Introduction by Deirdre C. Stam: By the 1980’s, when S. Allen Counter began to take an interest in the contact of Arctic explorer Robert Peary and his assistant Matthew Henson with the Greenland Inuit, it may have seemed to most readers that the story of the North Pole conquest was largely played out. The old debate of who got to the magic spot first seemed to have stalled with supporters of Peary and Frederick Cook at loggerheads. New insights into the exploration of the polar region were slow in coming, despite the partisan and non-partisan efforts of astronomers, physicists, mathematicians, historians, latter-day explorers, and nautical experts to find the definitive answer to the Peary-Cook debates over who got there first, or indeed whether either made it at all. There were outposts of research such as The Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum and Arctic Studies Center at Bowdoin College, of course, where curators diligently combed through hard evidence of all kinds to piece together a detailed and objective narrative of Peary’s years in the Arctic. By and large, however, by then public attention to exploration was focused elsewhere, such as continental Antarctica, outer space, and more mundane but promising regions of scientific research. The human element was certainly considered by researchers in Peary/Henson studies, but more through the lens of the hard rather than soft sciences. There were some exceptions. There had been published anthropological observations of the Inuit culture – most notably by explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson and even Peary himself. And interest in Henson largely invoked contemporary racial issues by the 1980’s. But in general public interest in exploration seemed to have turned elsewhere. Neurophysiologist and social historian Counter introduced a unique blend of methodologies to the understanding of the Peary/Henson experience in the far North with his book North Pole Legacy; Black, White and Eskimo (1991). Acting as participant observer and ultimately as actor in the lives of the explorers’ Inuit progeny, Counter overcame many physical and administrative barriers to develop personal relationships with the indigenous descendants of Peary and Henson, to elicit community memories of their forebears, and ultimately to bring about meetings in the U.S. of the explorers’ U.S. and Inuit descendants. Sharing the fact of African-American ancestry with Henson, Counter was particularly interested in the life experiences of Henson and his Inuit descendents and the possible role of racial prejudice in their lives.
Counter brought story-telling skills to the presentation of his findings, resulting in his highly readable and enlightening book. In doing so, he provided new evidence about the personal interactions of Peary’s parties with the Greenland Inuit. Social issues of race, sex, class, motivation, exploitation, and loyalty are addressed indirectly as Counter tells the personal stories of a few dozen Inuit whose lives were intimately affected by their shifting familial relationships to Peary and to Henson.
Those looking for evidence of racial prejudice in Peary’s northern ventures can find it, but compared with many contemporaries he tended to respect ability and practicality when he saw it, and while in the North he lived on intimate terms with those identified as racially “different,” albeit within constraints of western notions of class and rank. Peary’s long-standing relationship to Henson, an African-American considered of lesser social status, provides one example, of such close dependence and physical proximity. Peary’s relationship to the Greenland Inuit (or “Eskimos” in his time) constitute another example. The race question for Henson was more complex. He seemed to have been entirely comfortable with the Inuit who recognized that his coloration was similar to theirs and for this and other reasons welcomed him with particular warmth. In fact he is described as living at least as often in Inuit households as with fellow expedition members some of whom are known to have demonstrated or expressed racial prejudice.
From his Arctic experience and from its literature, Peary developed an appreciation of Inuit men as able hunters, providers, and responsible heads of households. He took full advantage of their skills, rewarding their work with the kinds of remuneration that generated long-term cooperation and loyalty. Peary also appreciated and exploited the skills of Inuit women in turning arctic resources into forms that could be eaten, worn, and enjoyed. He wrote admiringly of their skills: “Household duties are as carefully practiced (allowing for differences in materials) as in any domestic circle.” (Robert E. Peary, Nearest the Pole, New York, Doubleday, Page & Company, 1907, p. 380.) Inuit women performed their duties while nurturing children in conditions that may strike us today as impossibly uncomfortable, inconvenient, and even hazardous. Although it has made many modern readers uncomfortable to acknowledge this fact, indigenous women were and are also valued by many Northern adventurers for the companionship and sexual comforts that they can provide to men far from home and lonely for female contact.
Peary himself developed a sexual relationship with a very young, already married woman named Ahlikahsingwah, who bore him two boys. The first, Anaukaq, died young, and the second, Kali born in 1906, lived well into old age. Henson too maintained a seemingly stable relationship with an Inuit woman named Akatingwah who in 1906 bore Henson one child, also named Anaukaq. He like Kali lived into old age. According to Counter, the husbands of these women, who were brothers, in effect adopted the explorers’ children. Both Kali and (Henson’s son) Anaukaq were alive at the time of Counter’s visit and figure prominently in his story.
Henson‘s generally accepted liaison with his Inuit consort yielded many practical advantages which would otherwise have been unavailable to him, leading to facility in the Eskimo language, superior native-style clothing, well-honed skills in dog driving, and knowledge of food acquisition and preparation. The entire expedition in effect benefited from Henson’s close liaison with his close Inuit companions.
Henson clearly indicates his approval of Eskimo marital arrangements in recollections of a courtship conversation with his second wife Lucy Ross whom he married in 1908. The exchange might strike the modern reader as a kind of test of Lucy’s acceptance of Henson’s unconventional domestic history.
Asked if he thought that Inuit women are pretty by Lucy Ross’s mother, Henson addressed his response to Lucy.
“Yes, the Eskimo women are pretty…At least, the Eskimo men who marry them think so.” [Mrs. Ross continued,] “You mean they really marry…I thought they were – were immoral and very dirty…” [Henson directed his answer to Lucy.] “Eskimos marry…but like innocent children, without laws and church, for they have neither…[but] sometimes I think they are more moral than we are, for they’re honest and never lie. They marry to raise families, and a man is always happy when his wife presents him with a child, even if it isn’t his.” (Bradley Robinson, Dark Companion, Robert M. McBride & Company, New York, NY, p. 180-181.)
In more modern times, some have criticized Peary and to a lesser degree Henson for the “abandonment” of children born of these intimate relationships with Inuit women. While the behavior of both Peary and Henson in this matter could be seen as reflective of their time and circumstances, the story is complicated by the fact that neither man grew up with a father and neither had first-hand experience of paternal responsibility and nurturing. A further complicating factor is that Henson never had the resources to help his Inuit son, had he wanted to.
The philosophical and moral questions raised by the story of the Inuit children of Peary and Henson are legion and confounding, especially from a position of hindsight. While Counter touches by implication on delicate matters of race, sex, class, motivation, exploitation, and loyalty, he largely avoids speculation and judgment. His is a factual telling of the story of the Peary and Henson Inuit family experiences over many decades subsequent to the departure of the explorers in 1909. The account culminates with the affecting description of the Inuit families’ emotion-filled meetings in 1987 in the U.S. with some of their American cousins.