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.

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