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Matthew Henson was an African American explorer best known as the co-discoverer of the North Pole with Robert Edwin Peary in 1909.
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Of Henson, expedition member Donald Macmillan once noted, "With years of experience equal to that of Peary himself, he was indispensable."
The expedition continued into the following year (1909). While other team members turned back, Peary and the ever-loyal Henson trudged on. Peary knew that the mission's success depended on his trusty companion, stating at the time, "Henson must go all the way. I can't make it there without him." On April 6, 1909, Peary, Henson,
four Eskimos and 40 dogs (the trip had begun with 24 men, 19 sledges and 133 dogs) finally reached the North Pole—or at least they claimed to have.
Triumphant when they returned, Peary received many accolades for his accomplishment, but—an unfortunate sign of the times—Henson an African American, was largely overlooked. And while Peary was lauded by many for his achievement, he and his team faced wide skepticism, with Peary having to testify before Congress about allegedly reaching the North Pole due to a lack of verifiable proof. The truth about Peary's and Henson's 1909 expedition still remains clouded.
Henson spent the next three decades working as a clerk in a New York federal customs house, but he never forgot his life as an explorer. He recorded his Arctic memoirs in 1912, in the book A Negro Explorer at the North Pole. In 1937, a 70-year-old Henson finally received the acknowledgements he deserved: The highly regarded Explorers Club in New York accepted him as an honorary member, and the U.S. Navy awarded him a medal in 1946. He also received a cherished gold medal from the Chicago Geographic Society. The following year, he worked with Bradley Robinson to write his biography, Dark Companion.
In April 1891 Henson married Eva Flint. The long periods of separation during Henson’s expeditions took its toll, and Flint divorced him in 1897.
Henson married Lucy Ross in 1906. They never bore any children, but like Peary, Henson had relations with Intuit women during their expeditions. In circa 1906, Henson fathered his only child, a son named Anauakaq. Henson did not play a role in his son’s upbringing, though in 1987 Anauakaq reunited with Peary descendants in the United States as documented in the book North Pole Legacy: Black, White and Eskimo.
Henson died in New York City on March 5, 1955, and was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery. The body of his wife, Lucy, was buried there in 1968. In a move to honor Henson, in 1987, President Ronald Reagan approved the transportation of Henson and his wife for re-interment at Arlington National Cemetery, per the request of Dr. S. Allen Counter of Harvard University. The national cemetery is also the burial site of Peary and his wife.
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