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On most days of the year in the early 1900s, Battle Harbour, on Labrador’s rugged coast, is pretty quiet. The busiest this cod-fishing station gets is when a big catch of fish comes in, and the air buzzes with excitement and activity as the haul is brought ashore.
But in September 1909, a buzz of a different kind fills the salty air. The tiny village, population 300, finds itself at the center of a media frenzy it hasn't seen before—or since.
Against a backdrop of fishing boats bobbing expectantly in the harbor, dozens of reporters—wearing hats and long, thick coats to guard against the chill—have descended on the wooden dock, waiting for a press conference with Robert E. Peary. These men have one goal: To get the scoop from Peary on the historic first conquest of the North Pole.
And they want to know if Peary believes another explorer, Frederick A. Cook, has beaten him to it.
Peary’s assistant Donald Baxter MacMillan later sums up what so many are thinking: “Geographers, scientists, students of Arctic literature, all had questioned the possibility of ever reaching the Pole, and two men, within five days of each other, were claiming to have done that very thing! Was this a practical joke?”
For Peary, the situation is deadly serious—though he tries not to show it. A few weeks earlier, while still in Greenland, he had learned that Cook was claiming he’d reached the North Pole on April 21, 1908—almost a full year before Peary himself reached it. By coincidence, Cook had arrived in the Shetland Islands and sent word of his conquest to newspapers only about a week earlier—on September 1, 1909—five days before Peary made his announcement from the telegraph office in Indian Harbour, Labrador. As Peary’s controversial news bounces from one tiny telegraph office to another before finally reaching newspapers, it begins to seem like Cook has stolen not just Peary’s thunder. His claim of being first to the Pole threatens to nullify Peary’s entire Arctic career—and his shot at fame.
But in front of the media, Peary appears confident in his success. A reporter asks how he felt upon reaching the top of the world. Peary stands up, shoulders back, and in a steady voice answers, “Can’t you imagine how a man feels after spending 23 years of the best years of his life, who had given parts of his body, the body God gave him, in accomplishing his ambition, when he attains it?” The room falls silent.
Meanwhile, Battle Harbour’s telegraph operator is overwhelmed with messages from news organizations, all demanding Peary’s comment on Cook. Peary is determined to fight for his honor. To The New York Times—which paid $4000 for his story—Peary writes:
“Do not trouble about Cook’s story or attempt to explain any discrepancies in his statements. The affair will settle itself. He has not been at the Pole on April 21st, 1908, or at any other time. He has simply handed the public a gold brick.”
The next day, The New York Times publishes a front page article presenting both explorers’ stories—and Peary accusing Cook of giving the public a bait and switch.
By the time the Roosevelt reaches Sydney, Nova Scotia, “the Cook-Peary controversy [is] the leading topic of the day,” MacMillan wrote later. Newspaper readers receive thousands of postcards in the mail, asking them, “Are you for Cook or Peary?” Reporters hound each of the explorers for proof of his claim, while newspapers fan the controversy.
Though they couldn’t have foreseen this turn of events, Peary and Cook are now locked in a fierce battle for the title of first man at the North Pole. When they return to the United States after their Arctic adventures, they trade insults in the press and muster their influential supporters to argue their cases. Other explorers and scientists scrutinize their records and choose sides. In this episode, we’ll see why everyone was asking not just who reached the Pole first, but whether either of them had reached it at all.
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 Seven: A Gold Brick.
September 1909 wasn’t the first time Frederick A. Cook and Robert E. Peary had crossed paths. Born in tiny Hortonville, New York, in 1865, Cook moved from his hometown near the Delaware River to New York City to attend medical school. He supported his studies with a milk delivery business he ran with his brother, Theodore. Around 1890, he opened his own medical practice, but he didn’t have many patients. When he read in the New York Herald that Robert Peary was planning an expedition to northern Greenland for the summer of 1891, he wrote to offer his services.
Peary hired him as the surgeon on the trip. Cook was charismatic, amiable, and a good doctor, but neither Peary nor his senior assistant Matthew Henson were impressed with his wilderness skills. He was, to put it bluntly, a hot mess. According to Henson’s biographer Bradley Robinson, on a hunt, Cook scared away the reindeer by complaining too loudly. On a different hunt, he missed his target and shot a hole through the side of a whale boat. When Cook asked to accompany Henson on one of his walrus hunts—in which one wrong move could mean being stabbed by a tusk—Henson turned him down. “If Dr. Cook was to have a gun in his hand, Matt preferred not to be nearby,” the biographer wrote.
Following his expedition with Peary, Cook headed all the way south. He signed up as the surgeon on the Belgian Antarctic Expedition, lasting from 1897 to 1899, the first of what historians later dubbed the “heroic age” of Antarctic exploration. Among his crewmates was the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who later became the first European to sail the entire Northwest Passage and the first person to stand at the South Pole.
Though he failed to win over Peary and Henson, Cook’s reputation as a bold adventurer was growing. In 1903, he attempted to climb Mt. McKinley—now called Denali—which, at 20,310 feet in elevation, is North America’s highest mountain. While he had to settle for “circumnavigating” its base, Cook gave lectures to mountaineering clubs upon his return to New York and impressed the right people. Like Robert Peary, Cook soon gathered around him a coterie of well-connected comrades to support his adventures, though Cook’s group was more democratic and focused on research than the Peary Arctic Club, which existed to fundraise. Cook’s group, called the Explorers Club, included fellow explorer and author Henry Collins Walsh; Adolphus Greely and David Brainard of the notorious 1881 Greely expedition; and Frank Chapman, then the associate curator of birds and mammals at the American Museum of Natural History.
