Polar Explorer Matthew Henson and the Blizzard of Fame

This post is by Matthew Poth, 2017-18 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.

A quick search of the name “Robert E. Peary” in the Library of Congress online collections yields hundreds of results. There are articles about his life, images cataloging his career, and great pronouncements of the achievement for which he was best known, being the first man to reach the North Pole in April of 1909. A similar search of “Matthew Henson,” Peary’s right-hand man, generates only about half the number of results, with the majority identifying Henson as Peary’s “Negro companion,” although by some accounts he, along with Inuit members of the expedition, may have reached the location considered the true North Pole even before Peary. When the team returned to the United States, Peary received the majority of the credit for discovering the North Pole. Henson was all but ignored by the general public. It was not until 1944 that Congress recognized Henson, along with others who took part in the expedition, for their work.

[Matthew Henson, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing front, holding a portrait of Robert E. Peary taken during an expedition to the North Pole]

Over a 22 year partnership Henson and Peary would go on many expeditions, including eight to the Arctic region. Matthew Henson, no stranger to adventure or hardship, never let adversity get in his way. When he was 11 or 12, Henson ran away from his foster parents and signed up to be a cabin boy on the sailing vessel Katie Hines. Not long after, while sailing in the Baltic Sea, the Katie Hines was hemmed in by ice and stuck there for several months, giving Henson a formative experience with cold weather. While Henson was aboard the ship, he learned vital mathematical and navigation skills that would prepare him for his historic trip to the Arctic. During the expeditions with Peary, Henson learned the customs and language of the Inuit peoples of Greenland, became an expert in handling dogsleds, and saved Peary’s life on two different occasions.

Using the items in the collection about Henson and Peary, such as Alexander Graham Bell’s report of Peary’s success, in conjunction with articles from Chronicling America covering the discovery, students could compare how each man’s role was described. They might then explore how each explorer is remembered and described in more current accounts.

The class could then find other examples of early African American pioneers like Benjamin Banneker and Madam C.J. Walker who weren’t recognized for their accomplishments in their time.

Exposing students to material that highlights the contributions of traditionally underrepresented members of society is an important part of any curriculum. Working with such material helps to expose students to important chapters of our collective history that might be overlooked. Students might look at more recent history and compile a list of people who are not well known, but are doing notable work.

What strategies do you use to bring attention to lesser known people in history?

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