Matthew Henson

Matthew Henson

"The lure of the arctic is tugging at my heart. To me the trail is calling! The old trail, the trail that is always new." - Matthew Henson

 Illustration by   Jessica Roux

Illustration by Jessica Roux

Explorer Matthew Henson is best known as one of the first men to reach the North Pole during his U.S. expedition on April 6, 1909. However, due to the racially controversial times, Henson is often overlooked while Robert E. Peary receives full credit of reaching the North Pole first.

In 1866, Henson was born in Maryland to two freeborn sharecroppers, one year after emancipation and the end of the Civil War. Orphaned at a young age, he carved his own path and began working on a ship as a cabin boy. There, he learned to read and write and to navigate the sea while traveling the world. When the ship's captain died, he took up work as a store clerk in Washington D.C where he met Robert E. Peary for the first time. Peary would hire him almost immediately as his valet on an expedition to Nicaragua and together they would go on several voyages over the span of 2 decades.

In 1891, Peary invited Henson to join his party while exploring Greenland. Henson proved to be a vital partner. While Peary was the public face, Henson was the carpenter and the craftsman who built all the sledges used on their expedition. He was also fluent in the Inuit language, learning and implementing the methods of the Inuit to survive and travel the harsh cold landscape.

They would travel to the Arctic several times, progressing closer to the North Pole with each voyage. In 1906, with the support of President Theodore Roosevelt, Peary and Henson managed to get within 174 miles of the North Pole with the "Roosevelt" ship using an ice breaker. Two years later, on their eighth attempt to the North Pole, Peary and Henson finally reached the North Pole. 

They were now in their 40s and with their team landed their ship into port. From there, Peary and Henson along with four Inuit companions made for the North Pole in -65 degree temperature and cracking ice patches. In the fog and mist, they made camp feeling confident that they were close. At noon, they calculated their location and realized that the North Pole was just behind their igloos. They realized that Henson had reached there first in the dark fog the night before causing tension between him and Peary.

On their return, Peary was given credit as the first to reach the North Pole and, for almost 20 years, Henson received little acknowledgement for his contribution. Peary's claim was also much disputed, as there was little evidence besides Henson's testimony and the four Inuit companions. 

Afterwards, Matthew Henson took a job as a clerk with the federal customs house in New York and lived a quiet life for the next 30 years. He began to receive recognition, first in 1937, when the Explorers Club of New York made him an honorary member. Then in 1946, the U.S. Navy awarded him a medal and, in 1954, he received a special commendation as an explorer by President Eisenhower. He passed away a year later in New York.

Posthumously, Matthew Henson was awarded the Hubbard Medal in 2000 by the National Geographic Society. Ironically, the first person to receive the Hubbard Medal was Robert Peary in 1906 by President Roosevelt. 

"I remember learning about Matthew Henson's Arctic explorations to the North Pole in elementary school, and as a child who had seen snow only a few times, I was so fascinated by his journey. " - Jessica Roux

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