Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Robert Peary: The North Pole at last! - But was he the first to get there? And who was Matthew Henson, the black American who accompanied him?


The Pole at last!!! The prize of 3 centuries, my dream & ambition for 28 years. Mine at last.

- Journal of Robert E. Peary, April 6, 1909

Peary aboard his ship, the Roosevelt

Robert Peary and long-time associate Matthew Henson claimed to have been the first persons to reach the North Pole on this day, 102 years ago. They were accompanied by four Inuit men, the rest of the crew having retreated. Although Peary is usually credited with the accomplishment, there have been many doubters and sceptics. The veracity of his claim has been widely debated and Peary himself remains a controversial figure, often criticized for his treatment of the Inuit.

Robert Edwin Peary was born in Cresson, Pennsylvania on May 6, 1856. After the death of his father in 1859, he moved to Maine. He studied engineering at Bowdoin College and graduated in 1877. His home in Fryeburg, Maine is still in existence and is known as “Admiral Peary House.”

Peary was 24 years old when he entered the United States Navy in 1881. The young naval officer met his future bride, Josephine, at a popular dance spot in Washington, D.C. Josephine Cecilia Diebitsch was born in Forestville, Maryland on May 22, 1863. Her father, Herman H. Diebitsch, was a linguist at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington. Josephine studied at Spencerian Business College and graduated as valedictorian in 1880.

Embarking on a rather progressive career route for a woman of her era, Josephine began her professional career with employment as a clerk/copyist at the Department of the Interior. After taking competitive exams, she later earned a position at the U.S. Census Bureau. At the age of 19, however, Josephine left the Census Bureau to take over her ailing father’s duties at the Smithsonian Institute, until his death in 1883. She was still working at the Smithsonian in 1886 when she resigned upon her engagement to Lieutenant Robert E. Peary of the Civil Engineer Corps of the U.S. Navy.

That same year, Robert Peary was granted a six-month leave of absence from the navy for Arctic exploration. On June 8, 1886, he and a companion, Danish Lieutenant Christian Maigaard, set out from the west coast of Greenland. They travelled by dogsled over the Greenland ice sheet for 161 km. (100 miles). The following year, Peary and Mathhew Henson went on an expedition to explore Nicaragua for a canal route survey, but plans to build the canal never came to fruition. Upon his return to Washington, Peary wed Josephine on August 11, 1888, a stifling hot day. The newlyweds travelled by train to Atlantic City for their honeymoon and then moved into a Philadelphia apartment.

Josephine Peary in Greenland 1892

In 1891, Peary returned to Greenland with seven companions, including his wife, Matthew Henson and Frederick A. Cook (the man who would later claim to have reached the North Pole before him). During that second expedition, Peary discovered Independence Fjord and found evidence of Greenland being an island. He also encountered a remote Inuit tribe, the “Arctic Highlanders,” who assisted him significantly on future expeditions.

Peary’s first attempt to reach the North Pole came during his journey of 1893-1894 in which he again sledged to northeastern Greenland. His wife Jo, six months pregnant when they set out, had insisted insisted on being part of the expedition. She gave birth to the couple’s first child; a daughter named Marie Ahnighito, at Inglefield Gulf, Greenland. Born September 12, 1893, Marie was dubbed “Snow Baby” by the press and the Inuit who had never seen a child with fair hair and blue eyes. She was the most northerly born Caucasian up to that time.

Marie Peary, The Snow Baby

Robert Peary’s second attempt to reach the pole was supported by a $50,000 gift from George Crocker, the youngest son of railroad executive Charles Crocker. Peary used the money to build the Roosevelt, an exceptionally strong new ship that would smash through ice. He sailed the Roosevelt to Cape Sheridan on Canada’s Ellesmere Island in 1905. The sledging season, however, was unsuccessful due to unfavourable weather and ice conditions. As a result, Perry’s party fell far short of its goal.

For his final attempt to reach the North Pole, Robert Peary and 23 men set off aboard the Roosevelt from New York City on July 6, 1908 under the command of Captain Robert Bartlett, a Newfoundlander. The crew spent the winter on Ellesmere Island and departed for the pole on February 28 – March 1, 1909.

It is noteworthy that when Robert Peary purportedly reached the North Pole on April 6, 1906, the man standing beside him, Matthew A. Henson, was an African American from Maryland. Henson was born on August 8, 1866. He was orphaned at an early age and set out to find a job on the waterfront when he was only about 12 years old. He eventually worked as a cabin boy on the merchant ship Katie Hines.

It was at sea that Matthew received his education. An elderly sea captain tutored him in mathematics, the Bible and the classics. Under the guidance of Captain Childs, the young Henson learned to be a navigator and a competent seaman. After the death of Childs, Henson left the Katie Hines and went back to the United States. For two years, he worked at odd jobs in Boston, Providence, Buffalo and New York.

