Wednesday, April 28, 2010

An Introduction

Photo of Robert Peary distributing gifts to Greenland Inuit on board an unidentified ship, taken between 1886 & 1909.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Depending on what you have read, you probably know that Robert E. Peary is often credited with being the first person to reach the North Pole. Thanks to recent efforts to revive his legacy, you may also know that Matthew Henson accompanied Peary on his polar expeditions and that Henson was the first African-American to travel so far north. The names you are probably not familiar with, however, are Akatingwah, Ahlikahsingwah, Anaukaq and Kali--Akatingwah and Ahlikahsingwah were the respective lovers of Henson and Peary, and Anaukaq and Kali were the children from these relationships.

Photo of Robert E. Peary, circa 1895.
Courtesy of the University of Toronto - Internet Archive.

Robert E. Peary was born in Pennsylvania in 1856. After attending Bowdoin College he pursued a career as a civil engineer. Peary became interested in the Arctic and first travelled there in 1886, beginning a 23-year obsession with the region. In 1888 he married Josephine Diebitsch, with whom he would have three children: Marie, Francine (who died at the age of seven months), and Robert, Jr. Peary died in 1920 and is buried with Josephine in Arlington National Cemetery.

Photo of Matthew A. Henson wearing fur, circa 1910.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

As an African-American man born in the 1860s, Matthew Henson was not afforded the same opportunities available to Peary. Rather than attending college as Peary had, Henson spent his early years as a sailor and then settled down in Washington, D.C. with a job as a clerk in a hat store. It was there that Henson first met Peary, with whom he corresponded for years before being hired by him in 1887. In 1889, Peary hired Henson to work with him in Philadelphia, where Henson met his first wife, Eva Helen Flint. They divorced in 1897 after six years of marriage—S. Allen Counter suggests that the couple had a difficult time dealing with Henson’s frequent and lengthy absences. In 1907, Henson married Lucy Jane Ross (the couple had no children). Henson died in 1955 and though he was originally buried in the Bronx, in 1988 he was reinterred near Peary’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery.

Unidentified Inuit woman & child, circa 1903, taken by B.B. Dobbs.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

During their Arctic careers Peary and Henson spent much time among the Greenland Inuit, and it was there they met Akatingwah and Ahlikahsingwah. Over the course of their relationship, Peary and Ahlikahsingwah would have two sons, Anaukaq and Kali; Henson and Akatingwah had one son—Henson’s only child—also named Anaukaq. This online exhibit explores the nature of the relationships between Peary, Henson and Akatingwah and Ahlikahsingwah. I argue that the differences in how Peary and Henson each treated and interacted with their Inuit partners reflect their individual perspectives about gender relationships.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A Brief History of Masculinity & the Arctic

Engraving of Elisha Kent Kane
by J. Sartain from portrait by Matthew Brady, not dated.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Masculinity has long been associated with the exploration of the Arctic, a place often called a male-proving ground. Michael F. Robinson argues that three explorers are key to understanding masculinity’s association with the Arctic, the first being Elisha Kent Kane (1820-1857). Due to his participation in both Grinnell Expeditions—which succeeded in finding traces of the missing English explorer Sir John Franklin—Kane was lauded as an American hero. An early death at the age of 37 only increased his fame. Though Kane’s death was due to a life-long illness, eulogists were insistent that his character (if not his body) was evidence enough of his masculinity. One biographer, William Elder, used all of the following terms to describe Kane and his attributes: “manly endurance”, “manly virtues”, “manly effort”, “manly service to the country”, “manly sensibility”, “manly ambition”. Kane became a model upon which future Arctic explorers would construct their own images, and their utilization of the masculine ideal became key to success.

Photo of General Adolphus W. Greely, taken between 1890 & 1935.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The legacy of Adolphus W. Greely (1844-1935) represents a distinct change in Arctic masculinity. In 1884, after he and his crew had been missing for three years, six near-death survivors were discovered. One member of the rescue team later wrote that when Greely was found, his first words were: “Yes—seven of us left—here we are dying—like men. Did what I came to do—beat the best record.” The story took on a life of its own and clearly reflects a change in the definition of what makes a man “a man”. Whereas Kane’s character was representative of his masculinity, by the time of Greely’s expedition there had been a fundamental shift to an emphasis on physical manifestations of manliness. Now, the ideal Arctic man would not only express masculinity in his character, but also in his physical power to either survive the harshness of the North or to die “like a man”.

