“The Pole at Last!”

Robert A. Peary (1856-1920)
Matthew Henson (1866-1955)
American Arctic explorers, Navy surveyors, engineers

Robert Peary, lead many expeditions to the Arctic and Greenland, He chose Matthew Henson as his assistant. Henson, was an African-American.

Peary was born on May 6, 1856 in Cresson, PA. He entered the U.S. Navy in 1881 and continued there until his retirement.
Henson was born on August 8, 1866 in Charles County, MD.

1877, Robert Peary went to work as a surveyor, with the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. In 1881 he entered the U.S. Navy Corps of Civil Engineers as a lieutenant. It was while working in steamy Nicaragua, on the construction of the Ship Canal, that Peary began to dream of conquering the Arctic.. He was able to arrange that he could pursue his Arctic explorations while he was on leave from the Navy. While shopping for supplies Peary met Henson, then a U.S. Navy civil engineer. Henson knew a good deal about travel, having gone to sea as a cabin boy at the early age of 12. Peary was so impressed with Henson’s skills and knowledge that he made him part of his Nicaraguan surveying crew. Eventually, Henson would come to be Peary's most valued associate. Away from the racist attitudes in the US at the turn of the century, Henson was an advantage in relationships with the Inuit people of the Arctic. They treated him like a lost brother. To them, he was a hero who learned to speak “Inuktitu”, as well as the skills for survival on the ice..

One of their first expeditions North was to the interior of Greenland in 1886. Peary also led an expedition in 1891 to Northern Greenland. On this expedition he proved Greenland was an island. In 1898 both men traveled on the ship Windward in an attempt to reach the North Pole. After four years they did not make it. In all they made eight assaults on the Pole. 1905 they tried again on the Roosevelt, a ship designed to sail through masses of moving ice. Hardships forced the expedition to retreat after coming within 200 miles of the Pole.

In 1908 Peary and Henson set out over ice from Ellesmere Island. On April 6, 1909 they finally reached the North Pole, accompanied by four Eskimos. It has been said that Henson was first to the Pole by a few minutes.
(Dr. Frederick Cook, (1865-1940), also claimed to be first to the Pole. The controversy continues to this day.) The North Pole was conquered by air in 1926 by Admiral Richard E. Byrd, (also disputed). Two days later, Noblie, Amundsen and Ellswirth made a Trans-Arctic Polar flight in the dirigible Norge

Peary died on February 20, 1920 in Washington D.C.
In 1913 President Taft appointed Henson a messenger in the New York Customs House, a position he held until 1936. Henson died on March 5, 1955 in New York City.