Last summer I read and wrote about the book North! By Donna Jo Napoli. In it a 12 year old boy named Alvin becomes inspired by the life of Matthew Henson and he leaves home to travel to the North Pole in Henson’s footsteps. I enjoyed that book very much.
Reading Onward! brings to mind the excitement that Alvin felt in reading about an African American hero who worked most of his life to achieve a dream. He accomplished great things through hard work, dedication and talent but the world didn’t recognize him until the very end of his life. Perry, the white expedition leader and Navy Commander, was given the National Geographic Hubbard Medal in 1909, the year their expedition reached the North Pole. He was “promoted to Rear Admiral in the Navy and retired on a pension of almost $8,000 a year (&156,000 today).”
Henson’s name was not mentioned at those awards ceremonies. He was honored by the African American community but the “general public considered Henson to be only the “Negro manservant” who went with Admiral Perry…” After they returned from their successful expedition to the North Pole he found a job parking cars in Brooklyn until some of his friends found him a job as messenger boy at the U.S. Customs House in NYC. He wrote his autobiography “A Negro Explorer at the North Pole” while working there. In 1937, 35 years after Perry retired, Henson retired from the messenger job at the age of 70 with a pension of $1,020 a year.
Over the following years he gradually began to receive more honor for his work as explorer, being included with the entire expedition party to receive a Congressional medal and Navy Medal in 1944 (after the death of Perry). President Eisenhower honored him at a White House reception in 1954. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1955, at the age of 88. He was buried by his wife Lucy in the Bronx, New York but was later reburied with full honors beside the grave of Admiral Perry in Arlington National Cemetery. Lucy is buried beside him.
Onward! tells the story of their many attempts to reach the North Pole. It is a fascinating quest that took them over 16 years and eight journeys. Photographs and quotes from journals illustrate the story and bring it to life. Henson proved to be skillful, intelligent, brave and resourceful through out their years of struggle. He became known as the best dog sledge driver and often was the one to build an igloo shelter quickly or bring home game for food. At the end of their final march to the pole Henson and two Inuit named Ootah and Ooqueah broke the trail for the last 133 miles. On April 6, 1909 Henson, Ootah and Ooqueah were 45 minutes ahead of Perry and were first to reach the North Pole.
The explorers’ relationships with Inuit who became their friends and family (both Perry and Henson fathered children with Inuit women, and Henson adopted a son) are shown to be instrumental in their success. Living with the Inuit and learning their way of life kept them alive on many occasions, not surprisingly. One of the things that Alvin, in Napoli’s North, really relates to is the close connections Henson formed with the Inuit who accepted him as one of their own. One of the disappointing things, from my point of view, is that when Perry and Henson returned to the United States the last time in 1909 they left their Inuit friends and families in the Arctic Circle and never returned. There is a picture in the book of Henson’s son Anaukaq visiting Henson’s grave site in the Bronx at the age of 81 on his first visit to the United States.
Henson struggled through out his life to earn a living and gain respect for his accomplishments. Although he was intelligent, hard working, dedicated, ambitious and driven to success he spent many years working at menial jobs for low pay because that was all that was open to him as a black man. I am glad to see this National Geographic book telling his story and bringing these photographs to another generation. It is a fine tribute to a truly great American.