American Explorers of the Sea and Ice: Robert Gray and Matthew Henson
The idea of sailing on the seven seas have always carried a weight of mystery and mythology. For some, just the sight of the ocean can evoke that sense of wonder and longing.
It's not surprising then that many of the greatest American explorers took to the sea. Two of these explorers have gone down in history for their achievements:
Captain Robert Gray commanded the first U.S. ship to circumnavigate the globe, and he discovered the Columbia River, which gave the U.S. claim to Oregon territory.
Matthew Henson was the first African-American and one of the first explorers in history, along with Robert E. Peary, to sail into the icy North and reach the farthest point north on the globe on the North Pole.
And the stories behind these achievements are remarkable -- full of wonder, adversity, triumph, and terrible tragedy.
Like many of the American seafaring explorers of his time, Robert Gray began his adventures while serving in the military in the Continental Navy during the American Revolution. While working for a Massachusetts trading company, he captained the ship "Lady Washington," and then the larger vessel "Columbia."
It was with these ships that Gray sailed from Massachusetts south past South America, around the treacherous Cape Horn where Atlantic meets the Pacific, and then up the South American coast to the Pacific Northwest, including California, Oregon, Washington, and Vancouver. After fur-trading, he sailed across the Pacific, stopping in Hawaii to rest (then called the Sandwich Islands), and then to a city called Canton -- now called Guangzhou -- in China. After trading with the Chinese, he continued west through the Pacific Ocean, into the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope of Africa, and then across the Atlantic back to Massachusetts.
He became the first American to circumnavigate the globe. His trailblazing prepared the way for future expeditions from other American explorers and merchants. During his exploration of the Pacific Northwest, he also discovered the Columbia River, which was named after his ship. When he returned to Boston, the citizens paraded Gray through the city to celebrate his accomplishments, and Governor John Hancock held a reception in Gray's honor.
But it would not be the only time that Gray would circumnavigate the globe. According toBritannica: "after his return in July 1793, he spent the remainder of his career commanding merchant vessels along the Atlantic coast." He died at sea in 1806 near Charleston, South Carolina.
His legacy, however, is not all parades and honors. Tragically, he attacked several native populations during his explorations of the Pacific Northwest. Some were in self-defense; but, as history records, some were not. In 2005, descendants of Gray apologized to the descendents of some of the natives that were victims at Gray's hands, as recorded byThe Seattle Times.
Matthew Henson, an African-American, was orphaned at age 11, and by age 13, he was a cabin boy on a ship. He learned to read and write on the ship, with the help of the captain. After 24 years of living a life of adventure on the sea, Henson met Robert E. Peary and joined the famous explorer on his first trip to the Arctic. Henson then roamed in the Arctic for seven years and logged 9,000 miles on dogsleds. In 1906, they tried and failed to reach the North Pole on a ship called theRoosevelt.
A few years later, they tried again. According toNational Geographic, they brought a tremendous amount of supplies and personnel with them:
"Henson and Peary boarded theRooseveltwith 22 Inuit men, 17 Inuit women, 10 children, 246 dogs, 70 tons (64 metric tons) of whale meat from Labrador, the meat and blubber of 50 walruses, hunting equipment, and tons of coal...and 130 dogs working to lay a trail and supplies along the route to the Pole."
By this time, Henson was, in Peary's words, "more of an Eskimo than some of them." Henson had developed superb hunting and sled-driving abilities, and he could speak their language fluently.
They finally reached the North Pole -- the first adventurers in history to do so (making Henson the first African-America to the North Pole) -- On April 6, 1909. National Geographic describes their triumph this way: "Henson arrived at Camp Jesup, 89°47', 45 minutes ahead of Peary, concluding by dead reckoning that he had reached the Pole. Henson greeted Peary, 'I think I'm the first man to sit on top of the world.'
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