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Reaching the North Pole Robert Peary posses with his assistant Matthew Henson and 2 Inuits April 6,1909


An African-American was the first person to step on the North Pole. Here is how this part of Black History happened:

On April 6, 1909, Admiral Robert Peary moved toward what he thought was the exact geographic point of the North Pole, where no one had ever been before.

Robert Peary 1909
Robert Peary 1909

Peary had left his exploratory party behind, taking the last difficult struggle by himself with his long time trusted African American assistant, Matthew Henson, and four Inuit helpers.
Everyone was on foot except Peary, who rode on a sled. Peary was 53 years old and not in good shape. He knew that after 7 previous attempts, if he didn’t reach the North Pole now, he never would. It was beyond cold and visibility was limited.

Matthew Henson
Matthew Henson, the African-American son of Southern Sharecroppers, learned sailing and became an assistant to Peary and became the first man to reach the North Ole

Peary ordered Henson, who was on foot, to scout the area for visible landmarks or anything else of interest. Peary came to the point he felt was the North Pole. He had been calculating the angle of the sun and now his compass pointed south instead of north.


To Celebrate the historic moment of his discovery, Peary took an American flag on a pole, lifted it and was ready to push it into the ground to mark the spot where no one had ever been before.  Then, shocked, he saw it!  On this almost sacred spot, never touched before by human beings, there was in the snow, a human snowshoe footprint!

Matthew Henson
Matthew Henson at the North Pole

Peary was confused. How could this be? Whose footprint was it? It turned out that the first footprint on the North Pole was actually Matthew Henson’s footprint!  While Henson had been scouting the area, he had stepped on the North Pole without realizing it. By accident, Matthew Henson, an African-American, was the first person to reach the North Pole.


Peary, an egotistical man, full of self importance, ignored Henson’s footprint and returned to his camp, claiming that he had finally, after 7 attempts, reached the North Pole.

Dr. Frederick Cook
A Photograph of Dr. Frederick Cook and his Inuit companions  being first to arrive at the North Pole.

But Peary’s triumph was short lived. The moment he returned to civilization, he was informed that while he had been out of touch in the Northern wilderness, another man claimed to be first to arrive at the pole before he did — Dr. Frederick Cook.

Publicity picture of Peary
Publicity picture of Peary

The claim by Cook must have infuriated Peary. He knew Cook, who had been a surgeon on one of Peary’s failed attempts to reach the Pole. Peary was a well-funded explorer. He was paid a full salary for his Navy Rank while he explored. Government facilities were placed at his disposal and he had a commercial sponsor, The National Geographic Society.
Now, Cook was challenging his accomplishment and reputation!  There was a lot of money at stake.  The person who discovered the North Pole would profit from paid speaking tours, publications, and advertising opportunities -ways to make a lot of money.

Frederick Cook
Dr. Frederick Cook 1906

Frederick Cook witnessed the expensive equipment and supplies that accompanied Peary on his quest for the North Pole. Cook felt this equipment was cumbersome and that the only way to reach the Pole was with a very small, nimble party of Inuit partners.
Peary was infuriated that his claim to reach the North Pole was compromised. Using his political power and connections, he did everything possible to destroy Cook’s reputation. Just as he used his power to ignore  Matthew Henson.

Robert Peary
Robert Peary in later life

Peary and his associates reached out to destroy Cook. They destroyed his career, his life and even sent him to prison. Cook’s life ended with him as a broken man, cared for by his daughter.
For years, Peary was given credit as the first person to reach the North Pole with Henson and Cook totally ignored.

Matthew Henson in civilian clothing
Matthew Henson in civilian clothing

After the Peary party returned to civilization, Matthew Henson was no longer needed by Peary – it was rumored that their relationship had become strained.  Suddenly Henson was out of work, while Peary toured the world as the hero who discovered the North Pole.
President Theodore Roosevelt came to Henson’s rescue by recommending him for a job at the US Customs House in New York, where Henson spent that last 30 years of his life.
Eventually, Henson’s contributions were recognized by the Explorers Club. The US Navy awarded him the same medal that was awarded to Peary. Henson died March 9, 1955 and eventually the caskets of him and his wife were moved to a place of honor at Arlington National Cemetery.

Matthew Alexander Henson
Matthew Alexander Henson,  companion and co-discoverer of the North Pole with Robert E. Peary. He is buried in Section 8, Grave S-15-1 in Arlington National Cemetery. (U.S. Army photo by Rachel Larue/released)


Although Frederick Cook was not valued during his lifetime, his dramatic recounting of his dangerous and fascinating voyage of discovery live on in his book “My Attainment of the North Pole”.  His amazing journey  is a Listen 2 Read audiobook, a part of our American Adventure Library of American History available wherever audiobooks are sold or  downloaded, including here:
Thank you for being part of the Listen 2 Read American Adventure Library audiobook community

Andre Stojka
Listen2Read Audiobooks
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