In most accounts of Robert E. Peary’s discovery of the North Pole in 1909, the name Matthew Henson appears only fleetingly as Peary’s black “manservant,” “cabin boy” or “valet.” But in the all-black school that S. Allen Counter attended as a child growing up in Florida, Henson was revered as an explorer hero who had accompanied Peary to the Pole and had actually set foot there first.
Today, Counter, 40, is an associate professor of neuroscience at Harvard and spends summers doing medical research at the prestigious Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. His specialty is the auditory system of birds, but he is also an ardent student of black history. In 1979, one of his colleagues in Sweden happened to mention at dinner that there were Eskimos in the Arctic who had darker-than-average skin. “I started to wonder,” Counter recalls, “if there might be any Hensons up there.”
Counter had a hunch, based on long-standing rumors, that both Henson and Peary had fathered children by Eskimo women during their 1906 expedition to the Arctic. Last summer, he decided to find out. He bought $15,000 worth of Arctic gear and, with two assistants, headed for Greenland, where he was eventually led to a village known for its dark-skinned Eskimos. He was taken to the door of a small house from which an old man emerged and said excitedly, “You must be Henson who has come to find me.” The old man was Henson’s illegitimate son, Anaukaq, now 80.
Next, Counter traveled to the village of Etah, where he had been told he would find Peary’s illegitimate son, Karree Peary, also 80. Counter has no doubt that Karree is Peary’s son. “Once you see his face,” he says, “you know he’s white.” Between them, Anaukaq and Karree have fathered 10 children and 40 grandchildren.
This week, Counter plans to bring the men, along with a dozen of their offspring, to Cambridge, Mass. There, under Harvard’s sponsorship, they will meet with many of their American relatives in what has been billed as the North Pole Family Reunion. In many ways, Counter suggests, staging the reunion has been nearly as hard as finding the sons. Peary’s American relatives, he says, were not delighted to hear from a Harvard professor that their illustrious forebear, who was married at the time of his North Pole expeditions and who had three legitimate children, had had carnal relations with an Eskimo woman.
The American Hensons, on the other hand, are “fighting to be at the reunion,” says Counter, and have been asked to prove their link to the explorer (who married in 1908 but had no previously known children) by means of birth certificates, photographs and family correspondence. One who will attend is Olive Henson, 60, Matthew Henson’s grandniece, a mail clerk at a Boston hospital. “He told us many, many times that he had planted the flag,” she says, adding that when she catches sight of her newly discovered relatives, “I might cry, I’m such a softy.”
Counter is not yet ready to close the book on his boyhood hero. Though Henson received a modest salary as Peary’s valet, he was, says the neurophysiologist, “the mechanic, carpenter and interpreter” on each of Peary’s eight polar expeditions. Born in 1866, the son of Maryland farmers, Henson went to sea at age 12, learning languages, mathematics and navigation. In 1888 he met Peary, then a naval lieutenant who had advertised for a valet to accompany him on a construction project in Nicaragua. During the final approach to the Pole 21 years later, Counter says, Henson and two Eskimos carried Peary, who was hobbled by frostbite. Afterward Peary was promoted to rear admiral, while Henson, says Counter, was appointed “a messenger boy for the U.S. Customs House in New York.” Carter says Peary always defended his decision to take Henson with him on the final approach to the Pole. While “Henson was bitter that Peary did not always keep his promise to look after him,” Counter says that Henson did lay a wreath on Peary’s grave for 35 years after the admiral died in 1920.
Counter is lobbying various federal officials to have Henson’s grave moved to Arlington National Cemetery, where Peary is buried. Counter maintains that though Henson was not in the Navy, he is entitled to be buried in Arlington because he was a co-explorer with Peary. Currently, Henson’s body lies in a public graveyard in New York City, where he died in 1955. His headstone reads simply, “Negro Explorer at the North Pole.”