Henson, Matthew 1866–1955

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Matthew Henson 18661955

Codiscoverer of the North Pole

At a Glance

Reached the Pole Ahead of Peary

Recognized At Last

Selected writings


The Commander gave the word, We will plant the stars and stripesat the North Pole! and it was done. Another worlds accomplishment was done and finished, and as in the past, from the beginning of history, wherever the worlds work was done by a white man, he had been accompanied by a colored man, wrote Matthew Henson in his autobiography, A Black Explorer at the North Pole, originally published in 1912. Although he was the only American to accompany Commander Robert E. Peary when he first set foot on the Pole, Henson, because of racial prejudice, was not credited as the codiscoverer of the region until the late 1980s; his body was reinterred with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery on April 6, 1988. We are assembled here today to right a tragic wrong, to right the record, speaker S. Allen Counter, a Harvard professor of neurophysiology and black history expert, stated at the event, as reported by B. Drummond Ayres, Jr., in the New York Times. Welcome home, Matt Henson, to the company of your friend Robert Peary. Welcome home to a new day in America. Welcome home, brother.

Born in August of 1866, in Charles County, Maryland, Henson grew up on a farm 40 miles south of Washington, D.C., along the Potomac River. Details of his early years are sketchy. According to A Black Explorer at the North Pole, his parents, Lemuel Henson and Lemuels second wife, Caroline, moved to Washington, D.C., when Henson was a young child. After his mothers death when he was seven years old, an uncle raised him. The youngsters only education was at the N Street School in the District of Columbia, and he began work on a merchant vessel as an adolescent.

A different version of his childhood has been chronicled in other sources, including his biography, Dark Companion, written by Bradley Robinson in collaboration with Henson. According to Robinson and others, Hensons mother died two years after he was born and his father, who had remarried, died when Henson was eight years old. Henson lived with his stepmother, whom he described as cruel, and at age 11, he ran away from home. Fleeing to the Washington, D.C., area, Henson found work as a kitchen helper at a small cafe where one of the patrons was a sailor named Baltimore Jack. The youngster was intrigued by Jacks tales of his adventures on the

At a Glance

Born Matthew Alexander Henson, August 6, 1866 (one source says August 8, 1867), in Charles County, MD; died March 9, 1955, in New York, NY; son of Lemuel (a farmer) and his second wife, Caroline (maiden name, Gaines) Henson; married Lucy Ross (a bank clerk), September, 1907 (one source says 1908); children: (with Ahkahtingwaq) Anaukaq. Politics: Republican.

Worked as a cabin boy on merchant vessel, Katie Hines; introduced to U.S. Navy Lieutenant Robert E. Peary while working as a stock clerk in a hat store; accompanied Peary, as an assistant, on a surveying trip to Nicaragua and seven Northern expeditions, 1887-1909; codiscovered the North Pole, April 6, 1909; parked cars at a garage in New York City, 1909-13; messenger, U.S. Customs House, New York City, c. 1913-33.

Awards: Honorary degrees from Morgan State College and Howard University; received various medals from black organizations; Congressional Medal, 1944; personally saluted by President Harry S Truman, 1950; Presidential Citation, 1954; reinterred with full military honors to Arlington National Cemetery, 1988.

Member: Explorers Club.

sea, and at the tender age of 13, walked alone to Baltimore, Maryland, to find a job on the waterfront.

Details concerning the years that followed, when Henson began work as a cabin boy on the merchant vessel, Katie Hines, are better documented. An elderly seaman named Captain Childs, who ran the ship, educated Henson in several areas, including mathematics, the Bible, and the classics. During the six years in which he traveled the seas to such countries as China, Europe, and North Africa, Henson became an able-bodied seaman with the help of Childss tutoring. He returned to the United States when Childs died and worked a series of jobs, eventually going back to Washington, D.C. In 1887, while he was employed in a hat store as a stock clerk, Henson was introduced to U.S. Navy Lieutenant Robert E. Peary, who hired him as his valet on the store owners recommendation. Peary and Hensons association would last well over two decades and would include a surveying trip to Nicaragua and seven Northern expeditions. Shortly before leaving on his last polar voyage in 1907, Henson married Lucy Ross, a clerk in a New York bank.