In 1906, accompanied by members of the Explorers Club, Cook returned to Alaska. This time, he claimed to have made the first ascent of Denali. But this may have been a case of Cook’s daring ambition overshadowing his skills. Members of his own climbing team later said they didn’t get anywhere near the top, and the photographic evidence Cook revealed from the expedition wasn’t sufficient to decide the case. But it didn’t matter: Cook had earned the public’s recognition. With his new status as an audacious outdoor hero, he set his sights on the North Pole.
A Florida casino magnate named John R. Bradley agreed to give Cook $10,000—which would be roughly $281,000 today—to organize a big-game hunting trip to Greenland, which Cook would use as a starting point for a push to the Pole. The expedition—just Cook and 11 crew members aboard a former fishing schooner named for Bradley, who would join them in Newfoundland—departed from Gloucester, Massachusetts, on July 3, 1907. Unlike Robert Peary’s departure, complete with boat parades and thousands of cheering fans, hardly anyone noticed Cook leaving.
“An Arctic expedition had been born without the usual clamor,” Cook wrote in My Attainment of the Pole, his 1912 account that argues his case and takes numerous swipes at Peary. “Prepared in one month, and financed by a sportsman whose only mission was to hunt game animals in the North, no press campaign heralded our project, no government aid had been asked, nor had large contributions been sought from private individuals to purchase luxuries for a Pullman jaunt of a large party Poleward.”
Here was Nansen’s and Peary’s idea of a pared-down expedition taken to the extreme. Cook wrote that he wasn’t even sure if he’d actually try for the Pole until he got to Greenland—but just in case, he brought along wood for sledges, appropriate clothing, and 1000 pounds of pemmican manufactured by Armour & Company of Chicago. One resource he didn’t bring was a trusted companion, like Matthew Henson, who could accompany him to the Pole. Basically, he was just going to wing it.
They initially followed the American route to Cape York in northwest Greenland. They paused at Inuit villages along the Greenland coast to hunt walruses, seals, and ducks. But while Bradley was mainly interested in the game, Cook’s dreams of making history took shape as the little schooner pulled into a harbor at Annoatok, the northernmost village in Greenland. Normally there were hardly more than a couple of tents constituting the village, but now, a large group of families had gathered to initiate the winter bear hunt.
“It came strongly to me that this was the spot to make the base for a Polar dash. Here were Eskimo helpers, strong, hefty Natives from whom I could select the best to accompany me,” Cook wrote with a definite air of entitlement. “Here, by a fortunate chance, were the best dog teams, here were plenty of furs for clothing, and here was unlimited food. These supplies, combined with supplies on the schooner, would give all that was needed for the campaign. Nothing could have been more ideal.”
When Cook informed Bradley of his plans, the two men parted ways. Bradley left Cook with supplies from the ship, and one of the ship’s crew, a German assistant named Rudolph Francke. Cook obtained the rest of his equipment with the help of the Inuit. He instructed them in making sledges out of the tough hickory planks he brought on the Bradley, and they hunted an astounding number of animals for winter provisions and for the Pole journey in spring. From August 1907 to May 1909, according to Cook, they captured 2422 birds, 311 Arctic hares, 320 foxes, 36 reindeer, 22 polar bears, 52 seals, 73 walruses, 21 narwhals, 3 belugas, and 206 musk ox.
Cook, Francke, and nine Inuit assistants departed Annoatok on February 19, 1908. They drove a convoy of 11 dog sleds weighed down with 6000 pounds of equipment and provisions. Instead of heading north through Kane Basin and up Kennedy Channel toward Cape Sheridan, as Nares and Peary had done, Cook traveled west, crossing Smith Sound to Ellesmere Island. His rationale was that he could replenish the food supply for his party and dogs by hunting game in the valleys west of Ellesmere, which Otto Sverdrup had mapped in his extensive explorations at the end of the 19th century. They also could lay caches of supplies for Cook’s return journey.
The party continued across the island toward Greely Fjord, which connected with the head of Nansen Sound. The sound’s other end met the Arctic Ocean at Cape Thomas Hubbard, a few hundred miles west from Cape Sheridan along the coast of Ellesmere Island. There, Cook decided to split up the party and make a break for the Pole. He chose two young Inuit, Etookashoo and Ahwellah, and pared down his gear to only the barest minimum of food, shelter, clothing, and navigational equipment to sustain them for 80 days. They left land on March 18, 1908, with a journey of 500 miles ahead of them.
Unlike Peary, Cook didn’t send advance parties ahead of his own sledge to build igloos and lay down supplies. At the end of each march, the three men had to build shelter and tend to their gear and dogs. Yet, they clocked 100 miles and had crossed the Big Lead—the treacherous expanse of water and shifting ice that had held Peary up for nearly a week—in just five days. Cook spurred on his Inuit companions by fudging their position: “Both Ahwellah and Etukishoo were sure of a constant nearness to land,” Cook wrote. “Because of the Native panic out of its reassuring sight, I encouraged this [daily chance of seeing new land], as I did concerning every other possible sign of land further northward. I knew that only by encouraging a delusion of nearness to land could I urge them ever farther in the face of the hardships that must inevitably come.”
