American Explorer - Matthew Alexander Henson
by U.S. Marine Corps Laurie Pearson, Logistics Base Barstow
April 30, 2019
Matthew Alexander Henson, the son of two freeborn black
sharecroppers in Charles County, Maryland, was one of two U.S.
citizens and four Inuit assistants who became the first human beings
to set foot on the North Pole on April 6, 1909.
born August 8, 1866, but lost his mother at an early age. When
Henson was 4-years-old, his father moved the family to the District
of Columbia, in search of better work opportunities. His father died
there a few years later, leaving Henson and his siblings in the care
of other family members. At the age of 11, Henson ran away from his
widowed stepmother and was taken in by another woman in the area.
After working briefly in a restaurant, Henson walked to
Baltimore, Maryland, where he found work as a cabin boy on the ship
Katie Hines. Captain Childs, the ship’s skipper, took Henson under
his wing and saw to his education, which included the finer points
of seamanship. During his time aboard the ship, he saw much of the
world, to include Asia, Africa and Europe.
When Childs died
in 1884, Henson returned to the District of Columbia where he worked
several jobs, finally as that of a clerk in a hat shop. While
working in this shop, Hanson met Robert Edwin Peary, an explorer and
officer in the U.S. Navy Corps of Civil Engineers, in 1887.
Peary was impressed by Henson's seafaring credentials and hired him
as his valet for an upcoming expedition to Nicaragua. Thus began a
long working relationship that spanned half a dozen epic voyages
over two decades for the team. Henson was with Peary for eight
arctic expeditions over 22 years.
Matthew Henson and Robert Peary -
First Two People To Reach North Pole
After returning from Nicaragua, Peary found Henson work in
Philadelphia, and in April 1891 Henson married Eva Flint. But
shortly thereafter, Henson joined Peary again, for an expedition to
Greenland. While there, Henson embraced the local Eskimo culture,
learning the language and the natives' Arctic survival skills over
the course of the next year.
Their next trip to Greenland
came in 1893, this time with the goal of charting the entire ice
cap. The two-year journey almost ended in tragedy, with Peary's team
on the brink of starvation; members of the team managed to survive
by eating all but one of their sled dogs. Despite this perilous
trip, the explorers returned to Greenland in 1896 and 1897, to
collect three large meteorites they had found during their earlier
quests, ultimately selling them to the American Museum of Natural
History and using the proceeds to help fund their future
expeditions. However, by 1897 Henson's frequent absences were taking
their toll on his marriage, and he and Eva divorced.
next several years, Peary and Henson would make multiple attempts to
reach the North Pole. Their 1902 attempt proved tragic, with six
Eskimo team members perishing due to a lack of food and supplies.
However, they made more progress during their 1905 trip: Backed by
President Theodore Roosevelt and armed with a then state-of-the-art
vessel that had the ability to cut through ice, the team was able to
sail within 175 miles of the North Pole. Melted ice blocking the sea
path thwarted the mission’s completion, forcing them to turn back.
Around this time, Henson fathered a son, Anauakaq, with an Inuit
woman, but back at home in 1906 he married Lucy Ross.
team's final attempt to reach the North Pole began in 1908. Henson
proved an invaluable team member, building sledges and training
others on their handling. Of Henson, expedition member Donald
Macmillan once noted, "With years of experience equal to that of
Peary himself, he was indispensable."
continued into the following year, and while other team members
turned back, Peary and Henson trudged on.
“Henson must go all
the way,” Peary said. “I can't make it there without him."
April 6, 1909, Peary, Henson, four Eskimos and and 133 dogs) finally
reached the North Pole with Henson planting the American flag. He
recorded his Arctic memoirs in 1912, in the book A Negro Explorer at
the North Pole.
Matthew Henson (center) flanked
by the expedition's four Eskimo dog drivers at the North
Pole, 10:30 a.m., Eastern Standard Time, on April 6, 1909.
After his exploring days Henson worked as an official in the U.S.
Customs House in New York City. In 1937, a 70-year-old Henson
finally received the acknowledgment he deserved: The highly regarded
Explorers Club in New York accepted him as an honorary member. In
1944 he and the other members of the expedition were awarded a
Congressional Medal. He worked with Bradley Robinson to write his
biography, Dark Companion, which was published in 1947.
Henson died in 1955. After his death, he was buried in New York
City's Woodlawn Cemetery. In 1968, the body of his wife Lucy Ross
Henson was buried nearby.
In 1987, at the request of Dr. S.
Allen Counter of Harvard University, President Ronald Reagan granted
permission for the bodies of Henson and his wife to be re-interred
at Arlington National Cemetery. On April 6, 1988, the remains of
Matthew Henson and his wife were transported to and re-interred at
Arlington National Cemetery, Washington D.C., among other U.S.
heroes and near the grave site of Robert Peary and his wife
Josephine Deibitsch Peary. Members of Henson's family attended the
ceremony along with many of the explorer's admirers from around the
The re-interment represented the ultimate national
recognition that Henson had so long deserved.
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