Matthew Alexander Henson
August 8, 1866 – March 9, 1955
Matthew Alexander Henson was born in Nanjemoy, a small city in southwestern Charles County, Maryland. His parents were sharecroppers and had been born free but his grandparents had been enslaved. At age four, Henson moved to Washington, D.C. with his father and siblings after his mother died. Unfortunately, Henson’s father also passed away a few years later and when the children were divided among family members he was sent to live with an uncle. That uncle also died and thus at the age of 12, Henson left school and set out to make a way on his own.
Henson walked to Baltimore, Maryland where he found work as a cabin boy. He spent the next six years aboard the Katie Hines, a merchant ship. The ship’s captain, Captain Childs, looked out for Henson and provided him with an education that included reading, writing, and navigation. At a time when travel was still a luxury and out of reach for many, Henson was able to visit Asia, Europe, and Africa.
When Captain Childs died in 1884, Henson left the Katies Holmes and returned to D.C. He eventually found work as a clerk in a hat shop. A few years later, Robert E. Peary, an officer in the Navy Corps of Civil Engineers, came into the shop. Finding Henson’s experience as a sailor and navigator impressive, Peary offered Henson a position as his assistant on his upcoming expedition to Nicaragua.
The mission of the Nicaragua trip was to survey the area and determine the feasibility of constructing a canal to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. For two years the men worked their way through the rainforest as they surveyed and mapped the land. While the intended canal was ultimately constructed in Panama, the experience bonded the men.
When the pair returned to America, Henson settled in Philadelphia where Peary helped him find a job. For a period he lived a relatively normal life and married Eva Flint in 1891. Yet, shortly after his marriage, Henson set off again. This time joining Peary on the first of seven trips to Canada and Greenland. Henson and Flint eventually divorced after six years of marriage due at least in part to Henson’s frequent extended absences.
Over the next 18 years, Peary led a series of mapping expeditions in the Arctic. During their first trip, Henson was the only member of the team to continue the push forward with Peary after everyone else gave up. Peary, a White man, treated Henson with a degree of respect that upset some other members of the group.
On each mission, Henson served as Peary’s right-hand man. These journeys brought Henson into contact with the Inuit people (previously referred to as Eskimos which is considered offensive). Some other members of the initial expedition team had little regard for the Inuit. But as a result of trading, living among, and traveling with the Inuit Henson eventually learned their language and vital skills for surviving the Arctic’s harsh conditions. He also fathered a child with an Inuit woman though sources vary as to whether they married or not.
During the pair’s second expedition, the team ran dangerously low on food and supplies. New snow blanketed stores of food that they had set out. And while they were able to hunt animals for food, there were areas where this was not guaranteed. They made it to the far north of Greenland before turning back.
Six of the Inuit people who had been traveling with them died. In their desperation, they ate their sled dogs on the return journey, leaving only one alive. Despite this near-death experience, the men managed to chart all of Greenland’s ice cap and found its most northern terminus.
A key goal of their next two excursions was bringing back three large meteors that they had found. They were sold to the American Museum of Natural History for $40,000. A sizeable sum at the time, the proceeds were enough to fund their future expeditions.
But their most notable excursion took place from 1908-1909. In 1905, the team was able to get within 175 miles of the North Pole with the assistance of an ice-breaking ship before being forced to retreat. As the men were now middle-aged, they wouldn’t be able to continue physically enduring the Arctic. It was decided that the 1908 voyage would be their last attempt to reach the North Pole.
Arriving at Ellesmere Island, Canada in September, they used the six months of darkness brought on by winter to make preparations. Peary became sick and had to pause on the journey. He sent out the explorers in small teams and all but Henson’s group turned back. Henson arrived at the North Pole before Peary but accidentally went past the spot before doubling back to meet up with Peary and plant the U.S. flag.
What should have been a momentous occasion lost some of its luster due to a hoax. One of the other explorers who hadn’t even traveled far from base camp claimed to have reached the North Pole the year before. After an investigation, he was exposed as a liar, and Peary eventually received credit and accolades for the achievement. But racist attitudes of the time resulted in Henson’s participation in the achievement being largely ignored. This was despite the important role his exploration and carpentry skills had played in building the supplies needed for the expeditions.
A few years later, Henson wrote a book about his life and experiences, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole. Henson was appointed a clerk in the U.S. Customs House in New York City by President William Howard Taft. But he otherwise spent the rest of his life relatively unknown. It was about 30 years before Henson began to receive honors on par with the other explorers from his travels. In 1987, an exception was granted and Henson’s remains along with those of his wife were reinterred at Arlington Cemetery where he was buried with full military honors.
- Biography.com Editors, ed. 2021. “Matthew Henson.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. June 22, 2021. https://www.biography.com/explorer/matthew-henson.
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, ed. 2022. “Matthew Alexander Henson.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. August 4, 2022. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Matthew-Alexander-Henson.
- Krystek, Lee. 1999. “Matthew Henson: Arctic Explorer.” Virtual Exploration Society. The Museum of Unnatural History. 1999. http://www.unmuseum.org/henson.htm.
- “Matthew Henson.” n.d. Arlington National Cemetery. Accessed January 17, 2023. https://www.arlingtoncemetery.mil/Explore/Notable-Graves/Explorers/Matthew-Henson.
- Mills, James. 2021. “The inside Story of the African American Explorer Who Was the First Man to Stand on Top of the North Pole.” Adventure. National Geographic. May 3, 2021. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/article/the-legacy-of-arctic-explorer-matthew-henson.
- Theroux, Marcel. 2020. “Matthew Henson: The Pioneering African-American Arctic Adventurer.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media. May 24, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2020/may/24/matthew-henson-arctic-explorer-first-man-to-north-pole.
- Whitaker, Matthew C. 2019. “Matthew Henson (1866-1955).” Blackpast.org. August 9, 2019. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/henson-matthew-1866-1955/.
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