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James E. Henson Sr.  

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Henson and Peary; North Pole expedition  

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Allen Counter  

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Henson and Peary; North Pole expedition  

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Henson and Peary; North Pole expedition  

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Henson and Peary; North Pole expedition  

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Henson and Peary; North Pole expedition  

NPR/NGS Radio Expeditions
21 Nov 1998

    Geography
  • United States
    Virginia
    Arlington County
    Locality
  • Arlington National Cemetery
    Latitude/Longitude
  • 38.87917   -77.06889
    Channels
  • Stereo
    Sampling Rate
  • 48kHz
    Bit Depth
  • 16-bit
    Recorders
    Microphones
    Accessories
    Equipment Note
  • Stereo=1; Split track

Radio Expeditions
September 21, 1998
Henson/Smith Interview

00:00:29
Ambi: Lots of background noises: Thunder and raining and peoples voices. Most voices are unintelligible but thunder is prevalent throughout the recording.

DS
00:01:38 Identify yourself.00:01:40

JH
00:01:41 James E. Henson senior. I like to be referred to as Jim.

DS
00:01:47 And your connection with Matthew Henson.00:01:48

JH
00:01:49 I'm a great nephew of Matthew Henson. My grandfather, Bailey Henson and Matthew Henson were half brothers.

DS
00:01:57 In your talk you talked about Perry being an equal opportunity explorer. Say that again. 00:02:08

JH
00:02:09 Perry was an equal opportunity explorer. He gave Uncle Matthew an equal opportunity to show what he could do before the law required people to be nondiscriminatory in their hiring practices.

DS
00:02:26 Matthew Henson was the right hand man and co-discoverer of Perry and the North Pole. Tell me how did Perry regard him.00:02:43

JH
00:02:47 From my reading, I think Perry had a great deal of respect for Matthew Henson's abilities and his skills. I think, from what I have read, Adm. Perry was a very goal oriented person and his main focus was on achieving his objectives. So, I don't think that he was very personable, a participatory manager so to speak. I think he was more of an authoritarian but given the drive that he had and his great ambition to reach the North Pole, I think that he was very determined to reach his goal, and his relationship with Matthew Henson was a part of that. I think Matthew Henson was a means to help him achieve his goal.

DS
00:03:39 How did he help that? 00:03:40

JH
00:03:41 Well, he helped in a number of ways. You take the one concept of survival. When other explorers had tried to reach the North Pole. Approximately 800 people have died, had died, trying to reach the North Pole. The Inuit people became very valuable to Perry's expedition because they knew how to survive in the hostile climate. Uncle Matthew, because he was looked upon by the Inuits like he was a brother because he was a darker shade, he learned their language, he spoke it fluently, he earned their respect. They went places because he was with the expedition that they wouldn't have gone because it was contrary to their culture to go out on the ice, for example, when they had no reason. They thought there weren't any animals out there, and things like that. At any rate, on the survival, he learned how to survive, he helped, he saved Perry's life a couple of times, once by shooting a musk ox that was bearing down on Perry and Perry's gun jammed. Matthew had one bullet. He fired that bullet and killed the musk ox. So he saved his life a couple of times. Matter of fact, his first aid was very crucial in Perry's treatment when he eventually had to have eight toes amputated. So, in terms of the dog sledges, he built sledges that were really stronger than the Inuit sledges. And it was a part, I guess, of being an old sailor and learning how to tie the knots early. But, he was also versed in navigation because Captain Charles had taught him that as a teenager aboard the ship so, and they had eighteen years of being together so his loyalty, his support, that was another way that he helped Perry. So it was tangible things and some intangible.

(Ambi: Thunder and laughter loud here)

DS
00:05:55 As you say, Perry lost eight toes. Henson didn't lose anything did he? 00:06:00

JH
00:06:01 No, he didn't lose any toes. I think that the most serious injury was to his eye and ironically, the Cook, Dr. Cook's family, nursed him back to good health when he came back to the States. That's a bit of irony because there was a big controversy ultimately between Cook and Perry about who reached the North Pole.

DS
00:06:24 After they attained the Pole, what happened to Henson's reputation after that? 00:06:40

JH
00:06:41 Well, I don't think his reputation, except in small circles, was widely known. He was somewhat like the invisible man on the team. I mean, even for medals, the Congress, and (aside: see ya at the ship) National Geographic.. and.. um and well, not so much National Geographic, but the Congress and the military. They gave awards to people who didn't make the last leg but Henson didn't get those medals until in the fifties. I mean, it was like forty years later. So, I don't think that his reputation was affected. But, in those times, to many, an African-American man was invisible anyway. And some say that that's why he was chosen for the last leg, because he wouldn't count and it would just be Perry who would get the credit. But, he was a remarkable person that had a lot of, as you've heard today and as I have read. He knew who he was and he knew that one day he would be judged by what he had done. And he was confident and assured that he had done his best and had done a good work. And it is really bearing fruit because now, I mean, people are looking back and getting the facts and they are, they have tremendous love and respect for him. And he was a great American hero.

