Today’s blog is written by Netisha Currie, Archives Specialist at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.
In addition to permanent government records, the National Archives also holds many documents and artifacts relating to polar exploration. These records were donated by many explorers and scholars to the Center for Polar Archives at NARA until the late 1970s. One of the most extensive and famous collections belongs to Robert Peary, famous for leading the first Arctic expedition to reach the North Pole.
Many documents and photographs in the Peary Collection (Collection Identifier XP) deal with Matthew Henson, the first African American polar explorer, who had a close 20 year relationship with Peary and accompanied him as navigator, driver, craftsmen, and translator on many expeditions.
Although Henson contributed greatly to the Peary party reaching the North Pole in 1909 (and by his own account was the first to walk to the spot of the North Pole), he was not among those who received wide ranging recognition once the crew made it home. The explorer was honored with a dinner ceremony by the Colored Citizens of New York in 1909, but acknowledgement of Henson’s achievements were non-existent outside of the African American community. Nearly 30 years later, Matthew Henson received an invitation to join the prestigious Explorers Club; and in 1945 was awarded a US Navy medal for his role in the Arctic explorations.
The same discrimination and prejudice that delayed recognition and celebration of his achievements was also a cause for frustration and anger while racing to the North Pole.
Letter from Matthew Henson to Robert Peary, 9/5/1906
This letter (from Papers Relating to Arctic Expeditions, 1886-1909, National Archives Identifier 304961) was written during the 1905-06 expedition to Greenland aboard the USS Roosevelt. In the letter Henson airs his frustrations with members of the crew spreading false rumors, talking behind his back, mistreating him, and generally being jealous of his ability. Alluding to their long relationship Henson tells Peary near the end: “You have been knowing me for nineteen years and I have never carried you any tailes [sic] and it is to [sic] late to begin now.” Matt Henson’s continued participation in future polar expeditions suggest he and Robert Peary’s relationship did not suffer as a result of the scheming of the crew. By many accounts, Robert Peary greatly respected and recognized the abilities of Matt Henson, declaring that he would not have made it to the North Pole without him.