Matthew Henson: North Pole Explorer

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Stamp of Matthew Henson and Robert E. Peary. Public Domain

Overview

In 1908 explorer Robert Peary set out to reach the North Pole. His mission began with 24 men, 19 sledges and 133 dogs. By April of the following year, Peary had four men, 40 dogs and his most trusted and loyal team member—Matthew Henson.

As the team trudged through the Arctic, Peary said, “Henson must go all the way. I can’t make it there without him.”

On April 6, 1909, Peary and Henson became the first men in history to reach the North Pole.

Achievements  

  • Credited with being the first African-American to reach the North Pole with Peary explorer in 1909.
  • Published A Black Explorer at the North Pole in 1912.
  • Appointed to the US Customs House in recognition of Henson’s Arctic travels by former President William Howard Taft.
  • Recipient of the Joint Medal of Honor by US Congress in 1944.
  • Admitted to the Explorer’s Club, a professional organization dedicated to honoring the work of men and women conducting field research.
  • Interred in Arlington National Cemetery in 1987  by former President Ronald Reagan.
  • Commemorated with a US Postage Stamp in 1986 for his work as an explorer.

 

Early Life

Henson was born Matthew Alexander Henson in Charles County, Md. On August 8, 1866. His parents worked as sharecroppers.

Following the death of his mother in 1870, Henson’s father moved the family to Washington D.C. By Henson’s tenth birthday, his father also died, leaving him and his siblings as orphans.

At the age of eleven, Henson ran away from home and within a year he was working on a ship as a cabin boy. While working on the ship, Henson became the mentee of Captain Childs, who taught him not only to read and write, but also navigation skills.

Henson returned to Washington D.C. after Childs’ death and worked with a furrier.

While working with the furrier, Henson met Peary who would enlist Henson’s services as a valet during travel expeditions.

Life as an Explorer  

Peary and Henson embarked on an expedition of Greenland in 1891. During this time period, Henson became interested in learning about the Eskimo culture. Henson and Peary spent two years in Greenland, learning the language and various survival skills that Eskimos used.

For the next several years Henson would accompany Peary on several expeditions to Greenland to collect meteorites which were sold to the American Museum of Natural History.

The proceeds of Peary and Henson’s findings in Greenland would fund expeditions as they tried to reach the North Pole. In 1902, the team attempted to reach the North Pole only to have several Eskimo members die from starvation.

But by 1906 with the financial support of former President Theodore Roosevelt, Peary and Henson were able to purchase a vessel that could cut through ice. Although the vessel was able to sail within 170 miles of the North Pole, melted ice blocked the sea path in the direction of the North Pole.

Two years later, the team took another chance at reaching the North Pole. By this time, Henson was able to train other team members on sled handling and other survival skills learned from Eskimos.

For a year, Henson stayed with Peary as other team members gave up.

 And on April 6, 1909, Henson, Peary, four Eskimos and 40 dogs reached the North Pole.

Later Years

Although reaching the North Pole was a great feat for all team member, Peary received credit for the expedition. Henson’s  was almost forgotten because he was an African-American.

For the next thirty years, Henson worked in the US Customs office as a clerk. In 1912 Henson published his memoir Black Explorer at the North Pole.

Later in life, Henson was acknowledged for his work as an explorer—he was granted membership to the elite Explorer’s Club in New York.

In 1947 the Chicago Geographic Society awarded Henson with a gold medal. That same year, Henson collaborated with Bradley Robinson to write his biography Dark Companion.

Personal Life

Henson married Eva Flint in April of 1891. However, Henson’s constant travels caused the couple to divorce six years later. In 1906 Henson married Lucy Ross and their union lasted until his death in 1955. Although the couple never had children, Henson had many sexual relationships with Eskimo women. From one of these relationships Henson bore son named Anauakaq around 1906.

In 1987, Anauakaq met the descendants of Peary. Their reunion is well documented in the book, North Pole Legacy: Black, White and Eskimo.

Death

Henson died on March 5, 1955 in New York City. His body was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. Thirteen years later, his wife Lucy also died and she was buried with Henson. In 1987 Ronald Reagan honored the life and work of Henson by having his body re-interred at Arlington National Cemetery.