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Matthew A. Henson discovered the North Pole with his Arctic expedition partner, Robert Peary. He was the first African-American man to explore the Arctic and spent more than 20 years doing so with Peary. The National Geography Society awarded Henson the Hubbard Medal after his death. He was also the first black man accepted into the Explorers Club of New York City.

Early Years

Matthew Alexander Henson was born in Nanjemoy, Maryland on August 8, 1886. His parents were born as free black citizens before the American Civil War and worked as sharecroppers. His mother died at age two, after producing four children with his father, Lemuel. His father remarried and after having two more children with Caroline, he too died.

Henson’s uncle took him in Washington, D.C., but he died before Henson’s 12th birthday. In 1887, he traveled to Baltimore, Maryland where he became a cabin boy on the Katie Hines, a merchant vessel. Henson formed a close relationship with Captain Childs, who viewed him as a son and taught him to read and write.[1]

Matthew Henson and Exploration

Matthew Alexander returned to Washington, D.C. after working with Captain Childs and began working in a clothing store. In November 1887, he first met Commander Robert Peary. Peary requested his assistance on an expedition to survey a canal in Nicaragua after learning about his time at sea. The pair explored the Arctic together for the next twenty years.

Matthew Henson and Robert Peary’s Arctic explorations would have failed if Henson did not learn useful tricks to survive from the Inuits.

During these two decades, Henson mastered the Inuit language through trading and adapting their cultural customs. They referred to him as Mahri-Pahluk since he could train dogs and drive a sled dog team like an Inuit.[2] Henson and Peary explored thousands of miles in harsh Arctic weather with only dog sleds and Henson’s valuable Inuit knowledge. Their first expedition together took place in 1890 across the northern edge of Greenland. Then between June 1891 and August 1902, their team explored 9,000 miles in northern Greenland and Ellesmere Island, Canada.

They broke the record for the point farthest north reached by explorers, only 175 miles from the North Pole, on May 8, 1900. United States President Theodore Roosevelt presented the Hubbard Medal to Peary in 1906 and the National Geographic Society posthumously awarded it to Henson as well. Matthew Henson and Peary struggled to break through a large patch of drifting ice previously so in 1906 they employed a more powerful steamship called the Roosevelt. They suffered extreme weather conditions and unable ice cracks which forced them to return earlier than planned once again. [3]

Facts About Discovering the North Pole

Matthew A. Henson reached the supposed North Pole prior to Robert Peary and this created a schism in their friendship.

Henson and Peary again sailed on the Roosevelt ton August 18, 1908, with 246 dogs, 22 Inuit men with 17 Inuit women and 10 children, 70 tons of whale meat, blubber and meat from 50 walruses, literal tons of coal, and hunting materials. Peary sent 130 dogs and the Inuit men ahead once the ship arrived Cape Sheridan on Ellesmere Island in February 1909 to precut a trail and lay supplies.

Henson used his Inuit-taught sled-driving and hunting skills to reach Camp Jesus on April 6, 1909, only 45 minutes before Peary. He placed a U.S. flag at the point he determined was the North Pole. Later Arctic explorers continue to debate if the North Pole resided at that exact location.[4]

Marriage and Family

Both Matthew Henson and Robert Peary took Inuit wives during their many years of exploration. Not much was known about their families until Dr. S. Allen Counter went to northern Greenland in 1986 and discovered their children and decedents. He brought them to the U.S., including Anaukaq Henson, for the transfer of Henson’s body from New York to Arlington National Cemetery.[5]

Later Years and Death

Matthew Alexander Henson published, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole, a memoir of his time exploring the Arctic in 1912.[6] He then released a biography in 1947 called Dark Companion with the help of Bradley Robinson.[7] He detailed his equal parts in all explorations shared with Peary, although Henson received very little recognition during the decades following their discoveries.

Matthew Henson never allowed racial discrimination to stop him from pursuing his interests and organizations in the United States properly recognized him later in his life and posthumously.

Henson retired from exploration and President Taft appointed him to the U.S. Customs House in New York City as a clerk. He retired from this job as well in 1936. [8] In 1937, the Explorers Club of New York City accepted him as a member and, in 1938, they made him one of 20 yearly honorary members.[9] In 1944, Congress granted the Congressional Medal to all members of the North Pole Expedition, not just Peary. [10]

Matthew A. Henson died of a cerebral hemorrhage on March 9, 1955, in the Bronx, New York.[11] He was originally buried in New York City, but in 1988 his body was moved to Arlington National Cemetery and settled near Peary’s monument. The U.S. Navy commissioned the U.S.N.S. Henson in 1996. They built the T-AGS 63 class oceanic explorer vessel as a way of honoring his memory. The National Geographic Society posthumously granted Henson the Hubbard Medal, the highest honor available from the Society, in 2000. [12]

References

Bibliography

Brendle, A. (2003, January 15). Profile: African-American North Pole Explorer Matthew Henson. National Geographic News.


Henson, M. A. (2009). Matthew A. Henson’s Historic Arctic Journey: The Classic Account of One of the World’s Greatest Black Explorers. United States: The Lyons Press, Guilford.


Schorow, S. (1992, May 17). Decendents of black man and Eskimo woman are unique. Daily News.

Whitaker, M. C. (2015). Henson, Matthew (1866-1955). The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed.


Footnotes

  1. Henson, 2009
  2. Schorow, 1992
  3. Brendle, 2003
  4. Brendle, 2003
  5. Counter, D. S. A. (2005). Dr. S. Allen Counter. Harvard University - People.
  6. Henson, 2009
  7. Robinson, B., & Henson, M. (1997). Dark Companion: The Story of Matthew Henson (4th ed.). Widget Magic.
  8. Whitaker, 2015
  9. The Explorers Club. (2016). Honorary Members. The Explorers Club.
  10. Whitaker, 2015
  11. Find A Grave. (2001, January 01). Matthew Alexander Henson (1866 - 1955). Find A Grave Memorial.
  12. Whitaker, 2015

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