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The North Pole was first reached April 6, 1909
(above) Matt Henson muscles his sledge through jumbled sea ice.
(left) George Borup (center) with Eskimo team.
After 18 years of Arctic experience, skill & accumulated knowledge, Henson & Peary made a successful expedition to reach the Pole by employing teams of men, supplies, trail breaking Inuit sledge drivers and the best dogs hand picked for their strength and endurance. One man died and others almost drown, yet they finally reached the North Pole. Only today can we appreciate how difficult and truly dangerous this journey was. After the 1909 expedition no one went back to the Pole until an airplane flew over it in 1926. The Henson & Peary 1909 North Pole expedition is still a legendary achievement of strategy, extraordinary skill and great determination. Their round trip to the Pole and back to land with dog sledges has never been duplicated(1).

Henson & Peary traveled in the Arctic 100 years ago; before there were airplanes, Global Positioning Satellites or Gore-Tex parkas. Expedition team member Matthew Alexander Henson, Navy Commander Robert Edwin Peary, with four Inuit reached the North Pole on April 6, 1909. They had prepared for many years by making expeditions over the arctic sea ice to gain the experience required for the dangerous, 826 nautical mile (approximate round trip distance) journey over the frozen Arctic Ocean.

During expeditions from 1891 until 1909 they had journeyed across the northern tip of Greenland and Ellesmere Island - hoping to find a land bridge or island reaching northward. They learned to travel over the shifting sea ice while looking for a route to the Pole. They retrieved meteorites, one of which weighed over 70,000 pounds, now displayed at the Museum of Natural History. They proved that the North Pole is over a deep but partially frozen ocean. They lowered measuring instruments to record the oceans depth where no scientist had done so before. They brought back animal specimens, photographs and written accounts of the native Inuit's ways of survival in such an extreme climate. Matthew Henson worked with the Natural History Museum in New York to create accurate exhibits depicting the people and animals of the North. The public was fascinated to learn about the Arctic from them. They wrote books & scientific papers, gave public lectures, but best of all they explored and they discovered the most remote place on Earth.
April 6, 1909 at the North Pole
From Humbug to Convict - the Cook hoax
However, what should have been a glorious public reception was turned into a controversy when hoaxer, con artist, and later Federal Prisoner # 23118, Dr. Frederick Cook, claimed he reached the Pole a year before Peary's team - apparently without any proof other than his "cooked up" story. The public was divided and polarized by Cook for about 3 months, until his lies became his downfall to total disgrace.

Cook's fraud caused only temporary damage to the honor of the 1909 expedition team. Later, Cook's daughter would make her criminal father's antics a sort of family crusade by creating & maintaining a bizarre cult following of "Cookies" who believed it was all a conspiracy. Family money funded the "Cook Society" that pays authors to write anti-Peary and pro-Cook material for encyclopedias, popular books, novels, and the Internet. Interestingly, there are numerous anti-Cook books solidly documenting his frauds yet media people still sometimes dig up Cook like some lost "Big foot" or "Loch Ness monster."

The public, by 1910, was tired of the Cook-Peary affair. In that day African Americans had no place in society. Thus Henson was not given the recognition he deserved through 18 years and 7 highly dangerous, difficult Arctic journeys he endured. But America was inspired for generations by the Peary achievement of the North Pole until the Cook Society made headway with the shameful Wally Herbert book Noose of Laurels.
Henson's life achievements reflect his noble character, making him a perennial role model to young persons. Everyone who wrote about Matt used enthusiastic phrases. They describe a gentleman of remarkable poise and emotional stability; always cheerful, never bitter, a courageous hero whose determination and inner strength allowed him to live without fear but with compassion and humility. While Matt accomplished much, he received few rewards in his lifetime.

He is honored today by a monument at Arlington National Cemetery, a US Postal stamp, books and a US Naval Ship bearing his name. Matt's Inuit descendants have been united with their American relatives. Delroy Lindo has portrayed Matt in a TNT original movie for TBS broadcast on cable TV in 1999. Dr. Allen Counter of Harvard has made wonderful contributions to the legacy of Henson with many remarkable achievements.



 

1) It is too dangerous - all dog sledge or snowmobile teams attempting it have been air-rescued at the Pole. Except for one team of true dog handling experts who made everyone else look like bozos!

 


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