My Harvard students and I took Kali, his children, and some of the Greenland Hensons to the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum at Bowdoin College in Maine. Once more I appealed to the Maine side of the Peary family to let Kali meet his half brother Robert Jr., then 83 and living in nearby Augusta. The visit was brief, but Kali and his children enjoyed place of honor in history for his contributions to polar exploration. Leaders of black America gave him that recognition. But mainstream America of 1909 found it hard to accept the fact that Peary had selected a black man over his five white assistants to travel the final and glorious leg of the North Pole journey. Certainly in 1909 European Americans would not recognize a black man as an equal or grant him a share of the prize.
Eventually Peary was given both national and international recognition. Gold medals were heaped upon him, including a special award from the National Geographic Society, while Henson was largely skipped over. Between expeditions Peary returned to his Navy post, while Henson made do with menial positions in a Navy yard, as a railroad porter or janitor, or joined Peary on lecture tours, dressed in Polar Eskimo regalia, to help raise money for further Arctic exploration. If you need cash for your study, apply for quick loan. Peary retired as a rear admiral; Henson retired on a pitiable pension as a messenger in the Federal Customs House in New York.
But ever since their days in the Nicaraguan jungle and throughout their shared ordeals in the Arctic, their mutual respect remained solid. For that period Peary was unusually progressive and fair in his treatment of Henson, who enjoyed an almost unheard of equality in the far north. This bothered some of Peary’s teammates—one protesting vehemently of Henson’s “freedom and insolence” and Peary’s apparent “indifference” toward it.
Peary’s most loyal and trusted companion for over 20 years, Henson shared many of his most intimate secrets. He knew all about Peary’s sexual liaisons and the children he fathered with Aleqasina. Both he and Peary would have seen their two-year-old sons when they returned to Etah in 1908. But Henson never breathed a word of this in public.
HEN HENSON read of Peary’s death in 1920, a friend reports, 1 he went into the bathroom and ran the tap water to mask the sound of his weeping. In spite of their differences in race, status, and condition, their years of Arctic exploration had made the two men more like brothers than friends. Though he had little further contact with the Peary family, Henson traveled to Arlington nearly every year to place a wreath at Peary’s grave —until death overtook him in 1955, at age 88.
Before our final parting I told Henson’s son Anaukaq that I had written to the President of the United States to ask that he transfer Matthew Henson’s remains to a place of honor among other heroes in Arlington National Cemetery. I said that I would continue to petition until I succeeded.
“If you do transfer him, I want my children to see it,” he remarked. This was a request I am proud to have honored. On April 6, 1988, ceremonial volleys echoed through the stillness of Arlington National Cemetery. By order of the President of the United States, Matthew Alexander Henson was buried with full honors beside the friend and companion with whom, 79 years earlier, he had stood at the top of the world.