Cook may have thought he was fooling them, but the Inughuit surely knew land when they saw it. They could tell the difference between land and some clouds or an expanse of ice. This was, after all, their neck of the woods. And what’s more, Cook believed he did spot a new landmass he named Bradley Land, between the 84th and 85th parallels—which it turns out didn’t exist. Cook’s ploy to deceive his companions, and his apparent willingness to lie about their position, would come back to haunt him.
The trio pushed on as days stretched into the polar spring. In mid-April, Cook’s navigational readings suggested that the Pole was near. He wrote, “Climbing the long ladder of latitudes, there was always the feeling that each hour’s work was bringing us nearer the Pole—the Pole which men had sought for three centuries, and which, fortune favoring, should be mine!”
On April 21, Cook believed he had reached his destination. “My relief was indescribable,” he wrote. “The prize of an international marathon was ours. Pinning the Stars and Stripes to a tent-pole, I asserted the achievement in the name of the 90 millions of countrymen who swear fealty to that flag.”
Before he could share news of his feat, Cook and his team had to survive the trip home. This proved to be more difficult than anything they’d encountered so far. Drifting ice slowed their progress and diverted them from their planned route of return, and they were forced to spend the dark, polar winter of 1908-1909 in a cave on Canada’s Devon Island, just north of Lancaster Sound. Polar bears stalked them closely. They endured storms and ran out of food several times, only to be rescued from starvation by the fortunate capture of a hare or bird.
When Cook, Etookashoo, and Ahwellah did manage to sledge their way back to Annoatok in April 1909, he ran into Harry Whitney, the American big-game hunter who had come up with Peary’s supply ship the previous year. He told Whitney of his claim and desperate journey. After several days of rest, Cook and an Inuit companion departed by dogsled to the Danish outpost of Upernavik, about 700 miles to the south, the fastest way of getting back to his own civilization—and to spread the word of his conquest. But, inexplicably, he left the proof of that conquest behind.
The journey, Cook wrote, “involved difficulties and risk—the climbing of mountains and glaciers, the crossing of open leads of water late in the season, when the ice is in motion and snow is falling, and the dragging of sledges through slush and water. Mr. Whitney, in view of these dangers, offered to take care of my instruments, notebooks, and flag, and take them south on his ship.”
Cook arrived in Upernavik on May 20 and remained there until he could board a steamer to Copenhagen in late August. On the way, he sent a telegram from the Shetland Islands on September 1: “Reached North Pole April 21, 1908. Discovered land far north. Return to Copenhagen by steamer Hans Egede. Frederick Cook.”
The New York Tribune splashed Cook’s triumph across its front page the following morning. For several days, Frederick Cook was the uncontested discoverer of the holy grail of the Arctic. As they neared Copenhagen, Cook was mobbed by reporters and Danish dignitaries congratulating him on his success. Telegrams and letters poured in. European royalty, British journalists, and U.S. officials met Cook as he debarked from the steamer. “I became a helpless leaf on a whirlwind of excitement,” Cook wrote.
Then Peary’s telegram came through.
On September 7, 1909, the New York Times ran with the headline "Peary Discovers the North Pole After Eight Trials in 23 Years." A week earlier, though, the competing New York Herald had gone with "The North Pole is Discovered by Dr. Frederick A. Cook."
The closer Peary’s ship, the Roosevelt, got to New York, the more Peary realized that Cook’s story wasn’t going away. He and Matthew Henson may have found Cook’s claim ludicrous, but the world at large didn’t.
Peary was greeted by crowds at the ports the Roosevelt pulled into, but Cook had his own fans. Thousands in New York City came out to catch a glimpse of the charismatic doctor they believed was the first man to set foot at the North Pole. The press couldn’t get enough of him; he spent hours with reporters, regaling them with stories of his polar plight.
Newspapers in Pennsylvania, New York, and Ohio ran a poll about which explorer people believed actually reached the North Pole first. The majority of readers had sided with Cook.
Initially, Cook was unfazed by Peary’s announcement. He was apparently happy to hear that another American had reached the North Pole, or perhaps discovered some unknown land for the benefit of the United States. “There is glory enough for all,” he told reporters.
Peary, and his wealthy backers, felt exactly the opposite way. With his rival’s account gaining momentum, Peary realized his future, his fame, and his legacy were now in jeopardy.
Susan Kaplan: He is under assault, because Frederick Cook has claimed to have reached the Pole a year earlier. So Peary is desperate and furious, because he believes that Frederick Cook has stolen the glory.
That’s Susan Kaplan, a professor of anthropology and the director of the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum at Bowdoin College.
Kaplan: I mean, Frederick Cook had been celebrated in Denmark, where he had announced that he had gotten to the Pole in 1908. Peary claimed to get there in 1909. So where Peary was ready to come back and just be showered with celebration, he came back to this country into controversy. So I think that there was a lot of anger and turning inward that he did.
As the controversy boiled, the Peary Arctic Club challenged Cook’s claims and hinted that Peary had proof of his lie. Late in September, Thomas Hubbard, one of the club’s officers, sent a letter to the press. "Concerning Dr. Cook,” he said, “let him submit his records and data to some competent authority, and let that authority draw its own conclusions from the notes and records ... What proof Commander Peary has that Dr. Cook was not at the Pole may be submitted later."
