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  • Writer's pictureDon Wilding

Donald McMillan and a North Pole Pioneer

On the evening of Monday, Oct. 17, 1949, Provincetown icon Donald B. MacMillan was on hand at a meeting of the Orleans Rotary Club, and found himself fielding a question from Reg Sprague about a former colleague.

MacMillan, who would have the main wharf in Provincetown named for him in 1957, gained notoriety from his travels to the Arctic region with Rear Admiral Robert Edwin Peary, the man who was credited by many for reaching the geographic North Pole on April 6, 1909.

Sprague asked Commander MacMillan about Matthew Henson, Peary’s “first man” on the journey to the North Pole, and why he never received the same accolades that Peary did.

“Matt Henson was never honored because he was black,” MacMillan said, according to the Oct. 20, 1949 edition of The Cape Codder. He was magnificent. One of the greatest dog drivers that ever lived. He would pass me on the ice and I wouldn’t see him until the end of the day. Matthew Henson led the dash to the North Pole. Had anything happened to him, such as broken leg, Peary wouldn’t have reached the Pole.”

Henson, recognized as the first African-American explorer of the Arctic, accompanied Peary on seven voyages over 23 years. Henson published a memoir, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole, in 1912, which included a foreword by Peary.

MacMillan and Henson both accompanied Peary on his eighth quest to reach the North Pole in 1908-09. MacMillan was forced to drop out of the mission on March 14, 1909, due to frozen heals. Peary then selected Henson and four Inuit (indigenous peoples inhabiting the Arctic region) to venture on.

From here, historians differ on what happened and whether Peary’s party actually reached the Pole. According to MacMillan and other sources, Peary was unable to continue on foot and was confined to a dog sled, prompting him to send Henson, who described himself as a "general assistant, skilled craftsperson, (Inuit) interpreter, and laborer,” ahead as a scout.

“I was in the lead that had overshot the mark a couple of miles,” Henson told the press. “We went back then and I could see that my footprints were the first at the spot.”

Henson then planted the American flag there.

Henson, known as “Mahri-Pahluk” to the Inuit, traded with the them and mastered their language, and became the only non-Inuit skilled in driving the dog sleds and training dog teams in their tradition.

Meanwhile, MacMillan, who later achieved the rank of Admiral, “established a school for the Eskimo children in Nain, Labrador called the MacMillan Moravian School for Eskimo Children, and he provided this school with many essentials brought from the white man's civilization,” according to the book, Arctic Odyssey, The Life of Rear Admiral Donald B. MacMillan.

The black community honored Henson extensively, but he received little credit elsewhere over the next several years. In 1944, Congress eventually paid tribute, awarding Henson and other expedition members duplicates of the Peary Polar Expedition Medal. Presidents Truman and Eisenhower also honored Henson before his death in 1955. Henson was buried in New York, but his body was moved to Arlington National Cemetery in 1968.

Even 40 years after the North Pole expedition, Henson was still held in high regard by those who journeyed with him.

“His stamina was remarkable but he was a man that everyone liked,” MacMillan recalled during the Orleans meeting in 1949. “Even last year, the Eskimos asked me about him.”

Originally published in The Cape Codder, Feb. 23, 2018.

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