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From Incunabula to Modern Firsts—What’s Cooking at Auction

Farthest North Henson Gets His Reward

An inscribed first edition of Matthew Henson’s account of reaching the North Pole before Admiral Peary. Courtesy of Bonhams.

Matthew Henson, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole, $5,185 at Bonhams New York on June 23.

An Arctic rarity, this signed and inscribed first of 1912 is also a reminder that Robert Peary was not alone when he became the first to reach the North Pole in 1909—a claim, by the by, that is still disputed to this day. Peary, ill and exhausted, was unable to proceed on foot and was traveling on a dog sled. It was Henson who scouted ahead and actually planted the American flag.

Henson had spent years at sea before joining Peary on an 1876 expedition to Nicaragua and, having proved himself a capable navigator and a man of great courage and endurance, was taken by Peary on all his later expeditions. In the Arctic, Henson came to be equally esteemed by the Inuit, whose language he mastered and whose prowess as hunters and dog handlers he made his own.

The relationship between Henson and Peary, however, was a curious one, for while he was in some ways still a manservant, Henson was quite obviously a key member of Peary’s expeditions, and his color and status may have caused resentment among others. But even after 25 years together, Henson’s letters to Peary still began “Dear Sir,” and Peary was enraged by Henson’s temerity in publishing his own story of the North Pole expedition. He apparently saw the book and Henson’s proposed lecture tour as a breach of faith.

At the time, Admiral Peary was showered with honors, while Henson was largely ignored and spent most of the next 30 years working as a clerk in a New York customs house. In 1944, however, Congress belatedly awarded him a duplicate of the silver medal that had been given to Peary, and Presidents Truman and Eisenhower both honored Henson before he died in 1955.

Derek HayesIan McKay’s weekly column in Antiques Trade Gazette has been running for more than 30 years.