The New York Times, which had paid handsomely for Peary’s scoop, painted him as a trustworthy and accomplished explorer. The Times article from September 7, 1909, contrasted Peary’s highly publicized quest for the Pole with Cook’s under-the-radar expedition and abrupt announcement. The next day, the paper fully shifted to Team Peary. An article revealed that Cook had given a lecture in front of the King of Denmark and the Danish Geographical Society about killing bears with slingshots and a boat that hadn’t appeared in previous versions of the story. The Times wrote that Cook’s lecture “proves conclusively that his claim to have reached the North Pole belongs to the realm of fairy tales.”
Meanwhile, the New-York Herald went all in for Cook—it had reportedly paid the enormous sum of $24,000 for his exclusive. That’s almost $700,000 today. The Herald serialized Cook’s story on its front page for two weeks straight and illustrated it with his photographs, maps, and flattering portraits of the explorer.
The National Geographic Society—one of Peary’s sources of funding—employed a sub-committee to examine the evidence. With so much time and money invested in the expedition, they demanded answers.
Cook’s lack of evidence didn’t help his case. He had left all of the instruments and notebooks he had in Greenland with the wealthy hunter, Harry Whitney. When Peary’s ship the SS Roosevelt returned to Greenland in August 1909, Whitney asked for a ride home—and as Henson wrote in a diary entry dated August 17, 1909, “The Commander will not permit Mr. Whitney to bring any of the Dr. Cook effects aboard the Roosevelt and they have been left in a cache on shore.”
Cook’s case was further weakened by Etukishoo and Ahwellah, the two Inughuit guides who had traveled with him the previous year. When Henson and Donald Baxter MacMillan heard about Cook’s claim of the Pole, they tracked them down to ask them about the expedition. Henson spoke to the guides in Inuktitut. According to the men, Cook never reached his destination. Henson recounted the conversation in his diary: “Professor MacMillan and I have talked to his two boys and have learned there is no foundation in fact for such a statement, and the Captain and others of the expedition have questioned them, and if they were out on the ice of the Arctic Ocean it was only for a very short distance, not more than 20 or 25 miles. The boys are positive in this statement, and my own boys, Ootah and Ooqueah, have talked to them also, and get the same replies. It is a fact that they had a very hard time and were reduced to low limits, but they have not been any distance north.”
Let’s pause to note that Ootah, Ooqueah, and the other Inughuit were adults, not “boys.” Henson, despite his interest in Inughuit culture, sometimes referred to the Inughuit as “uncivilized.” He viewed them as less evolved than Americans, though perhaps not as condescendingly as Peary did. One difference between the two explorers is that Henson believed the Inughuit were honest, while Peary trusted their honesty mostly when it benefited him.
Later, Henson told reporters that the two guides never lost sight of land, which meant they couldn’t have traveled as far north as Cook claimed. In his account of the expedition published in 1934, MacMillan says the same thing.
Perhaps surprisingly, people accepted Henson’s account and the testimony of Etukishoo and Ahwela. It was a time when the word of a white man always superseded that of a Black or Indigenous man. But Henson’s reputation as Peary’s loyal and honest assistant may have swayed public opinion, and his history with the Inughuit people also made his story convincing. His good relations with the community were well known, and he confirmed with The New York Times that he personally knew the two young men Cook took with him up north.
And maybe Henson’s account was taken at face value because a white man’s reputation rested on it. Plus, Cook didn’t have anyone else to back him up.
While discrediting Cook, Peary may have thought that his own records and journal entries would support his claim of the Pole. Unfortunately for him, his proof wasn’t much stronger.
Here’s Edward J. Larson, historian and author of To the Edges of the Earth: 1909, the Race for the Three Poles, and the Climax of the Age of Exploration.
Edward J. Larson: One of the big problems with exploration back then, was since you didn't have satellites to tell you where you are, really, your accomplishments were based on your word. And of course, people could question your word. And so Amundsen and Shackleton, and even Scott, these people, and I could keep naming others, these people always brought along independently credible Europeans of cultural status and dependability. That if they separately calculated location, you could trust them. Peary never had anyone like that, he always only had people along who couldn't calculate, who didn't have authority. Matthew Henson was an amazing guy. But he wasn't scientifically credible in that world.
Peary’s critics, and even some of his supporters, questioned why he chose Henson over Captain Robert Bartlett to accompany him to the Pole. Bartlett was a skilled navigator, tough, and fearless—the classic image of the hardy explorer destined for greatness. He broke trail over hundreds of miles of featureless ice for Peary’s team on the North Pole journey. He would have been an admirable choice for the polar party. But if Peary had been concerned that he wouldn’t make it to the Pole—and that his only option was to fudge his evidence—Bartlett would have found him out. So Peary may have chosen to bring equally tough companions because they wouldn’t question his calculations.
Larson: And that's why, in the end, all of his claims were based on his own words. And that word was often doubted.
And there may have been another, more nefarious reason, which we’ll get to in a moment.
At any rate, even without hard evidence, Peary held onto the public’s favor. In 1910, a sub-committee at the National Geographic Society announced that they had found nothing that contradicted his claim. Several members of Congress introduced bills to promote Peary to Rear-Admiral and honor his discovery of the North Pole. On March 3, 1911, the House passed Senate Bill S.6104 confirming his promotion, and the next day President Taft signed it into law.