DS
00:08:08 How did today make you feel, as a relative? 00:08:13

Ambi: Continued thunder and the sputtering of an engine, maybe a car running in the background as well as human voices laughing and talking

JH
00:08:14 It makes me think that there is justice in America. That history, once corrected, can produce some very changed results in people's thinking, in people's attitudes and the way that people view each other. Particularly people who are different because I think we've had enough experience, now, to know that all of the cultures have contributed to the success of America and as we find out that all these other cultures have contributed and recognized it, I think that it has a tendency to bring us all together in a stronger knit, so to speak.

DS
00:09:01 Thank you. Very well said.

00:09:33
(2 minutes of ambiance mainly thunder and rain, people's voices, car noises, horns etc¿ Some JH voice giving directions and such)

National Geographic Expeditions
September 21, 1991

Dr. S. Allen Counter

00:12:56
Interview begins
Ambi: conversation and large crowd noises

00:13:34
DS: What happened to Henson's reputation after the North Pole? 00:13:47

AC
00:13:48 Well, when he returned to America he was celebrated as much as Peary was celebrated but he was celebrated in the African-American community. If you read the New York Times of 1909 he was received by the African American community, which at that time was a kind of satellite in itself. The two worlds, the black community and the white community evolved, or revolved about each other as sort of planets, if you will. And in his world he was celebrated by none other than Booker T. Washington who was somewhat like the president of black America at that time, in many ways. Um.. many of the very famous dignitaries of New York including Adam Clayton Powell Sr. Gave him a great gathering at the Tuxedo Club that was so outstanding that the New York Times wrote about it. Peary was being celebrated in Washington, primarily by the National Geographic Society and other groups and Henson, of course was sort of attached to Peary's star, we have to accept that. But what happened was that Peary was in this controversy with Cook about who reached the North Pole first and naturally that had a tremendous impact on Henson and his credibility. So, as I pointed out in my book, North Pole Legacy, I found the letters showing that Henson had gone out and he had begun to make presentations with slides, actually, because he was the only one on the expedition, other than Peary, who had slides. He had one of the early cameras that they took there. In fact even Kodak cameras that they had, at that time. What they did was to take pictures all about the area, enough to show that they had reached a certain point North and it was Henson that was going about giving lectures when Peary couldn't, trying to prove that they reached the North Pole. And in one letter that Peary wrote to Henson, actually I take that back, he wrote it to the man who was paying Henson, he said " We must do something about Henson , I have a feeling he's given to megalomania. In other words, Peary felt that he thought very highly of himself. And he said also that he might bring in the issue of the race question in these lectures so he must be stopped in terms of his lectures. So, Henson was simply trying to offer proof that they had reached the North Pole. He didn't want to lose this opportunity for himself, or for Peary. But, Peary would not permit him to do this because of the, quote, in Peary's words now, "the race question". And it turns out that Henson then sort of fell on hard times, if you will, because it was hard for him to get a job. He took a few menial jobs and finally, through Peary's efforts, the President of the United States wrote a letter and as I recall through my research, it was President Taft, giving him a job as a messenger in the Customs House in New York. The advantage of that job was that it was a government position which meant that it carried with it a pension. The disadvantage, of course, was that it still was a menial job and carried with it a very low wage. It was hard for Henson to take care of himself and his family on that small amount of money. So, he did have some difficult times and it was not until 1947, when the Urban League and other National Groups decided to bring him back to National attention and later a book was written about him, by Bradley Robinson, called Dark Companion, that the country began to sort of reevaluate Henson as an American hero. So, for many years he really suffered.

00:17:00
(Changing to get kitchen ambi.)

DS
00:17:10 Be specific. What did Peary mean by the race issue? 00:17:16

AC
00:17:16 Well, he meant that in the course of these discussions, Henson, by challenging Cook and by trying to show proof of their reaching the North Pole that he would bring up the issue that Peary had turned all of his white assistants back and said "Henson must go with me I cannot make it without him". And the question becomes -why did Henson or why did Peary ask all of his white assistants to turn back at different degrees latitude north and I'm convinced from my years of research that Peary did it for the simple reason that he wanted to be the first white man to stand a the North Pole. He did not consider the Eskimos or Henson his equal, and more than that, while he might of done that, it's unfair to say he did not, he knew in his heart knew that they were his equal. He knew that the world at that time, in particularly America, at that time, would not accept them as his equal. So, by turning back Marvin first and then later finally Bartlett, he lost what was called then "his credible white witness" unquote. Those are the words that were used. So that he would have had a white witness to say that he reached the Pole and Henson to get them both there.