Portrait of President Theodore Roosevelt
by Theodor Horydczak, circa 1920-1950.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

It is within this construct of a newly defined masculinity that Robert E. Peary emerges as “the epitome of manliness”. Americans were becoming concerned that young men were emasculated by increasing industrialization, urbanization and the closing of the American frontier in 1890. In an effort to counteract what he perceived as a serious threat to the future of America’s men, Theodore Roosevelt spearheaded a campaign for what he called “the strenuous life”. Roosevelt’s poster-child for the strenuous life was Robert E. Peary, whom Roosevelt praised for his “Great physical hardihood and endurance, an iron will and unflinching courage, the power of command, the thirst for adventure, and a keen and farsighted intelligence”. Roosevelt seems to be listing Peary’s attributes in what he perceives to be the order of their importance, stressing physical manhood over intelligence or character.

Photo of Robert E. Peary dressed in fur,
taken between 1886 & 1909 for the New York World-Telegram.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Roosevelt was not the only American to be impressed with Peary’s masculinity. The editor of National Geographic, Gilbert Grosvenor, wrote that Peary possessed “a physical endowment such as nature gives to few men”. Constance Du Bois wrote a letter to Peary stating that “The glory of manhood seems to have departed. But you, your ideals, justify it to my mind—and the response from the people, the men and growing boys, as their spirits still ring true to the appeal of noble adventure, is so encouraging that we not yet doubt the future of America”. While Peary may have carefully crafted the image of himself and his crew (including Henson) as “ideal men”, how did the expression of masculinity actually manifest itself in Peary’s and Henson’s relationships with Inuit women?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Ahlikahsingwah & Robert Peary

Photo of the Peary sledge party at the North Pole on April 7, 1909, taken by Peary.
L-R: Ooqueah, Ootah, Matthew Henson, Eginwah, and Seeglo.
Courtesy of the National Archives.

Robert Peary first met Ahlikahsingwah in Greenland during his 1893-1895 expedition while taking some ethnographic photos of local Inuit. Peary described Ahlikasingwah as the “belle of the tribe” and soon began a relationship with her, though she was already married to another Inuit man. Peary hired both her and her husband, Peeahwahto, as guides and assistants, often sending Peeahwahto away so that Peary could have unhindered access to her (Peeahwahto, as well as other local Inuit, were aware of the relationship between Peary & Ahlikahsingwah).

Over the course of their relationship, the couple had two sons, Anaukaq and Kali, both born on Peary’s ship Roosevelt—legally making them Americans. After Peary claimed to have reached the North Pole and left Greenland forever in 1909, Ahlikahsingwah and her sons became ostracized and were often taunted by other Inuit. Peary’s attempts to fully control and dominate the Inuit had left him quite unpopular in Greenland, and Ahlikahsingwah, Anaukaq and Kali unfairly suffered the consequences.

Photo of Ahlikahsingwah posed naked for Robert E. Peary’s book Northward Over the Great Ice, 1886.
Courtesy of the University of California Libraries - Internet Archive.

Robert Peary was always condescending to the Inuit, referring to them as “my Eskimos” or “my children.” His relationship with Ahlikahsingwah shows his desire to fully control female Inuit, and Peary even wrote about how he dispensed these local women to members of his crew, exchanging them for everyday objects such as pieces of wood. He published naked photos of Ahlikahsingwah, demeaning, objectifying and eroticizing Inuit women. Peary even bragged about his affair with Ahlikahsingwah in his 1898 autobiography, proving to his readers his masculinity and dominance. To Peary, Inuit women were nothing more than pleasures for he and his men. “Feminine companionship,” he wrote, “not only causes greater contentment but as a matter of both physical and mental health and the retention of the top notch of manhood it is a necessity.”

Photo of (L to R) Ahlikahsingwah, Anaukaq and Marie Peary in Greenland, 1902.
Courtesy of the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands - Maine Memory Network.

Peary was entirely unapologetic about his relationship with Ahlikahsingwah. Josephine (Peary's wife) made a surprise visit to his Greenland camp and met Ahlikahsingwah and her first son by Peary, Anaukaq. Josephine angrily confronted her husband about the affair, but Peary refused to repent or end his relationship with Ahlikahsingwah. Ultimately, Josephine reluctantly accepted the situation and never returned to the Arctic.

Peary agreed with the traditional colonial belief that white women like his wife were “noncompliant” and that Inuit women like Ahlikahsingwah were inherently wanton because they lacked “false modesty or bashfulness”. This helped justify Peary’s desire to take Ahlikahsingwah to bed whenever he wanted, imposing his power over the Inuit both physically and mentally. Men like Matthew Henson, however, did not subscribe to these colonial beliefs.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Akatingwah & Matthew Henson

Photo of Akatingwah with Anaukaq on her back from Peary’s book Nearest the Pole, 1907.
Courtesy of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution - Internet Archive.