Peary’s story had received the government’s stamp of approval, and it looked as though he could finally bask in the belated glory of his accomplishment. But the case wasn’t closed just yet. There was still a third party vying for a piece of the recognition Peary refused to share: His own assistant, Matthew Henson.
As newspapers pitted Cook against Perry, Henson was largely left out of the narrative. Reporters described him as Peary’s “valet,” and the public mistakenly assumed him to be a servant with a small to nonexistent part in conquering the Pole. When books and newspapers incorrectly described Henson as his “colored valet” instead of his senior assistant, Peary made no effort to correct them. In reality, Henson had played a monumental role. He was Peary’s second-in-command, serving as the crucial conduit between the Inughuit and the rest of the team. He was also the only non-Inughuit explorer to accompany Peary all the way to the North Pole. According to some accounts, Henson may have actually arrived at the Pole before Peary after overshooting the journey. But getting the public to consider a Black man reaching that milestone—in an era when scientists doubted Black people’s ability to withstand cold temperatures—was unlikely. Justifying his presence in the polar party was hard enough.
From the moment Peary announced his discovery of the Pole, his decision to bring Henson along was scrutinized. We mentioned earlier that Peary might have had his reasons to avoid taking a skilled navigator with him to the Pole. Now, the racist public couldn’t understand why he would choose a Black man to accompany him on the final leg of his journey instead of any one of the five white men who were available. In their eyes, not having another white man at the Pole to back up his story tarnished his credibility. Some relied on common racist stereotypes to rationalize the choice. They viewed Peary’s own description of his party—as “loyal and responsive to my will as the fingers of my right hand”—as evidence that Henson was exceptionally submissive to his commander.
Peary addressed this question in his 1910 book, The North Pole: Its Discovery in 1909 Under the Auspices of the Peary Arctic Club. He started by praising his assistant for his experience and mastery of the elements.
“At this time it may be appropriate to say a word regarding my reasons for selecting Henson as my fellow traveler to the Pole itself,” Peary wrote. “In this selection I acted exactly as I have done on all my expeditions for the last 15 years. He has in those years always been with me at my point farthest north. Moreover, Henson was the best man I had with me for this kind of work, with the exception of the Eskimos, who, with their racial inheritance of ice technic [technique] and their ability to handle sledges and dogs, were more necessary to me, as members of my own individual party, than any white man could have been.”
But Peary didn’t stop there. Instead of dismissing Henson’s racist critics, he added fuel to their fire, and contradicted himself while doing so. He continued:
“The second reason was that while Henson was more useful to me than any other member of my expedition when it came to traveling with my last party over the polar ice, he would not have been so competent as the white members of the expedition in getting himself and his party back to the land. If Henson had been sent back with one of the supporting parties from a distance far out on the ice, and if he had encountered conditions similar to those which we had to face on the return journey in 1906, he and his party would never have reached the land. While faithful to me, and when with me more effective in covering distance with a sledge than any of the others, he had not, as a racial inheritance, the daring and initiative of Bartlett, or Marvin, MacMillan, or Borup. I owed it to him not to subject him to dangers and responsibilities which he was temperamentally unfit to face.”
So was Henson the “best man for this kind of work,” or someone who couldn’t be trusted—purely because of his race—to find his way home? If Peary truly believed that Henson was less motivated and competent than his white team members, then choosing to explore the Arctic with him for nearly two decades wouldn’t make much sense.
Here’s what Susan Kaplan has to say:
Kaplan: I think what we learned in talking to the Inughuit and in reading some of the journals is that Robert Bartlett was a terrible dogsled driver, where Matthew Henson was an expert. So there's also the factor of skill. What Peary did was he picked the... He was sort of watching how people were performing as they were relaying supplies back and forth across the polar sea, and in the end, he picked the most talented Inughuit. He then had them look and pick the strongest dogs from all these teams. And if he was going to choose someone, it makes sense that he's going to choose Matthew Henson because of Matthew Henson's ability to communicate with the Inughuit, their respect of him, and Matthew Henson's traveling abilities, which are all characteristics that Bartlett did not have.
Donald MacMillan painted a similar picture of how Peary viewed his right-hand man. The expedition member, who had to turn back from the quest early due to frostbite, recalled a moment inside the SS Roosevelt as Peary was preparing to set off on his journey. He carefully weighed the value of each man for the dash to the Pole.
“A knock on my door. Peary entered and sat down on my bunk [...] He spoke of Bartlett, of Ross Marvin, of George Borup, of [the surgeon] John Goodsell, of the part each one was to play in this—’my last attempt.’ When each man has fed me and my men up to a certain point, within striking distance of the Pole, their work is done. They shall be no longer needed,’ Peary sat there thinking for a moment and then added: ‘But Henson is not to return. I can’t get along without him.’ I think that here is the greatest compliment that Peary has ever paid to any man. [...] Peary knew Matt Henson’s real worth. And so did we from the day we joined the ship at the foot of East 23rd Street in New York [...] Matthew Henson went to the Pole with Peary because he was a better man than any one of us.”
Many accounts of Henson, including MacMillan’s, described him as friendly, hardworking, and kind. Henson certainly faced more pressure to be agreeable than his white peers. 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, and the author of The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors.
