Genevieve LaMoine is the curator of Bowdoin College’s Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum, which has a new exhibit on Matthew Henson, who was the first Americans to reach the North Pole. Alex Lear / The Forecaster

BRUNSWICK — On April 6, 1909, Matthew Alexander Henson and five others were the first humans known to stand at the North Pole.

But it is usually Robert Peary, the famed explorer and Bowdoin College graduate, who basks in history’s limelight as the man to claim that distinction. Henson, an African American who Peary admitted he couldn’t do without, and four people of the Inughuit tribe of northwest Greenland – Seegloo, Ootah, Egingwah and Ooqueeah – have often been overlooked in the years that followed.

A new exhibit at Peary’s alma mater, in the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum – which shares his name and that of fellow Bowdoin graduate and Arctic explorer Donald MacMillan – aims to correct that oversight. It opened Aug. 27 and runs through the end of the year.

Matthew Alexander Henson, an African-American, has often been overshadowed in the story of Robert Peary’s expedition to the North Pole. Courtesy Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum

“We always try to celebrate Matthew Henson,” said Genevieve LeMoine, the museum’s curator, in an interview Sept. 13. But this latest photo display was inspired by the 50th anniversary of Bowdoin’s Russwurm African American Center, she said.

Since the museum’s opening in 1967, it has included artifacts that reflect Henson, such as a massive sledge (or sleigh) that he built for Peary’s expedition, adhering to the explorer’s design. Peary and the Inughuit considered Henson one of the best dog sledge drivers, according to the exhibit.

Born in Maryland in 1866 to sharecroppers the year after the end of the American Civil War, Henson was orphaned at a young age, moved to Washington, D.C., to live with his uncle, and ran away to sea at age 11. After eight years seeing the world as a cabin boy and seaman, he met Peary in 1887 while working at a haberdashery, and was hired as a valet on the 1877 Bowdoin graduate’s survey expedition to Nicaragua, according to the college.

Henson first went north with Peary in 1891, journeying over the Greenland Ice Cap, the northern end of Greenland, and Cape Hecla, MacMillan recalled in “How Peary Reached the Pole.”

“He was the most popular man aboard the ship with the Eskimos,” MacMillan, an 1898 Bowdoin graduate, wrote. “He could talk their language like a native. He made all the sledges which went to the Pole. He made all the stoves. Henson, the colored man, went to the Pole with Peary because he was a better man than any of his white assistants. As Peary himself admitted, ‘I can’t get along without Henson.'”

MacMillan was one of six non-native people to take part in the 1908-09 expedition to the North Pole; frozen feet forced him and a few others to turn back, leaving Peary, Henson, and the four Inughuits. Henson, in a 1951 TV interview shown in the exhibit, recalled that he had to break the trail of ice the whole way up, with no one else to take his turn.

“Naturally, it was best for (Peary) to keep his men ahead of him instead of in the back,” Henson said, adding that being in the lead, “I was the first man that ever set feet on the North Pole.”

Since there wasn’t a way at the time to pinpoint the exact top of the world, there’s much debate on who actually got there first. “The navigation instruments (were) not that accurate, so Peary did these long criss-crossing sledge trips, just to cover an area of about 10 miles,” LaMoine said. “… The thing is, they were all six of them there.”

Henson and Peary had reached the top of the world together, but their relationship soon soured. The explorer, who received the bulk of the glory for the accomplishment, rarely spoke with Henson. In need of money, Henson launched a lecture tour, to Peary’s chagrin, and the two men had a falling out.

There is no known photo of the two of them together.

“Peary wasn’t one for sharing the spotlight. And of course, in those days recognition to an African-American would have been highly unusual,” LaMoine said. “… I think it’s important for people to recognize that there was this amazing, talented African-American man who accomplished a great deal.”

Henson would never return to the Arctic. Which also meant he never saw an Inughuit woman he’d loved – and the son they had in 1906 – ever again.

Along with bringing Henson’s story more attention, MacMillan did him another favor in 1924 when, on his northern travels, he took a photo of his young son, named Anaukaq, and presumably let Henson know he’d fared well, according to the exhibit.

Matthew Henson built this sledge for one of Robert Peary’s northern expedition. It is on display at the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum. Alex Lear / The Forecaster

As the American Civil Rights movement dawned, Henson began receiving recognition for his work. The Chicago Geographical Society awarded him a gold medal in 1948, at which time he was interviewed on the radio. A TV interview followed.

He and his wife Lucy, with whom he lived in Harlem until his 1955 death, never had children, LaMoine said. First buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, the couple’s remains were transferred to Arlington Cemetery in 1987.  Anaukaq, then 80, was able to make the trip to witness the reburial seeing his father honored.

Henson is “much better known now than he was, but he’s still not as well known as he should be,” LaMoine said. Maryland named a park and school in his honor, but Henson lacks the more general attention he deserves, she said.

“The great hero gets all the acclaim, but (Peary) couldn’t have done it without Henson and many other people.”

Michael Alpert, president of the Greater Bangor Area Branch NAACP, on Monday praised Bowdoin for recognizing Henson’s contribution to polar exploration.

“The history of the United States is filled with racially-motivated exclusions and erasures. African American accomplishments have often been ignored when they should be celebrated,” Alpert said. “… Mr. Henson’s intelligence and courage were obviously valued by Robert Peary as they journeyed to the North Pole. Thanks to Bowdoin’s exhibit, Henson’s place beside Peary can now be more widely known.”

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