A Negro Explorer at the North Pole
Matthew A. Henson
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A Negro Explorer at the North Pole is the memoir of Matthew A. Henson, an African-American explorer, first published in 1912. Henson accompanied Robert Peary on seven expeditions to the Arctic. In a 1909 voyage, they claimed to have reached the North Pole, a fact that was in dispute at the time, as well as more recently. Henson was the first African American to be made a life member of The Explorers Club, awarded duplicates of the Peary Polar Expedition Medal, and in 1988, he and his wife's bodies were moved to Arlington National Cemetery.
This book has 78 pages in the PDF version, and was originally published in 1912.
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Excerpt from 'A Negro Explorer at the North Pole'
When the news of the discovery of the North Pole, by Commander Peary, was first sent to the world, a distinguished citizen of New York City, well versed in the affairs of the Peary Arctic Club, made the statement, that he was sure that Matt Henson had been with Commander Peary on the day of the discovery. There were not many people who knew who Henson was, or the reason why the gentleman had made the remark, and, when asked why he was so certain, he explained that, for the best part of the twenty years of Commander Peary's Arctic work, his faithful and often only companion was Matthew Alexander Henson.
To-day there is a more general knowledge of Commander Peary, his work and his success, and a vague understanding of the fact that Commander Peary's sole companion from the realm of civilization, when he stood at the North Pole, was Matthew A. Henson, a Colored Man.
To satisfy the demand of perfectly natural curiosity, I have undertaken to write a brief autobiography, giving particularly an account of my Arctic work.
I was born in Charles County, Maryland, August 8, 1866. The place of my birth was on the Potomac River, about forty-four miles below Washington, D. C. Slavery days were over forever when I was born. Besides, my parents were both free born before me, and in my mother's veins ran some white blood. At an early age, my parents were induced to leave the country and remove to Washington, D. C. My mother died when I was seven years old. I was taken in charge by my uncle, who sent me to school, the "N Street School" in Washington, D. C., which I attended for over six years. After leaving school I went to Baltimore, Md., where I shipped as cabin-boy, on board a vessel bound for China. After my first voyage I became an able-bodied seaman, and for four years followed the sea in that capacity, sailing to China, Japan, Manilla, North Africa, Spain, France, and through the Black Sea to Southern Russia.
It was while I was in Washington, D. C., in 1888, that I first attracted the attention of Commander Peary, who at that time was a civil engineer in the United States Navy, with the rank of lieutenant, and it was with the instinct of my race that I recognized in him the qualities that made me willing to engage myself in his service. I accompanied him as his body-servant to Nicaragua. I was his messenger at the League Island Navy Yard, and from the beginning of his second expedition to the Arctic regions, in 1891, I have been a member of every expedition of his, in the capacity of assistant: a term that covers a multitude of duties, abilities, and responsibilities.
The narrative that follows is a record of the last and successful expedition of the Peary Arctic Club, which had as its attainment the discovery of the North Pole, and is compiled from notes made by me at different times during the course of the expedition. I did endeavor to keep a diary or journal of daily events during my last trip, and did not find it difficult aboard the ship while sailing north, or when in winter-quarters at Cape Sheridan, but I found it impossible to make daily entries while in the field, on account of the constant necessity of concentrating my attention on the real business of the expedition. Entries were made daily of the records of temperature and the estimates of distance traveled; and when solar observations were made the results were always carefully noted. There were opportunities to complete the brief entries on several occasions while out on the ice, notably the six days' enforced delay at the "Big Lead," 84° north, the twelve hours preceding the return of Captain Bartlett at 87° 47' north, and the thirty-three hours at North Pole, while Commander Peary was determining to a certainty his position. During the return from the Pole to Cape Columbia, we were so urged by the knowledge of the supreme necessity of speed that the thought of recording the events of that part of the journey did not occur to me so forcibly as to compel me to pay heed to it, and that story was written aboard the ship while waiting for favorable conditions to sail toward home lands.
It was in June, 1891, that I started on my first trip to the Arctic regions, as a member of what was known as the "North Greenland Expedition." Mrs. Peary accompanied her husband, and among the members of the expedition were Dr. Frederick A. Cook, of Brooklyn, N. Y., Mr. Langdon Gibson, of Flushing, N. Y., and Mr. Eivind Astrüp, of Christiania, Norway, who had the honor of being the companion of Commander Peary in the first crossing of North Greenland—and of having an Esquimo at Cape York become so fond of him that he named his son for him! It was on this voyage north that Peary's leg was broken.
Mr. John M. Verhoeff, a stalwart young Kentuckian, was also an enthusiastic member of the party. When the expedition was ready to sail home the following summer, he lost his life by falling in a crevasse in a glacier. His body was never recovered. On the first and the last of Peary's expeditions, success was marred by tragedy. On the last expedition, Professor Ross G. Marvin, of Cornell University, lost his life by being drowned in the Arctic Ocean, on his return from his farthest north, a farther north than had ever been made by any other explorers except the members of the last expedition. Both Verhoeff and Marvin were good friends of mine, and I respect and venerate their memories.
Naturally the impressions formed on my first visit to the Land of Ice and Snow were the most lasting, but in the coming years I was to learn more and more that such a life was no picnic, and to realize what primitive life meant. I was to live with a people who, the scientists stated, represented the earliest form of human life, living in what is known as the Stone Age, and I was to revert to that stage of life by leaps and bounds, and to emerge from it by the same sudden means. Many and many a time, for periods covering more than twelve months, I have been to all intents an Esquimo, with Esquimos for companions, speaking their language, dressing in the same kind of clothes, living in the same kind of dens, eating the same food, enjoying their pleasures, and frequently sharing their griefs. I have come to love these people. I know every man, woman, and child in their tribe. They are my friends and they regard me as theirs.
Production notes: This edition of A Negro Explorer at the North Pole was published by Global Grey ebooks on the 14th March 2021. The artwork used for the cover is 'An Arctic Summer' by William Bradford.