James Edward Mills: The Inuit people described him as Henson, the kind one. Whether he was doing it for show or not, people who had no vested interest in allowing him to pull the wool over their eyes or the seal fur to make a pun, he didn't fool them. Or, at the very least, he was wildly successful at fooling them if it was an act. Frankly, in that situation, it would be really hard, I think, to put on a cheerful face that wasn't genuine under those circumstances.
Another, more sinister factor may have motivated Peary to bring him to the North Pole over his white crewmembers. Peary was determined to be the first person to conquer the Pole—an honor he didn’t plan on sharing with the five other people with him. By being the only white man in the party, he may have betted on the public viewing him as the one “true” conquering hero.
Kaplan: He had done all the planning, and this was his idea, and so he wanted the glory. That's the ego that works into the story. There has been a lot of discussion about the makeup of the North Pole team. In the end, it was Peary and Henson and four Inughuit. All the other Inughuit and Western crew were sent back to the base camp after they had done a certain number of relays and left caches of food and equipment on the sea ice so that Peary's team could use them and not have to carry all those supplies with them. There's been a great deal of discussion about why he sent Robert Bartlett, who was captain of the Roosevelt, and why he sent Bartlett back. Some people feel it's because Bartlett was not an American, he was a Newfoundlander, and that Peary did not want a white person who was not from the United States at the North Pole. Other people feel that perhaps Bartlett would know if they weren't at the North Pole if Peary said they were. But there is also that sense that Peary wanted to be the lone white Westerner at the Pole.
Contrast that racially-tinged hunger for glory with Henson’s possible reasons for seeking the Pole. Here’s James Edward Mills.
Mills: I want to believe that Henson was doing it for sheer adventure because he apparently wasn't going to get any credit for it. But for Peary, it was all about the credit. That's what was motivating him. And I think that that's how, at least for me personally, I think that when you had that as your primary goal, you're not going to be successful in the grand scheme of things. Yeah, sure, you might put your flag on the top. You might be able to get your picture in the paper and so forth, but you still have to live with yourself. And I think that, to me, is a failing of a lot of people who do great things early in life or at some points in their lives. And they basically spend the rest of their lives living up to that. And typically, you fail because how do you maintain that for the rest of your life? Because we all get old and we all get infirmed. I got the impression ... I mean, Henson lived almost 30 years longer than Peary did, and I want to believe that it was his good attitude that made that possible.
Peary’s lust for fame didn’t end when he took the Pole. Back at home, Peary went out of his way to keep Henson and the rest of the party out of his spotlight. If any expedition members wanted to capitalize on their experiences on the journey, they needed to get Peary’s approval first. And meanwhile, Henson did whatever he could to make a living. Henson had taken 120 photographs on the expedition, and he turned all of them over to Peary as a part of their partnership agreement. Originally, Peary was supposed to pay for any pictures he wanted to feature on his lecture tour and give back the rest. While he did return the photos he didn’t use, he never paid for the ones he kept, despite Henson’s many letters requesting restitution.
Henson also requested to launch his own lecture tour, but Peary never responded. So Henson signed with an agent and began giving talks in northeastern cities in October 1909. As he was planning his first event, Peary sent a telegram to Henson asking him to stop sharing pictures from the expedition. His white benefactors already didn’t approve of his decision to have a Black man accompany him to the Pole, and Peary wanted the controversy to go away. Keeping Henson out of the public eye was one way to make that happen.
At a lecture in Syracuse, New York, on March 10, 1910, Henson revealed to a local reporter that he hadn’t heard as much as a peep—barring the telegram asking him not to pursue the lectures—from his former commander since the Roosevelt had arrived in New York the previous October. Henson expressed disappointment at having seemingly been forgotten. But Henson’s wife Lucy, who was with her husband at the lecture venue, really lit into Peary.
She told Syracuse’s Post-Standard, “Regarding what Mr. Peary has done for Matt since they returned from the Pole, just one word can express that—nothing. Mr. Peary has dropped Matt entirely and has held no communication with him or done a single thing in recognition of his 23 years of faithful service, to say nothing of Matt having saved Mr. Peary’s life on more than one occasion.”
“It seems to me that such treatment is not fair,” she continued. “So far as Mr. Peary knows—or cares, for all the interest he has shown—Matt might be starving to death. I doubt if Mr. Peary knows where Matt is at present, and such quick ingratitude, perhaps I should not use so strong a word even if his treatment of Matt does warrant it, is pretty hard. Probably Mr. Peary, who is getting all the glory any one man can reasonably hope to get in his lifetime, has no time to think of Matt, to whom much of the success of the expedition was due.”
With few other options, Henson took odd jobs to get by, working at the post office and as a handyman in a Brooklyn garage. In 1913, President William Howard Taft learned of his troubles and signed an executive order appointing him as a messenger, and then as a clerk, at the U.S. Custom Service. For the next 23 years, he worked on the third floor of the Customs House in Lower Manhattan.
Meanwhile, the white members of the North Pole expedition were showered with praise. Peary and the others received awards and were honored at ceremonies that Henson couldn’t even attend because of his race. Donald MacMillan, who became Henson’s close friend, and a few accomplices allegedly tried to sneak Henson into a New York event by disguising him as an Arab dignitary.
