In spring 1909, the American explorer Robert Edwin Peary left the northern edge of western Canada with 24 men, 19 sleds, and 133 dogs. A veteran explorer of the polar region for 18 years, Peary was about to realize his dream, to become the first man to reach the North Pole.
Following a well-organized plan, Peary planned to dash 413 miles across the ice. But, as Peary observed, the Arctic ice is not “a gigantic skating pond with a level floor over which the dogs drag us merrily.” The ocean currents fractured the ice, creating huge cracks of black seawater called “leads” that could delay a party for weeks.
The ocean also slammed huge blocks of ice together, piling them into a ridge that could be 50 feet high. An advance party hacked its way through these obstacles to make a path for the following parties.
Matthew Henson, an African American explorer who had participated in all of Peary’s major expeditions, led one of the parties. Henson ran away from his home in Washington, D.C., when he was 12.
He became a cabin boy and spent the next six years traveling all over the world on ships. After he returned to Washington, Henson worked as a clerk in a clothing store. One day, a man walked in to buy supplies for an expedition to Nicaragua. The man mentioned that he needed supplies and a servant. The store owner told him about Henson, who had experience traveling around the world.
The man, Robert Peary, was impressed and took Henson with him. He proved so essential to the expedition that Peary later remarked, “I couldn’t get along without him.” To prepare for the trip to the North Pole, Henson studied the Eskimo language and culture.