DS
00:18:32
Identify yourself.

AC
00:18:38 Well, I'm Allen Counter. I'm from Harvard University. I'm a neuroscience professor there and director of the Harvard Foundation.

DS
00:18:47 What do you say when people ask if Peary and Henson reached the North Pole? 00:18:56

AC
00:18:57 Well, I set out to try to determine what kind of person Henson really was, the quality of his exploration and to learn more about him particularly from those individuals who have been overlooked in this process , such as the native, Inuit Eskimo, of Northwest Greenland. I met members of the native Inuit community and they saw Henson as a mater explorer and one who was an honest man who had achieved a great deal and they reported this, not just to me but earlier in their words to Peter Freukin (?) the great explorer and many others. And then secondly can the question- did they reach the Pole? And by all the evidence that I have been able to uncover and by looking at the information gathered by the Navigation Society, I am convinced beyond the shadow of a doubt that they not only reached the Pole but they reached it in the time that they said and that they had the good fortune of being able to survive the arduous, very difficult journey to the Pole and back. I think that the mathematical evidence from some of the film materials gathered there. I think that the depth measurements made by Peary and Henson , of the sea, that have been verified now by the US Navy and the Russian Navy, all the way to the Pole, that evidence could not be available to us if they had not made it. I know that there are a number of detractors who from time to time somehow come to the public attention and they gain immediate notoriety and sometimes popularity by trying to prove that Peary and Henson did not make it. I've often wondered why that seems to be an obsession with some people until I finally asked a newspaper man who was involved with headlines in a major American newspaper. "Why did you print this, knowing that you didn't really have the facts behind it?" And he said to me "Dr. Counter, this story still sells newspapers." And I think that's what it boils down to. One of the last attempts to discredit Peary and in so doing, discredit Henson, was the
effort, it's quite publicly known Dennis Rawlins who claimed he had complete proof that Peary had falsified his evidence had never made it to the pole because he had found equations that he had analyzed that offered that proof 00:21:18

AC 00:21:18 After people who are really truly respected navigators, digested it analyzed it thoroughly they came back and said "no you are wrong again Mr. Rawlins these are the serial numbers on the backs of the chronometers that you've used these are not Peary's mathematical equations for navigation, so these things come up from time to time to offer disproof but I think knowing these men, knowing their backgrounds, studying them as I did for many years, there's no question¿that they would not have said that they made it if they did not make it. 21:50

DS 21:51 Let's go back to Matthew Henson, so it's your opinion that the reason that Matthew Henson did not get the proper credit for so long because that phenomenon was a product of its times and racial relations in the United States.22:09

AC 22:11 well I think that that's clearly what it was I think we have evolved in this society with regard to race relations that is evidenced by the naming of this ship after Matthew Henson¿we have worked on this¿I have written the Navy many times to people, we've appealed to people for many years not just put the memorial in Arlington which was a big task but to gain further recognition and I think it clearly I'll give you another example¿in 1909 the National Geographic Society contacted Peary and asked him who was the man next to him at the pole and Peary in all fairness to Peary¿he said it was Matthew Henson my colored assistant and the National Geographic Society says no, no, no we mean the next white man and so Peary said Bob Bartlett¿the National Geographic Society cut a gold medal for Bob Bartlett. Now when I presented this story to National Geographic they immediately said and many of my friends-- "eh, no we don't think we did that"- I was later contacted by National Geographic people and they said "yes we did do that and we're sorry." These are the kinds of things that happen that clearly reflect the racial views of that time - I don't think anybody would do that today, I think they would want to give credit to the American who stood nearest the pole and indeed the Eskimos Uta, Gingwa, Segloo and Okea they made the North Pole discovery as well they may not have known exactly what the North Pole was but they knew that it was something of great significant to these Americans and they supported them all the way so they too should be given credit. (23:50)

DS 23:51 And exactly and why aren't they I mean there are so many examples of uh cases where white Anglo Saxon males are carrying flags and they're being helped in crucial ways by people who live in the area and know the area and for example Hiram Bingham was escorted to Manchu Pichu by a local farmer they never got recognized, they never heard from him.24:20

AC 24:25 Well, I see that changing, the same thing happened with Hillary in climbing Mount Everest. At the most recent explorers club in NY, I am proud to say that the man who came from the Sherpa guide community who escorted the Americans to the top of the pole was brought, I'm sorry to the top of mount Everest was brought to the explorers club where he was asked to stand to be recognized not only did he get them to the top of the mountain but they needed oxygen he went back several thousand feet and brought it back to be recognized, and he stood to a round of applause I think young people¿white black otherwise are changing their attitudes and beginning to say it is fair to recognize the contributions of all people and I think it works wonders in terms of bringing people of different backgrounds together which is what we want to see. (25:15)

JG 25:20 As a role model what are some qualities?