When Matthew Henson arrived in Greenland as a member of Peary’s crew, not one of the local Inuit had ever seen a man of African descent. Henson’s kindness immediately made him a favorite among the Inuit and the women began to fawn over and develop crushes on him. Though little is known about when Henson’s relationship with Akatingwah began, what is known is that she was already married to an Inuit man named Kitdlaq. Despite this, when Akatingwah and Henson began their relationship it appears that she was not an unwilling participant.

After their son, Anaukaq, was born (like Peary’s children, Anaukaq was also legally an American), Henson had to return to America with Peary for good in 1909. It was widely believed among the Inuit that Henson would have brought his “Eskimo wife” back to America with him if he wasn’t already married and that Akatingwah was deeply saddened about their parting.

Henson’s popularity among the Inuit was based on his respect for them, something which clearly distinguished him from Peary. Henson viewed the Inuit as his equals, rejecting the colonial male privilege which Peary believed in. As Henson wrote about the Greenland Inuit in his 1912 memoir, “I know every man, woman and child in their tribe. They are my friends and they regard me as theirs.” Henson made an incredible effort to learn Inuit culture and became fluent in their language, unlike Peary, who declared that Henson “was more of an Eskimo than some of them.”

While Henson may have been influenced by Peary’s insistence his crew enjoy “female companionship”, the relationship between Akatingwah and Henson appears to have been based on mutual affection. Henson’s happiness with the Inuit woman pictured here (who is most likely Akatingwah) is obvious, as both are smiling, looking into each other’s eyes and have their arms wrapped around one another.

Saturday, April 24, 2010


Map showing Greenland, Canada and the United States,
printed in 1929 by the Italian Touring Club.
Courtesy of the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection.

Today, direct descendants of both Peary and Henson continue to lead their lives in Greenland and the two families have become quite close. This is a fitting legacy for the two men who worked closely together during life, despite their differences. Robert E. Peary was concerned with projecting an image of himself as the “epitome of manliness”, an ingredient which had proven vital to previous successful Arctic campaigns. Peary believed in traditional colonial power relationships and expected the Inuit he encountered to be subservient to him. As an African-American, Matthew Henson identified with the oppressed Inuit and actively worked to befriend them and understand their culture. His efforts have left a lasting impression on the Inuit he encountered and, even today, he is lauded among Greenlanders. Peary and Henson’s relationships with Ahlikahsingwah and Akatingwah reflect these fundamental differences between two very different men.

Friday, April 23, 2010


Biographies. Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum, Bowdoin College, 2001. Web. 20 March 2010.

Bloom, Lisa. Gender on Ice: American Ideologies of Polar Expeditions. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

Counter, S. Allen. North Pole Legacy: Black, White, and Eskimo. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1991.

David Rumsey Map Collection, Cartography Associates, 2009. Web. 20 April 2010.

Dick, Lyle. Muskox Land: Ellesmere Island in the Age of Contact. Calgary, Canada: University of Calgary Press, 2001.

Elder, William. Biography of Elisha Kent Kane. Philadelphia: Childs & Peterson, 1858.

“The Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930): North Pole Expedition”. United States National Archives, 1998. Web. 20 April 2010.

Greely, Adolphus W. The Greely Arctic Expedition, as Fully Narrated by Lieut. Greely, USA. Philadelphia: Barclay & Company, 1884.

Henderson, Bruce. True North: Peary, Cook and the Race to the Pole. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005.

Henson, Matthew. A Negro Explorer at the North Pole. BiblioLife, 2008.

The Internet Archive, 2010. Web. 20 April 2010.

Maine Memory Network, Maine Historical Society, 2010. Web. 20 April 2010.

The National Geographic Society, 2010. Web. 20 April 2010.

Palsson, Gisli. “Hot Bodies in Cold Zones: Arctic Exploration”. The Scholar and Feminist Online, Fall 2008. Web. 20 April 2010.

Peary, Robert E. Nearest the Pole: A Narrative of the Polar Expedition of the Peary Arctic Club in the S.S. Roosevelt, 1905-1906. New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1907.

------------------- The North Pole: Its Discovery Under the Auspices of the Peary Arctic Club. New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1910.

-------------------. Northward Over the “Great Ice”: A Narrative of Life and Work Along the Shores and Upon the Interior Ice-Cap of Northern Greenland in the Years 1886 and 1891-1897. London: Methuen, 1898.

Prints and Photographs Online Catalogue, United States Library of Congress, 2010. Web. 20 April 2010.

Robinson, Michael F. The Coldest Crucible: Arctic Exploration and American Culture. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Roosevelt, Theodore. “The Strenuous Life: Speech Before the Hamilton Club, Chicago, April 10, 1899”. Theodore Roosevelt Association, 2010. Web. 21 March 2010.

Schley, Winfield Scott and James Russell Soley. The Rescue of Greely. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1885.