While white society—and Peary himself—failed to recognize or honor Henson’s achievements, the African American community hailed him as a hero. Upon his return from the Arctic, Black leaders held a glamorous dinner in his honor at Tuxedo Hall in midtown Manhattan. More than 200 people attended. Peary sent a congratulatory telegram from Maine.
Henson was given a diamond-studded gold Tiffany watch inscribed with the initials “M.A.H., 1909.” The guests enjoyed a sumptuous dinner including blue point oysters, Kennebec salmon, tenderloin of beef, numerous side dishes, and “sorbet a la Henson.” Speeches were made celebrating his achievement. The dinner’s host, the powerful federal official Charles W. Anderson, announced, “Whatever may be said in the controversy as to which white man discovered the Pole, there is not a shadow of a doubt as to which Black man got there.”
When it was his turn to speak, Henson reflected on the criticisms he faced before his journey. “When I went to Greenland they said I never would come back. They told me I couldn’t stand the cold—that no Black man could. I said I was willing to die if necessary to show them. I survived alright, and here I am.”
Here’s Susan Kaplan.
Kaplan: The irony here is that once the North Pole crew returned to Canada and then the United States, the racism in this country was such that Matthew Henson did not get the recognition that he absolutely deserved. Peary can be faulted in that he did not insist that Matthew Henson got that recognition. So they had an interesting relationship. I can't say that they had a warm relationship, at least not from anything that we've been able to discover. They were not best friends. But certainly Peary did respect him and rely on him.
Their relationship remained frozen—pardon the pun— until Peary’s death on February 20, 1920, at age 64. In the days that followed, The New York Times ran several stories dedicated to his life and legacy. There was an outpouring of adulation from his peers, including polar explorers Ernest Shackleton and Vilhjalmur Stefansson. Stefansson said “Peary was easily the foremost of all polar explorers, both North and South.”
President Woodrow Wilson also expressed his admiration in a condolence telegram to Peary’s widow Josephine. He wrote, “Mrs. Wilson joins me in extending our warmest sympathy to you and your children in the death of your distinguished husband. May the memory of his intrepid and indefatigable efforts in the cause of science do much to assuage your grief.”
Peary was given a hero’s burial at Arlington National Cemetery with a level of grandeur the Times called “unusual.” His casket, draped with the American flag that flew at the North Pole, was sent off by a Naval firing squad and bugler.
Honorary pallbearers included the U.S. Vice President, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the French Ambassador to the U.S., Vilhjalmur Stefansson, Alexander Graham Bell, and North Pole expedition members Donald MacMillan and Robert Bartlett. Notably, Henson was not among them—or at least not mentioned in the many news reports.
Peary’s legacy had been encoded in United States history. After his death, newspapers and the white public forgot about Henson. But his African-American supporters never did.
Henson retired from his Customs House job in 1936 on a clerk’s pension of $87.27 a month. Adjusted for inflation, that would be worth roughly $1550 a month or $18,600 a year today. African American leaders petitioned Congress multiple times to recognize Henson’s polar accomplishments with an appropriate pension. Characteristically, Henson responded to their efforts by saying, “I could use the money. I think that I deserve it. But I will never ask the government nor anybody else for anything. I have worked 60 of the 70 years of my life, so I guess I can make out on the $87.27 a month pension I’ve earned here.”
After several bills were introduced and killed in committee, lawmakers presented House Resolution 12388, which would have secured Henson a gold medal and a $2500 pension. The Black leaders who argued for the legislation pointed out that Peary had received numerous awards and a generous pension, and if Henson had been white, he would have already been recognized. The bill was approved by the House, but it didn’t make it past the Senate.
As Black-run newspapers and magazines covered him in the decades following the North Pole trip, his public profile grew. In 1937, Henson did receive one long-overdue honor: The Explorers Club elected him to be their first African American life member. Two years later, the club extended honorary membership to another integral but overlooked member of the North Pole journey: Ootah, Peary’s longtime lead guide and driver in Greenland.
In 1944, Congress established the Peary Polar Expedition Medal to commemorate the expedition of 1908 to 1909. According to citations accompanying the medal, it recognized “outstanding service to the Government of the United States in the field of science and for the cause of polar exploration” and “exceptional fortitude, superb seamanship and fearless determination on the important and difficult mission.” Of Peary’s five main Western expedition members, Donald MacMillan, Robert Bartlett, and Henson were still alive. Ross Marvin had drowned during the expedition, and George Borup had drowned in a boating accident in 1912. But only MacMillan and Bartlett received their medals in an event in May 1945 aboard Bartlett’s schooner, the Effie M. Morrissey (since renamed the Ernestina) at the Boston Army Base. At the ceremony, MacMillan said, “I guess Matt will receive his medal by mail.”
Actually, the Navy invited Henson to its downtown New York office, where a captain read a citation and bestowed the medal. Hardly the grand reception that the other explorers received. But at least he didn’t receive it in the mail.
MacMillan showed up again to lobby the Geographic Society of Chicago to recognize Henson for his polar contributions. He was joined in the effort by Eugene F. McDonald, Jr., the leader of the Zenith Corporation and an admirer of Henson’s. In 1948, the society honored the explorer with its gold medal. Henson considered it his most prized possession.
