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A Black explorer led the first expedition to reach the North Pole (4 photos)

Matthew Henson visited Nova Scotia on historic Arctic voyage

In September, 1909, word spread to all corners of the world—the North Pole had been found!

The returning explorers enjoyed a hero’s welcome when their ship, Roosevelt, sailed into Sydney, Nova Scotia.

This was the eighth Arctic expedition for Commander Robert Peary’s right hand man, Matthew Henson. The Maryland-born Henson was a capable craftsman, musher and navigator.

At the start of this 15-month odyssey, dozens of Inuit men, women and children had joined the ship’s crew. With Henson onboard, communication was never a problem. He had previously adopted an Inuk boy and had become fluent in Inuktitut.

From a basecamp on Canada’s Ellesmere Island, Henson and his men—along with several dog teams—endured a treacherous 36-day drive to the pole over ice and water, often earning their progress with pickaxes.

Hensen and four Inuit men travelled ahead of Peary, risking their lives in -50C temperatures while scouting safe passage to the pole. Henson described the travel as, “haste, toil, and misery as cannot be comprehended by the mind.”

As they neared the pole, Peary joined Henson’s advance team, checking their location with a sextant and a pan of mercury.

They finally planted an American flag at the North Pole atop an ice ridge. Henson wrote, “I felt a savage joy and exultation. I felt all that it was possible for me to feel.”

Back in Nova Scotia, as his ship departed for New York, Henson reached across to the pilot boat and shook hands with that vessel’s chief engineer, one Mr. Swicker.

A widely-published newspaper story reported: “Swicker has a grip like a vise and he held fast to Henson’s hand as the Roosevelt swung away.” Indeed, the engineer yanked Henson over the gunwales, sending him splashing into Sydney Harbour.

Henson could look forward to better treatment in America. Famed African American leader Booker T. Washington was scheduled to present him with a gold watch at a congratulatory reception hosted by the Colored Citizens of New York.

But Henson and Peary returned home to controversy. Critics suggested a rival explorer, Frederick Cook, was first to the pole. Others tried to discredit Peary's accomplishment because he had no white witnesses with him at the pole.

Then seventy years later, some claimed Peary and Henson had miscalculated, missing the North Pole by 30 miles or more.

But neither racism or revisionism could diminish Henson's achievements.

In 1987, US President Ronald Reagan paved the way for the remains of Matthew Henson and his wife to be exhumed and reburied at Arlington National Cemetery—an honourable last resting place for one of the most accomplished explorers in history.

Henson quotes sourced from A Black Explorer at the North Pole by Matthew A. Henson (1912). Thank you to MtA library staff and my father, Ron Macnab (Geological Survey of Canada, retired) for help with research.

About the Author: Bruce MacNab

Bruce MacNab is the author of the award-winning biography The Metamorphosis: the apprenticeship of Harry Houdini. Raised in Dartmouth, he attended NSCAD and the Nova Scotia Institute of Technology. He now lives alongside Nova Scotia’s Cobequid Mountains
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