My fifth grade students have started working on a research project about American Pioneers. One of the students has chosen Matthew Henson, and when I caught a glimpse of Henson’s picture, it was like seeing an old friend. I mean I really almost said to the boy, “I know him!” Though, of course, I do not, I have spent a great deal of time with Henson. When researching The Water Castle I visited the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum at Bowdoin College where I picked up a copy of A Negro Explorer at the North Pole, Henson’s memoir of his arctic explorations. Hearing someone tell his own story creates a unique bond.
So who was Matthew Henson anyway? The son of sharecroppers, Henson was born in Maryland in 1886. At age 12, he went to Baltimore in search of work and landed a job as a cabin boy aboard the ship the Katy Hines. The ship’s commander, Captain Childs, took an interest in Henson and taught him how to sail, geography, and mathematics — skills that would serve him well as an explorer.
He left the Katy Hines and was working in a hat store in Washington, D.C. when he met Robert Peary. Peary was working for the Navy at the time, getting ready for an expedition to Nicaragua. Peary hired Henson to be his valet. Peary quickly realized Henson’s skills, and began talking to him of his dreams to reach the North Pole. Henson was eager to join him, and they would explore together for decades.
On the attempts to the Pole, Henson was listed as Peary’s personal assistant, but he acted more like the second in command. Though this occasionally caused tension with a crew who wasn’t used to taking orders from an African-American, he was largely respected by his fellow explorers. Peary himself said he couldn’t make it to the Pole without Henson and Donald MacMillan wrote “Matthew Henson went to the Pole with Peary because he was a better man than any one of us.” Likewise, the Inuit deeply respected Henson who learned their language as well as how to drive the sledges through the ice.
Unfortunately, the American public was not so open-minded. Peary’s claim to have reached the Pole was not universally accepted. Frederick Cook claimed to have reached the Pole earlier, and factions from both sides argued for their explorer (much like Mallory and Will argue in The Water Castle). Eventually public opinion came to believe Peary’s version. Henson’s contribution, though, was not widely acknowledged for decades, a sad victim of the racism of the time. Henson took a job as a messenger and clerk in a Custom’s house. Before his death, he was honored with honorary degrees from both Howard and Morgan College, as well as being honored at the White House by President Eisenhower. He died in 1955.
Of the three explorers featured in The Water Castle, Henson is the one I admire the most. His story reflects so much of American History. On the plus side, he is an example of the American narrative that anyone with drive and determination can make a name for him or herself. On the other side, there is the fact that his achievements were overlooked because of his race, perhaps the most shameful aspect of our history. But I admire him not because he fits so neatly into the narrative of our country, but for who he was: a man doggedly pursuing his goals. While not without his faults (neither he nor Peary was a faithful husband), his writing shows him to be confident, focused, and adventurous. Peary could be petty — which is how the whole rift with Cook got started — and was willing to do just about anything to be first to the Pole. Cook, well, Cook has a few documented problems with the truth. Both Cook and Peary seemed to be seeking fame as much as the Pole itself. Matthew Henson, in contrast, seemed focused on getting there. This in itself is admirable: chasing an experience rather than chasing acclaim. It is why Nora feels a kinship with him in the book: she, too, wants to see as much of the world as possible. As a writer, though, there’s something appealing to me about a man who dedicates so much of his life and his intellect to finding a place that is not fixed, but rather a shifting spot in fields of ice. He is searching for something that exists because we say it does, the intersection of science and myth.