Two historically Black universities, Morgan State in Baltimore and Howard University in Washington, D.C., awarded Henson honorary master’s degrees. He also donated the snowshoes, parka, and sealskin boots he wore on the North Pole journey to Dillard University, a historically black college in New Orleans. The school showed its gratitude by renaming a hall after him.
Here’s Susan Kaplan.
Kaplan: Certainly the other crew members were very concerned that Matthew Henson was not getting the recognition he deserved, and many years later, a number of them lobby the various geographical societies, and Matthew Henson is... while he's still alive, is awarded many of the medals that the other crew members had been given that had been denied him.
At long last, Henson’s contributions were recognized by the highest office in the country. President Dwight Eisenhower invited him to the White House in April 1954 in honor of the 45th anniversary of the North Pole expedition. An AP photographer was there to document the meeting, and an image of Henson and the president pointing out the North Pole on a globe was seen in newspapers across the country.
In 1954, at age 88, Henson celebrated his exploring days with one last party. He was among the guests of honor at the Explorers Club’s 50th anniversary dinner in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. His old friend Ootah was also invited, but he was unable to travel due to an illness.
The club’s annual banquet had become one of New York City’s premiere social events. Stefansson described the scene: “Tables are bought up a year in advance by the friends and admirers of the exploring brotherhood. They do this for many reasons, not the least of which is to see again the old-timers, particularly those who sit with the speakers of the evening at the long table on the rostrum.”
In 1954, one of those old-timers was Matthew Henson. Stefansson wrote, "Where Matt sits among the guests of honor is always one of the most popular spots of the rostrum.”
Some of history’s most rugged explorers were in attendance. At one point, Henson shared a lengthy toast in Inuktitut with Peter Freuchen, the towering Danish polar adventurer. Appropriately, the ice in their Scotch highballs had been chipped from the massive T-3 iceberg, where the U.S. had recently set up an Arctic research base, and flown to New York just for the event. As Freuchen finished his toast, he poked a finger into his Scotch and flipped out the cubes. “I drink it without ice,” he said.
Befriended by his Inughuit partners, respected by his fellow explorers, and honored by the Black community, Matthew Henson left a unique and multifaceted legacy. He died on March 9, 1955, at age 88 of a cerebral hemorrhage at St. Clare’s Hospital, Manhattan. Compared to the hero’s funeral Peary received, Henson’s death was little-noticed in white America.
The Black community, however, came out in droves to celebrate his life. His funeral was held at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, of which Henson and his wife Lucy were long-time members. According to the Amsterdam News, thousands of people attended the service led by Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. While eulogizing Henson, Powell compared his achievements to those of Marco Polo and Ferdinand Magellan. Henson’s pallbearers included Peter Freuchen and other members of the Explorer’s Club. Lacking money for a grand burial, Lucy had him laid to rest near her mother in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.
In the decades that followed, Henson’s supporters continued to fight for his recognition. His friend and fellow explorer Herbert Frisby successfully petitioned the state of Maryland to declare April 6, 1959—the 50th anniversary of the North Pole achievement—“Matthew Alexander Henson Day.” In 1961, a bronze plaque honoring Henson at the Maryland State House became the first state-sponsored memorial to an African American person in Maryland’s history. Since then, Maryland has named a state park, a hiking trail, and multiple schools after the explorer.
Perhaps the most poetic justice for Henson arrived 45 years after his death. The National Geographic Society awarded Henson the Hubbard Medal, its highest honor, for his contributions to geographical knowledge. Way back in 1906, Peary had been the Hubbard Medal’s inaugural recipient. Back then, President Theodore Roosevelt personally gave a speech honoring the explorer’s farthest north. The ceremony honoring Henson and his long-ago triumphs wasn’t as glitzy—but it righted a historic wrong.
Even after Peary, Cook, and Henson were gone, the argument over who had reached the North Pole first wasn’t settled. A TV docudrama that made the case for Cook stirred up the controversy in the 1980s and forced Peary’s descendants into the conversation. For decades, they had kept his expedition journals at the National Archives locked away from curious researchers. In light of the attack on Peary’s legacy, his family begrudgingly made the papers available to the public. The National Geographic Society commissioned polar adventurer Wally Herbert to analyze the data, and in 1988, he concluded in a bombshell National Geographic article that Peary likely hadn’t made it to the Pole.
Cook’s supporters were ecstatic. After years, it seemed he had finally been vindicated. But while the National Geographic report didn’t look good for Peary, it didn’t confirm Cook’s alleged achievement. The case had not been solved. The National Geographic Society then commissioned non-partisan experts at the Navigation Foundation to analyze the Peary expedition a second time. In December 1989, they found that Peary’s claim was genuine.
But the popular consensus among polar historians today is that Peary came pretty close to the North Pole—definitely closer than any explorer had at the time—while Cook came nowhere near it. Just how close each of them were may never be known.
It wouldn’t be until the 1960s that anyone could truly, indisputably, claim to have made the long, hard journey across the ice to stand at the North Pole. And that person was about as far from the heroic image embodied by polar conquerors William Edward Parry, Fridtjof Nansen, or Robert Peary as can be conceived.
The Quest for the North Pole is hosted by me, Kat Long.
This episode was researched by me and written by Michele Debczak, 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. Thanks to our experts Edward Larson, Susan Kaplan, and James Edward Mills.
For transcripts, a glossary, and to learn more about this episode, visit mentalfloss.com/podcast.
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.