Matthew Henson: Black Arctic Explorer

On April 6, 1909, Matthew Alexander Henson and Robert E. Peary and four Inuit assistants, became the first human beings to set foot on the North Pole. Henson and Peary had been attempting to reach the Pole for the past 18 years. According to Henson, he was the first of the group to reach the North Pole.

Matthew Henson was born in Charles County, Maryland in 1866. His parents were sharecroppers. At the age of 12, Henson went to work as a cabin boy on a merchant ship. Aboard the ship for six years, he learned how to read, write and navigate. Later, while working as a clerk in a Washington, D.C. hat shop, he met Commander Robert E. Peary, who was planning a surveying expedition to Nicaragua. Peary would hire Henson as his valet. Henson joined Peary on the 1888 Nicaragua expedition and seven Arctic expeditions between 1891 and 1909. 

In 1912, Henson published a book entitled A Negro Explorer at the North Pole, and he gave lectures throughout the country, but he received little recognition compared to Peary. He spent the remainder of his career in obscurity, working as a clerk at the U.S. Customs House in New York City. Late in his life, Henson received some long-overdue honors: the prestigious Explorers Club finally admitted him as a member in 1937, Congress awarded him the Peary Polar Expedition Medal in 1944, and Presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower also welcomed him to the White House. 

Photos: Getty Images

Sponsored Content

Sponsored Content