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Frozen Dreams

Matthew Henson helped discover the North Pole. It would take many years for the world to discover him.

It was April 3, 1909, and an American explorer named Matthew Henson was trudging across the ice-covered Arctic Ocean. This was a frozen wilderness, a land of brutal cold and blinding blizzards. No person could survive here for long. Even polar bears stayed away.

But a fiery excitement warmed Henson’s heart. He felt sure that he was just days from achieving his dream of being one of the first people to set foot on the North Pole.

Henson put his head down and pushed against the fierce wind. Suddenly, he lost his balance. The ice beneath his feet wobbled, and he tumbled into the ocean. The frigid water hit his skin like millions of needles.

The water seemed to grab him and pull him down. Henson had dedicated nearly 20 years of his life trying to get to the North Pole. And now it seemed it would all end here, in the icy blackness of the Arctic Ocean. 

Kingdom of Ice

Matthew Henson was born in 1866, a time when few people traveled more than a few miles from where they were born. There were no airplanes zooming across continents and oceans, no cars or Google Maps. Parts of the world were still mostly unknown. 

One place in particular remained unreachable: the North Pole. It sits in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, which is mostly covered in floating ice. The closest land is Greenland, an island more than 500 miles away.

The native people of Greenland, the Inuit, did not venture close to the North Pole. They believed the area was cursed by a demon called Kokoyah, a knife-toothed beast that lurked under the ice. And the Arctic is indeed cursed—by weather that is colder and stormier than almost anywhere on the planet.

Beginning in the 1500s, European explorers began sailing into the “kingdom of ice.” They searched for ocean routes from Europe to Asia —the Northwest and Northeast Passages.

More than 100 men died trying to find them. Their ships were crushed by the 10-foot-thick slabs of ice that drift across the Arctic. Sailors who escaped onto the ice soon died in temperatures that plunged to 60 degrees below zero. But despite these disasters, the frozen beauty and mystery of the Arctic kept luring explorers and adventurers.

A Chance Meeting

Robert Peary

It’s doubtful Matthew Henson heard much about the Arctic when he was a boy growing up in Washington, D.C. By the age of 13, Henson was an orphan. As an African American, he faced vicious racism that was common throughout America at the time.

At 13, he walked 40 miles to Baltimore, hoping to get a job as a sailor. He persuaded a ship captain to hire him as a cabin boy—the lowliest job on a ship. Henson sailed around the world. He learned to read and became a skilled sailor and carpenter.

He returned to Washington, D.C., at age 18, hoping his experiences would help him land a good job. But at the time, most white business owners refused to hire African Americans. The best job Henson could find was stocking shelves in a hat store.

One day, a tall, mustached man came into the store. His name was Robert Peary, and he was an engineer in the U.S. Navy. Peary was preparing for a Navy expedition to map a jungle in Central America. He was looking for a cabin boy. 

Fierce Ambitions

Impressed by Henson’s experience at sea, Peary offered him the job. Of course, Henson was capable of far more. But eager to escape the hat shop, he accepted Peary’s offer. Little did he know how this decision would change his life—and history.

As Henson would discover, Peary was a man of fierce ambitions. As a white man trained as an engineer, Peary, unlike Henson, had many opportunities to make his dreams come true. And Peary had big dreams. More explorers were venturing into the Arctic, racing to be the first to reach the North Pole. The winner of this race would become famous. Peary decided that man should be him.

When he and Henson returned from Central America, Peary began planning for a yearlong trip to northern Greenland, the land closest to the North Pole. He wanted Henson to come along as his “manservant.”

By then it was clear to Peary how much more Henson could do; he had impressed Peary on the Central American trip. Henson had taken on complex jobs, working alongside Navy engineers. But Peary’s eyes were clouded by racist ideas. No matter what Henson did, Peary would never see past the color of Henson’s skin to treat him as an equal.

Surely Henson was embittered by this injustice. But he couldn’t resist the chance to see more of the world. 

Blubber and Blood

Henson and Peary set sail for Greenland in June 1891 with four other men and Peary’s wife, Josephine. One month later, they came ashore and set up camp near a bay. As planned, the ship sailed away and would return in one year to pick them up.

They had made it to the Arctic. But they were still 700 miles from the North Pole. Getting there would mean weeks of trekking through killing cold and ferocious blizzards.

To succeed, they would need help from experts in Arctic survival: Inuit people. The Inuit were skilled ice fishermen and hunters of arctic animals like seals, walruses, and polar bears. They wasted not a single scrap of an animal. They ate the meat and blubber and often drank the blood. They made clothes from skins and furs and carved bones into tools.

