Matthew Henson was born on a farm in Maryland, the son of free people of color. After being orphaned young, Henson was sent to live with his uncle in Washington, D.C. This uncle provided Henson a couple of years of education until his death. Henson then became a dishwasher. At the age of 12, Henson made his way to Baltimore, Maryland. There he signed up as a cabin boy on the merchant ship Katie Hines. Captain Childs took to the boy and taught him to read and write. Under Captain Childs, Henson traveled the world visiting China, Japan, Southern Russia, the Philippines, France and Africa. He became an adept navigator. After Childs death, Henson worked as a seaman for several years.
He returned to work on land and found employment at a clothing store in Washington D.C. where he met Commander Robert E. Peary. Impressed with Henson’s sea experience, Peary hired Henson as an aide to accompany his canal survey expedition to Nicaragua. That expedition was the beginning of a partnership that lasted through six arctic voyages and 18 years spent on expeditions. Upon his return, in 1912 Henson published his memoir “A Negro Explorer at the North Pole”. The foreword written by Peary commended Henson’s work.
Henson mastered the Intuit language, learned to dog sled the Intuit way, became skilled at building igloos, he traded with the Intuit and he trained the expedition’s dog sled teams. He was a skilled craftsman finding creative solutions to challenges presented by the harsh arctic environment. Henson became an indispensable element of the team. While on expedition, he took a “country” wife with whom he had his only child.
On Commander Peary’s eighth attempt to reach the Geographical North Pole, he chose a small team of 4 Intuits, Henson and himself to make the final push to the North Pole. Peary was unable to make the final leg on foot and made the journey on the dog sled. He sent Henson ahead to scout the mark. He overshot the pole and had to retrace his steps back to the North Pole. He planted an American flag on the mark of the Geographical North Pole.
In 1937, Matthew Henson was admitted to the prestigious Explorer Club in New York City. In 1948 he was made an honorary member of the club. In 1944 Congress awarded Henson and five other members of the team, copies of the Peary Polar Expedition Medal, the silver medal awarded to Peary upon his return from the North Pole. Presidents Truman and Eisenhower both awarded Henson awards before his death in 1955. In 1988 Matthew Henson and his wife Lucy Ross were reinterred with a monument at Arlington National Cemetery near Commander Peary and his wife by order of President Ronald Reagan. Henson’s only direct descendants still live in Greenland.
Matthew Henson’s indomitable spirit represents the human condition at its best. He overcame being left alone in the world, illiteracy and adverse social condition to become an explorer honored by history.
Photo via Adventue Journal