Lesley Ann Beck is the Senior Communications Manager for the Berkshire Museum. After a career in journalism, she joined the staff of the Berkshire Museum in 2011. She writes and edits press releases, marketing materials, and web content for the Museum, as well as working closely with the exhibition team to research and write labels and panels, interpreting the objects in the galleries. The Berkshire Museum, located in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, is home to an astounding array of interesting objects.
Long a favorite with visitors to the Berkshire Museum, the fur suit worn by Matthew Henson during Admiral Robert E. Peary’s successful 1909 expedition to the North Pole is now on view as part of Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme at The Museum at FIT in New York City.
Matthew Alexander Henson (1866-1955) was an African-American explorer who, as assistant to Admiral Robert E. Peary (1856-1920), was the only other American to reach the North Pole in April, 1909. Henson was hired by Peary in 1887, and they spent much of the time between 1891 and 1909 in the Arctic, making several attempts to reach the North Pole before their final successful expedition. On April 6, 1909, Robert E. Peary, Matthew Henson, and four Inuit men, Ootah, Ooqueah, Seegloo, and Egingwah, reached the North Pole by dog sledge. In his autobiography, Henson recounted the moment when Peary placed the American flag at the North Pole, saying “a thrill of patriotism ran through me and I raised my voice to cheer the starry emblem of my native land.”
Reaching the North Pole was a significant accomplishment, given the daunting and dangerous conditions. The Arctic Circle is a vast, icy expanse that boasts some of the most extreme weather on earth. Much of the Arctic is not land at all, and the North Pole is determined by a set of coordinates out in the Arctic Ocean, on water that is almost always covered with ice. At the Pole, the Arctic Ocean is nearly 14,000 feet deep and is permanently covered by a layer of shifting sea ice between five- and ten-feet thick. Each year, the sun rises once and sets once: there are six months of continuous daylight and six months of continuous night at the Pole. The average temperature at the North Pole is 32 degrees (Fahrenheit) in the summer and 40 degrees below zero in the winter. At times, the temperature can drop to as low as 70 degrees below zero.
“The journey to the Pole and back is not to be regarded as a pleasure outing, and our so-called jaunt was by no means a cake-walk,” said Henson in his book.
Peary knew that adopting the ways of the Inuit was critical to his success in the Arctic, especially regarding the clothing that they wore. He provided steel sewing needles, and he and Henson had the Inuit women make hand-sewn fur garments for the members of their team. In his book The North Pole, Peary described the clothing in detail: the fur jacket, which had no buttons and went on over the head, was made of sealskin in the summer and of fox or deerskin in the winter. Attached to the jacket was a hood with a thick border of fur around the face. A deerskin shirt was worn with the fur to the inside, and Peary mentioned that the Inuit women were very skilled at piecing the skins together with sinew. The outfit included fur trousers and sealskin boots, plus warm fur mittens.
The suit of furs worn by Matthew Henson is one of the iconic objects in the collection of the Berkshire Museum. The hand-sewn garments covered Henson from head to toe. The coat, or parka, is made of blue fox trimmed with white fox. The trousers are made of polar bear, and the mittens and moccasins are made of tanned seal skin.
During his many years in the Arctic, Henson became an expert hunter, dog handler, and sledge driver. He became fluent in the Inuit language, learning valuable survival skills from the Inuit people. As new team members tried to learn some of the Inuit language, Henson served as their interpreter.
Henson’s value to Peary’s team was well understood. “Matthew A. Henson … has been with me in one capacity or another since my second trip to Nicaragua in 1887,” said Peary in his book. “I have taken him with me on each and all of my northern expeditions except the first. … He … can handle a sledge better, and is probably a better dog-driver, than any other man living …”
The connection between Robert Peary, Matthew Henson, and the Berkshire Museum was made through Zenas Crane, who founded the Museum in 1903. Zenas Crane was vice-president of the Peary Arctic Club and one of the major funders of Peary’s final expedition. Henson’s suit, his sledge, and a number of other objects from the expedition were donated to the Museum in thanks. Over the last hundred years, the suit has been on view many times, offering visitors a chance to learn about the North Pole expedition and Matthew Henson, the great African-American explorer.
The North Pole by Robert E. Peary (Cooper Square Press)
A Journey for the Ages: Matthew Henson and Robert Peary’s Historic North Pole Expedition by Matthew A. Henson (2016 edition, Skyhorse Publishing; first published in 1912 as A Negro Explorer at the North Pole)
How Peary Reached the Pole by Donald B. MacMillan (McGill-Queen’s University Press)
Onward: A Photobiography of African-American Polar Explorer Matthew Henson by Dolores Johnson (National Geographic)
Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme runs through January 6, 2018 at The Museum at FIT in NYC.