The trek to the North Pole was a treacherous journey that covered 413 nautical miles. Over the course of earlier unsuccessful attempts to reach their destination, Henson, a versatile assistant, had become an invaluable member of Pearys crew. Ayres wrote that Peary said of Henson, He must go with me. I cannot make it without him. Serving as a combination blacksmith, carpenter, dog trainer, hunter, and interpreter, Henson was the only member of the party to learn the Eskimo language. The Arctic natives called him Maye-Paluq, the kind one, and he was credited with sole responsibility for convincing the Eskimos to accompany Peary on his journey. Henson related in his 1912 autobiography, Many and many a time, for periods covering more than twelve months, I have been to all intents an Esquimo, with Esquimos for companions, speaking their language, dressing in the same kind of clothes, living in the same kind of dens, eating the same food, enjoying their pleasures, and frequently sharing their griefs. I have come to love these people.

Reached the Pole Ahead of Peary

Peary, Henson, and four Eskimos named Ootah, Egingwah, Seegloo, and Ooqueah were the only members of the expedition to reach the North Pole on April 6, 1909. Breaking the trail for Peary, Henson arrived at the Camp Jesup site 45 minutes ahead of the Commander. I think Im the first man to sit on top of the world, Henson told Peary, as reported by Wally Herbert in the National Geographic. Peary did not give Henson much response, and Henson later discovered that, according to Pearys calculations, the group was actually several miles short of the Pole. Peary planted the American flag at the top of his igloo and, without telling Henson, left the camp several hours later accompanied by Egingwah and Seegloo. Herbert speculated that Peary probably realized his error and tried to remedy his mistake.

Late twentieth-century scholarship about the expedition has been devoted to debate over whether Peary adequately proved his claim that the group had not yet reached the North Pole. His behavior toward Henson upon his return was curious; Herbert wrote that Henson ungloved his hand to congratulate Peary, but noted that a gust of wind blew something in [Pearys] eye and with both hands covering his eyes, he [went to take a nap and] gave us orders to not let him sleep for more than four hours. If the original Camp Jesup site was accurate, scholars surmise that Henson did reach the Pole first, which may have been the cause of Pearys chagrin. Pearys disappointment, however, may have come from another source: the realization that after his dangerous and difficult journey, he had not yet reached the North Pole. Peary rarely spoke to Henson during the return trip and instructed his assistant not to lecture publicly about the discovery of the North Pole. The two men did not maintain contact throughout the rest of their lives, but Henson was reported to have wept at Pearys death and put flowers on his grave.

Consistent with the racial attitudes of the time, Peary came home to lucrative awards and honors while Henson struggled to find work. Ironically, Peary was appointed to the rank of rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, but Henson parked cars in a New York garage, publishing his autobiography against Pearys wishes because he needed the money. After black leaders pressured President William Howard Taft in 1913, Henson received a civil service appointment as a messenger boy in a U.S. Customs House in New York City. He remained at the Customs House 20 years, retired on a small stipend of $1,020, and died in 1955 at the age of 88.

Henson received national attention toward the end of his life with the 1947 publication of Dark Companion. In 1950 President Harry S Truman saluted him at a White House ceremony, and he was eventually admitted to the Explorers Club. In addition to honorary degrees from Howard University and Morgan State College, President Dwight D. Eisenhower awarded Henson a presidential citation in 1954. Although black leaders urged that Henson be buried as a public hero in Arlington National Cemetery upon his death, their request was denied on the grounds that Henson had never served in the military.

Recognized At Last

In the late 1980s, Dr. S. Allen Counter, director of the Harvard (University) Foundation and promoter of black historical figures, petitioned President Ronald Reagan to have Henson reinterred at Arlington. Counter was the scholar who, while doing research in neurophysiology in Sweden, discovered that Henson and Peary had both fathered their only sons among the Eskimos. After President Reagan granted the request in 1987, Counter and Ebony publisher John H. Johnson raised the funds for Hensons reburial and monument. Hensons likeness was carved in gold leaf on a black granite tombstone with the inscription co-discoverer of the North Pole and placed next to Pearys monument. Counter arranged for Hensons Eskimo son Anaukaq and his family as well as Hensons American relatives to be present at the ceremony. Though Pearys American family was also invited, only his American-Eskimo relatives attended the service on April 6, 1988. An article in the New York Times related, Seventy nine years to the day after he reached the North Pole with [Commander] Robert E. Peary only to spend most of the rest of his life in historical oblivion, Matthew Alexander Henson was given a heros burial today in Arlington National Cemetery. Counters eulogy, a writer in Ebony conjectured, summed up the feelings of most of those in attendance. It stated in part, Matthew Henson we give you the long overdue recognition you deserve. We lay you to rest to right a tragic wrong, to correct a shameful record.

Selected writings

A Negro Explorer at the North Pole, Fred A. Stokes & Co., 1912, published as A Black Explorer at the North Pole, Walker, 1969.

Also author, with Bradley Robinson, of Dark Companion, 1947.



Counter, S. Allen, North Pole Legacy, University of Massachusetts Press, 1991.