The team’s plan was to spend the first months in Greenland preparing food and other supplies they’d need to explore Greenland and find the best route to the North Pole. Peary hired Inuit women to sew them fur clothing and sealskin moccasins, which didn’t freeze and split open in the cold like leather boots did.

During this time, Henson began to forge close friendships with the Inuit people they met. Unlike Peary, Henson learned their language and joined their celebrations. Henson’s Inuit friends taught him how to hunt and ice fish. They taught Henson to drive a dogsled pulled by a team of eight arctic dogs. No other American or European explorers had these kinds of skills. 

Henson and Peary’s Final Polar Expedition (1908-1909)

Blizzards and Frostbite

In the coming years, Peary and Henson would make five more trips to the Arctic. They faced many near disasters. They got lost in blizzards and at times ran so short of food they nearly starved.

On one trip across the ice, Peary’s feet became so frostbitten that eight of his toes snapped off. He would have lost his feet completely had Henson not pushed him back to camp on a sled, an 11-day journey.

Despite these setbacks, Peary became famous. Back in America between trips, newspapers ran glowing stories about his daring adventures. Henson was rarely mentioned, except as Peary’s “manservant.”

Yet Henson had become as determined as Peary to get to the Pole. And in 1909, on their sixth trip to the Arctic, it seemed their dream was about to come true.

On April 3, they were pushing across the ice. Henson was leading the way along with four Inuit men: Seegloo, Egingwah, Ooqueah, and Ootah. Based on Peary’s measurements, they believed they were about 150 miles from the North Pole. 

Minutes from Death

But then came the moment when disaster struck. Henson slipped and tumbled into the frigid Arctic waters. Death comes within minutes in water that cold. Muscles turn to knots. Blood slows. Vision blurs as the brain powers down. Henson was just hours from achieving his dream. But he was sure he was about to die.

And then with a sudden whoosh! he practically flew up out of the water. Ootah, one of the Inuit men, had grabbed Henson, saving his life.

Three days later, Peary, Henson, and the other men all reached the North Pole. Henson planted the American flag in the snow.

But when they returned to America, it was Peary who got sole credit for “discovering” the North Pole. He took his glorious place alongside Ferdinand Magellan and Marco Polo as one of history’s famed explorers. 

From the Shadows

In the coming decades, Henson won some small awards. Within African American communities, he was deeply admired. But history books mostly ignored Henson’s achievements and those of most African Americans and nonwhite people. Henson lived a quiet life in New York City with his wife, Lucy, working as a messenger. His niece, Olive Henson Fulton, once proudly told classmates that her uncle Matthew was a famous Arctic explorer. Her teacher punished her for lying.

But by the time Henson died in 1955, America was changing. African Americans were fighting for equal rights. In the 1960s, new laws outlawed discrimination based on race. The accomplishments of African Americans began to rise out of history’s shadows. 

In 1988, Matthew Henson’s body was moved to Arlington National Cemetery, the burial ground of many of America’s admired heroes. The gravestone says:

Matthew Alexander Henson

Co-Discoverer of the North Pole.

Henson’s gravestone at Arlington National Cemetery

Continue the Learning Journey
How to Create a Comic

Turn your story into an action-packed comic strip.

Retell Matthew Henson’s story as a comic strip. What did he see during his exploration? Who did he meet along the way? How did he feel? Learn how to create a comic with the slideshow above. When you’re done, share your comic strip with a friend or family member!

Exploring the North Pole

Here’s what your life would have been like if you had been an Arctic explorer in the early 1900s.

Imagine that you were an explorer on Robert Peary and Matthew Henson’s trip to the North Pole. Check out the slideshow above to learn more about the daily life of Arctic explorers in the early 1900s. Then use what you learned in the story and the slideshow to write a journal entry describing one day of your journey. 

Let's Talk About Climate Change

Watch a video to learn more about Earth’s changing climate.

Today, the Arctic looks different than it did at the time of Matthew Henson’s journey. Sea ice is melting faster than ever before. That’s because of climate change, the change in Earth’s average temperature and weather patterns over time. Watch the video above. Then think about how you could help slow climate change. Talk to your family about your ideas and then put a plan into action!

This article was written by Lauren Tarshis for Storyworks magazine.

Image Credits: Art by Randy Pollak;Marcel Jancovic/ (dogs); Illustrations by Steve Stankiewicz; AP Images (Robert Peary); PJF Military Collection/Alamy Stock Photo (Henson's grave)