Henson, Matthew A.

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Henson, Matthew A.

August 8, 1866
March 9, 1955

Explorer Matthew Alexander Henson was born in rural Charles County, Maryland, the son of freeborn sharecroppers. At the age of four Henson and his family moved to Washington, D.C. When he was still a young child both of his parents died, and Henson and his siblings were put under the care of an uncle in Washington. At the age of twelve he left school, traveled to Baltimore, and started his career as a seaman when he was hired as a cabin boy on a ship sailing out of the port city. Henson spent the remainder of his adolescence traveling around the world as a merchant sailor and working menial jobs when back on the East Coast.

At the age of twenty, while working as a clerk in a Baltimore hat store, Henson was hired by U.S. Navy Lt. Robert E. Peary to be Peary's personal servant on a survey expedition for the building of a Central American canal. When the expedition returned to the United States in 1888, Henson followed Peary to the League Island Navy Yard, where he worked as a courier.

In 1891 Peary received a commission to explore northern Greenland and again hired Henson as a personal assistant, despite Peary's concern that a "son of the tropics" would not be able to withstand Arctic weather. While surveying Greenland Henson grew close to the native Inuits, learned the Inuit language, became the expedition's most able dogsled driver, and acted as liaison with the Inuits, who were used as guides and porters by the survey team. Henson and Peary returned to the United States in the summer of 1892 and spent a year touring the country presenting lectures and reenactments of their Greenland expedition. On a second exploration of Greenland, from 1893 to 1895, Peary and Henson led an aborted attempt at reaching the North Pole. For the next eleven years, Peary, with Henson as his chief assistant, led five more unsuccessful attempts at the North Pole, each time succumbing to frostbite or Arctic storms.

In July 1908 Peary, Henson, and a crew of twenty-seven aboard a specially made icebreaking ship left New York for a final attempt at the pole. In February 1909, having arrived at Cape Sheridan, between the northern tip of Greenland and the frozen edge of the Arctic Ocean, Peary led a team of twenty-two, with Henson as one of his chief lieutenants, across the polar ice cap. On April 6, 1909, Peary, Henson, and four Eskimos became the first people to reach the North Pole.

Upon returning to the mainland, Peary was confronted with the news that Frederick Cook had claimed to have reached the North Pole one year earlier. Thus began a protracted and bitter public controversy over the veracity of each man's claim. By the end of 1910, however, most scientific societies had rejected Cook's account and accepted Peary's.

Although celebrated by African-American leaders for many years, Henson was largely unrecognized by the white public as the codiscoverer of the North Pole. After the historic expedition of 1909 Henson spent the rest of his working life as a messenger in the U.S. Customs House and in a New York City post office. In his later years he finally won some of the honors he deserved. The Explorers Club made Henson its first African-American member in 1937. In 1944 Congress awarded him a medal for his codiscovery of the North Pole. In 1948 he was given the Gold Medal of the Geographical Society of Chicago. In 1950 he was honored at the Pentagon, and in 1954, a year before his death, he was received at the White House by President Eisenhower. A U.S. postage stamp commemorating his achievement was issued in 1986.

When Henson died in 1955, his wife was unable to afford a burial site and he was buried in a shared grave in Woodlawn Cemetery in New York. In 1988 his remains were moved to Arlington National Cemetery and buried next to those of Peary. In 2001 Henson was posthumously awarded the Hubbard Medal.


Counter, S. Allen. North Pole Legacy: Black, White and Eskimo. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1991.

Henson, Matthew A. A Negro Explorer at the North Pole. New York: Stokes, 1912.

Miller, Floyd. Ahdoolo! The Biography of Matthew A. Henson. New York: Dutton, 1963.

Robinson, Bradley. Dark Companion. New York: Fawcett, 1947.

thaddeus russell (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005

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