The old methods of exploration — seeking out uncharted territories, risking life and limb to brave new terrain, indigenous people and unknown wildlife — have all seemed to fade into the past. Cartographers aren’t hand-drawing maps from memory and cutting through lush jungles with machetes as much anymore. Although, it could be argued that every generation of ground-breaking explorers were in completely unfamiliar territory both physically and logistically. Mars and general space travel may have felt to us what circumnavigating the earth felt like to Ferdinand Magellan. Still, a stepping stone has been reached where there is negligible amounts of land on this earth that hasn’t been thoroughly charted in one way or another.

Matthew Henson | Library of Congress

One of the last great, famous explorers was Rear Adm. Robert Peary, an officer of the U.S. Navy who was known for his adventures to explore the North Pole. Though many of his claims and findings have been somewhat controversial, his expeditions to the Arctic captivated the public at the time and have made the history books since.

A civil engineer by trade, Peary joined the navy and was a part of the effort that sought to build what would later become the Panama Canal in Nicaragua. It was there that he met Matthew Henson, who would accompany him on his expeditions to the north. Henson, the son of two former slaves, would go on to become the first black American arctic explorer and together they would spend 18 years of their lives over the course of seven trips to the north, with the end goal of being the first men to the North Pole. Though his contributions were often overlooked at the time, Henson proved absolutely invaluable in all of these expeditions.

Their actual arrival to the North Pole in 1909 was subject to criticism and controversy — whether they arrived there or not was one topic of discussion, but there was also the question as to whether they were even the first ones there. Another explorer (and friend of Peary), Dr. Frederick Cook claimed to have reached the pole in April 22, 1908. These claims to have made it there first would throw the two into a public battle for evidence (both of which had little to support their claims), though the courts would eventually side with Peary. In fact, this court drama had such an impact that it would persuade Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer who was the first to reach the South Pole in 1911, to take extensive measures in proving his expedition.

Rear Adm. Robert E. Peary. | AP Photo

In April of 1909, Peary, Henson and their crew battled through the unforgiving cold to reach the North Pole — though it could never be 100% confirmed. Henson later told the New York Times that, “I was in the lead that had overshot the mark a couple of miles. We went back then and I could see that my footprints were the first at the spot.” However, among other arguments against their discovery, Peary was the only one qualified to make the navigational discernment; when Henson asked Peary if they were at the Pole, apparently Peary said that, “I do not suppose that we can swear that we are exactly at the Pole.” Henson would be the one to plant the American flag into what they believed was the North Pole.

Peary and Henson spent a lot of their time in Greenland during their explorations through the arctic, and they made many connections with the Inuits that lived there. Peary met and fathered two children with an Inuit woman named Ahlikahsingwah, otherwise known as Aleqasina; Henson met and fathered one child with Akatingwah. Both men did not return to their Inuit “country wives” or families after they departed Greenland for good. One of Peary’s Inuit sons died early, but the others grew to have many descendants that live in Greenland today.

In this March 26, 1948 file picture, Matthew A. Henson sits in his apartment in New York. | AP Photo, File


This July 24, 2011 photo in Nuuk, Greenland shows Vittus Henson, 64, right, the grandson, and son David Henson, 30, the great-grandson of Matthew A. Henson, the black American aide to famed U.S. polar explorer Rear Adm. Robert E. Peary. | AP Photo/Brennan Linsley