and he thought it was the end. He wrote, “But I dared not take my eyes from the steady, even gliding of my snowshoes, and the fascination of the glassy swell at the toes of them.” After a period in which they must have felt time stopped, the whole party made it to the firm ice on the southern edge of the lead. Peary remembered, “when we stood up from unfastening our snowshoes, and looked back for a moment before turning our faces southward, a narrow black ribbon cut the frail bridge on which we had crossed in two. The lead was widening again, and we had just made it.”

They finally returned to the Roosevelt on May 26, 1906. And despite their struggle to get there, Peary had one more trek in him. He and a small team marched westward along the northern coast of Ellesmere Island, setting what he believed was a farthest west record, just as a backup for his farthest north. The Roosevelt and its crew returned to New York on December 24, 1906.

Again, they had survived. But Peary had to face his own crushing disappointment, and he received a cool reception from the public when it learned he had failed to reach the Pole.

But his influential fan club rewarded him for his feats. The National Geographic Society honored Peary with its Hubbard Medal at a fancy gala, and Theodore Roosevelt gave a speech at the ceremony presenting the award. Peary was there to receive it on December 15, having left the Roosevelt and returned to New York before the ship steamed into the harbor. None of the members of his expedition team, least of all Henson and the Inughuit who were actually at Peary’s farthest north with him, received any recognition. According to Ed Larson, Peary was probably fine with that.

Larson: He did have this singular vision that he had to achieve it, where many of the other polar explorers didn't mind sharing glory. I mean, certainly Shackleton didn't, that was core to Shackleton's nature, nor did Nansen, who was considered the greatest explorer of the age. They didn't have that same problem with sharing, they figured there was plenty to go around, and they would get the most of it.

The medal and accolades were nice, but Peary must have asked himself how much longer he could continue his quest for the North Pole. In his two serious efforts to conquer it, the brute realities of the polar environment had held him back. He didn’t know whether the Peary Arctic Club would remain hopeful of his dream for glory.

At the end of 1906, Robert Peary was 50 years old. Matthew Henson was 40. Both were well over retirement age for Arctic explorers. But despite their age, and their many setbacks, they still had one more try in them.

The Quest for the North Pole is hosted by me, Kat Long.

This episode was researched and written by me, with fact-checking by Austin Thompson. The Executive Producers are Erin McCarthy and Tyler Klang. The Supervising Producer is Dylan Fagan. The show is edited by Dylan Fagan. Thank you to our experts Edward J. Larson, Susan Kaplan, and James Edward Mills.

For transcripts, a glossary, and to learn more about this episode, visit

The Quest for the North Pole is a production of iHeartRadio and Mental Floss. For more podcasts from iHeartRadio, check out the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.