AC 25:27 well you know he has the unique position of being a real clean hero I mean here's a person who comes from one of the most impoverished backgounds you can imagine, who set out with the determination to make a name for himself he wasn't highly lettered - he was later given honorary degrees but he never went to college - he worked hard - he was so bright that in 1891, Peary wrote in his book this man Matthew Henson has much greater than average intelligence and pluck these were his words and he went on to be described by everyone who met him, including Admiral Donald B. Macmillan as a man of great virtue, hard-working, who had real skills that he would share with other people - when he met the Eskimo people he reached out to them and learned they're language and they're customs and again this came from diaries from people that were on the trip who complained that he was getting to close and too knowledgeable of the Eskimos and they're ways. He befriended them and they him, he had this way reaching out to other human beings regardless of their race and color and in fact one little observed thing that should be mentioned - when Mrs. Peary was taken to the Arctic a thousand miles above the Arctic Circle she was the first white American woman to go that far she became a very good friend to Henson when you read her memoirs you'll see that they became friends, they were the two people who were different a woman and a minority that far north and it's interesting how they were both discriminated against and Henson reached out to her. And she in turn gave him his first Birthday Party up there a really wonderful gathering to celebrate his birthday - these are things you didn't see in 1891 in the mainland America - and it was this kind of relationship that was evolving because he was a good hearted person and he always his enemies over with his goodness instead of hostility I think he's an excellent role model for people and I've come to admire him as someone who started out just researching his background um someone who was interested in him just as a person and he became one of my great heroes. 27:27

DS wouldn't he have been a great person to have known ?

AC talks about Henson descendents he has met - not v. interesting- and because of this I kind of feel like I know him - I feel his presence in the explorers club when I'm there¿If we could ever go back in a time machine he's one of the people that I would really want to know personally. 28:20

Presentation at Reception

28:52 Good afternoon and welcome to this reception held in honor of Matthew Henson, his family friends and of this beautiful new Navy Ship (cough) the M. S. Henson¿the newest and most capable oceanographic ship in the world¿

continues with speakers 42

Talking to descendents

HD= Henson descendent James E. Henson Sr.
PD= Peary Descendent Harte Peary Stafford

HD 42:18 I will agree with you the credit is long overdue, but you have touched my heart¿ I think that the times that they lived in shaped their behavior and their attitude I have to say that I believe that Uncle Matthew understood it he understood it but he also knew that history would record what happened that his contribution would be known but I think that we should build as you have suggested on what we know today and move forward¿

PD I'd like to say something too on behalf of my family and my extended family because I don't think that there would be one dissenting voice and I regret that we Peary's and Stafford's did not take the initiative to - uh - it should have been us- and in our defense the only thing I can tell you besides inertia, lethargy and complacence as long as the daughter was alive, it was a real hard thing to do - nice lady but very difficult - nice lady, but very Victorian - Marie did not want things known or talked about and that's just the way it was - so as long as she was around it pretty much squelched any conversation on the subject and our In- our cousins which I am delighted to have met when they were down here ten years ago and I'm delighted that I have all of these cousins - I just wish I could have made it - dreams to come down - but I do not think my grandmother shared my views 44:48

HD 44:49 well from this day forward, I like that phrase from this day forward let's mark a new relationship between descendents of Matthew Henson and Robert E. Peary and build on that like I said it would be good for the country and fit into other situations that I think will be fruitful and very productive. 45:18

PD 45:19 And I think that if they would be smiling on us somewhat astonished. 45:23 but delighted that we could live in a country that changes this much.

HD 45:27 well I heard something from Prof. Counter yesterday, that one of the members w the team was very upset with Robert Peary bc he talked to Matthew Henson in the way that he did¿even for that time there was some mutual respect that was greater than the cultural divides and I'm heartened by that 46:07

47:35-51:43
AMBI: crowd chattering, reception

51:50-54:56
Outside Ambience, plane overhead, talking

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