Matthew Henson biography
Famed African-American explorer Matthew Henson was born in Charles County, Maryland, on August 8, 1866. Explorer Robert Edwin Peary hired Henson as his valet for expeditions. For over two decades, they explored the Arctic, and on April 6, 1909, Peary, Henson and the rest of their team made history, becoming the first people to reach the North Pole—or at least they claimed to have. Henson died in New York City on March 9, 1955.
American explorer Matthew Alexander Henson was born on August 8, 1866, in Charles County, Maryland. The son of two freeborn black sharecroppers, Henson lost his mother at an early age. When Henson was 4 years old, his father moved the family to Washington, D.C., in search for work opportunities. His father died there, leaving Henson and his siblings in the care of relatives.
Henson ran away from home at age 11, and was taken in by a woman who lived near his home. At age 12, he left to work as a cabin boy on a ship. Over the next six years and under the mentorship of Captain Childs, Henson learned literacy and navigation skills.
After Captain Childs died, Henson returned to Washington, D.C. and worked as a store clerk for a furrier. It was there that he met Robert Edwin Peary, an explorer and officer in the U.S. Navy Corps of Civil Engineers. On the recommendation of the store owner, Peary hired Henson as his valet for his travel expeditions.
Career as an Explorer
In 1891, Henson joined Peary on a Greenland expedition. While there, Henson embraced the local Eskimo culture, learning the language and the natives' Arctic survival skills. At the trip's end, in 1893, Henson remained the sole member of Peary's entourage—the rest of the team had abandoned the mission.
Their next trip to Greenland came in 1895, this time with a goal of charting the entire ice cap. The 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. Over the next two years, the explorers returned to Greenland to collect three meteorites found during prior explorations, ultimately selling them to the American Museum of Natural History and using the proceeds to help fund their future expeditions.
Over the 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. They made more progress during their 1906 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 174 miles of the North Pole. Melted ice blocking the sea path thwarted the mission’s completion.
The team's final attempt to reach the North Pole took place in 1908. Henson proved an invaluable team member, building sledges and training others on sled-handling.
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.
Life After the North Pole Expedition
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.