At the age of 19, Matthew Henson returned to Washington, D.C. While working as a stock clerk at a hat store, he was introduced to Robert Peary, then a naval civil engineer. In 1897, on the recommendation of the store owner, Henson was hired as Peary’s valet for the Nicaragua Canal route survey. Matt’s position as “man servant” was short lived. During the Nicaragua journey, he proved himself to be a capable seaman who could perform many tasks competently. Peary promoted him to the transit crew.

In 1889, Robert Peary once again employed Henson, this time to assist him in Philadelphia. It was in the City of Brotherly Love that Matthew met his first wife, Eva Helen Flint. His long and frequent absences were not easy on the relationship and the couple divorced after six years of marriage. Shortly before leaving on Peary’s polar expedition of 1907, Henson married for a second time, to Lucy Ross, a bank clerk. They did not have any children

Matthew Alexander Henson accompanied Peary on eight expeditions to the Arctic over 18 years (1891-1909) and became indispensible to him. Due to racial prejudices at the time, however, he was never accorded the recognition he so richly deserved. Matthew had a great affinity with the Inuit people. He learned Inuktitut, the language of the polar Inuit, ate their food and adapted to their culture and lifestyle. He was also a skilled hunter and an expert builder of boats and sleds. The Inuit fondly referred to him as Maye-Paluq, “the kind one.”

Matthew Henson

Robert Peary retired as a rear admiral in 1911 and moved to Eagle Island on the coast of Maine. He settled in the town of Farawayville and his home there is now a Maine State Historic Site. Peary passed away in Washington, D.C. on February 20, 1920 at the age of 63. He is buried in the Arlington National Cemetery.

Josephine Diebitsch Peary lived a long life and is also buried at Arlington National Cemetery, near the grave of her husband. She died in Portland, Maine on December 19, 1955 at the age of 92. Jo was an Arctic explorer in her own right and travelled farther north over the ice fields than any other white woman. She wrote a book titled The Snow Baby (published in 1901), about the birth and early childhood of her daughter, Marie in the Arctic. She also co-authored Children of the Arctic with Marie, an account of the Peary family’s visits to Greenland.

In 1913, by order of President William Howard Taft, Matthew Henson was appointed a clerk in the U.S. Customs House in New York, a position he held until he retired in 1936. He died on March 9, 1955 in New York City at the age of 88. Although he was originally buried in The Bronx, Matthew was reinterred near Peary’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery in 1988.

The “snow baby,” Marie Peary, married a Washington attorney named Edward Stafford in 1917 and gave birth to two sons. She became President of the International Society of Women Geographers and was recognized as a respected lecturer and author. In 1932, Marie returned to the Arctic to erect a monument in her father’s memory. After the deaths of both her mother and Edward in 1955, she moved to Bowdoin, Maine and married her second husband, retired sea man William Kuhne, in 1967. Marie lived the rest of her life in Bowdoin and died there in 1978.

Marie Peary and Robert Bartlett unveil the dedication plaque on Peary monument 19

 Robert and Josephine Peary had two other children. Their second child, a daughter named Francine, died at the age of seven months. Their youngest child, Robert Edwin Peary, Jr., was a civil engineer for 40 years, he made career-related visits to the Arctic regions of Canada and Greenland where he helped design and construct military bases and radar systems. A resident of Augusta, Maine, Robert Jr. died of cancer on March 9, 1994 at the home of his daughter in Sarasota, Florida. He was 90 years old at the time of his death.

Robert Peary with son, Robert Jr.

During their expeditions, both Robert Peary and Matthew Henson fathered children by Inuit women. The existence of these children was hushed up and not widely known. The truth was finally brought to the attention of the public in the 1980s by S. Allen Counter, author of North Pole Legacy: Black, White and Eskimo. After hearing rumours of an Inuit son of Henson’s, Counter travelled to northwestern Greenland to see what he could unearth.

In Greenland, Dr. Counter discovered that Matthew Henson had fathered a son and that Robert Peary had sired two sons. Peary’s sons were named Anaukaq and Kali. Both were born aboard Peary’s ship Roosevelt. Their mother was a woman named Ahlikahsingwah whom Perry first met during his 1893-1894 expedition while taking photographs of local Inuit. Matthew Henson and a woman named Akatingwah had a son – Henson s only child – also named Anaukaq.

S. Allen Counter wrote about his findings in the centennial issue of National Geographic (September 1988). He also brought the descendents of the two explorers to the United States to visit their American relatives.

In the 1980s, an examination Robert Peary’s expedition diary and other documents placed doubt on whether Peary actually reached the North Pole. Due to a combination of navigational miscalculations and record-keeping errors, Peary may on have ended up 50-100 km. (30-60 miles) short of his destination. The truth remains shrouded in uncertainty.


Why did the thief get for stealing a calendar?


12 months



The Toronto Maple Leafs lost in a shootout against the Washington Capitals last night and all pretence of them playing in the postseason has disappeared.  This will be their seventh spring without competing in the playoffs, although they have certainly played admirably since the all-star break. If only they had performed as well during the first half of the season. Alas, that did not happen! So, it’s time to take out the golf clubs. Leafs fans will just have to watch other teams compete for Lord Stanley’s jug – as usual. 

- Joanne

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