Henson, Matthew, A Black Explorer at the North Pole, Walker, 1969.

Henson, Matthew and Bradley Robinson, Dark Companion, 1947.

Herbert, Wally, The Noose of Laurels: Robert E. Peary and the Race to the North Pole, Atheneum, 1989.


Black Enterprise, July 1988.

Ebony, November 1983; January 1987; July 1988.

Jet, November 23, 1987; April 25, 1988.

National Geographic, September 1988.

New York Times, June 7, 1987; April 7, 1988.

New York Times Book Review, August 13, 1989; June 30, 1991.

People, June 1, 1987.

Time, April 18, 1988.

Marjorie Burgess

Matthew A. Henson

views updated May 14 2018

Matthew A. Henson

Matthew A. Henson (1866-1955) always accompanied Robert Peary on his Arctic explorations. As a result, he was part of the first expedition to reach the North Pole.

Matthew A. Henson was born in Charles County, Maryland, south of Washington, D.C. on August 8, 1866. Henson was an African-American, whose parents had been born free. When he was young, he moved with his parents to Washington. Both of his parents had died by the time he was seven. He was raised by an uncle and attended a segregated school in Washington for six years. At the age of 13, he went to Baltimore and found a job as a cabin boy on a ship bound for China. He was befriended by the ship's captain, Captain Childs, and worked his way up to being an able-bodied seaman. During that period he sailed to China, Japan, the Philippines, North Africa, Spain, France, and Russia. Childs died when Henson was 17, and he left the sea to look for work on land.

In 1888 Henson was working in a clothing store in Washington when he met a young U.S. Navy lieutenant, Robert Peary, who had come in to buy a tropical helmet. Peary offered to hire him as a valet. Henson did not like the idea of becoming a personal servant, but he thought it would be worthwhile to accompany Peary to Nicaragua where he was headed to survey for a possible canal across Central America. They spent a year together in Nicaragua and then Henson worked as a messenger when Peary was stationed at League Island Navy Yard. Peary was interested in the possibilities of Arctic exploration and had made a first trip to Greenland in 1886 with the intention of being the first to cross the Greenland ice cap. He was beaten by Roald Amundsen and he then set himself the goal of being the first person to reach the North Pole.

Peary returned to northern Greenland in June 1891, and Henson accompanied him along with Peary's wife, Josephine, and other assistants, including Frederick Albert Cook. During this first trip Henson started to learn about the way of life of the Inuit who lived at the northern end of Greenland, to learn to speak their language and to learn how to use their knowledge of survival in the Arctic. Henson became very popular among the Inuit where he was credited with learning their language and adapting their customs better than any other outsider. He was nicknamed Maripaluk—"kind Matthew."

Henson returned with Peary to Greenland in June 1893, at which time he adopted a young Inuit orphan named Kudlooktoo and taught him to speak English. On this expedition Peary and Henson crossed the northern end of Greenland from their base at Etah to the northeastern corner of the island at Independence Bay in "Peary Land." Henson later wrote, "The memory of the winter and summer of 1894 and 1895 will never leave me … the recollections of the long race with death across the 450 miles of the ice-cap of North Greenland in 1895 … are still the most vivid." They returned to the United States in September 1895, and Henson vowed never to return.

But he did return—in the summers of 1896, 1897, 1898, 1900, and 1902. In July 1905 Peary and Henson went back north to Greenland again, this time with the intention of traveling over the polar ice cap to the North Pole. Starting in early 1906 they traveled by dog sled over the frozen sea, but it turned out to be an unusually warm winter and early spring, and they encountered too many stretches of open water to be able to continue. They got to within 160 miles of the Pole, the farthest north any one had reached to that time.

Peary and Henson set out again on July 6, 1908 on a ship named after the U.S. president, the Roosevelt, with an expedition that included 21 members. They sailed to Etah in Greenland and took on board 50 Inuit who were to help set up the supply bases on the route to the Pole. They then went to Cape Columbia at the northern end of Ellesmere Island. Peary and Henson set out from there on the morning of March 1, 1909. They were accompanied by or met up with various advance teams along the way. One of these support teams was headed by Professor Ross Marvin of Cornell University. It set up its last supply depot 230 miles from the Pole and then headed back for Cape Columbia. Marvin never made it. One of the Inuit in the party, Kudlukto, said that he had fallen into a stretch of open water and drowned. Years later Kudlukto confessed that he had shot Marvin and dumped his body in the water when he refused to let one of Kudlukto's young cousins ride on a dog sled.

On March 31 Peary and other members of the expedition were at 87 ° 47', the farthest north any man had reached—about 150 miles from the Pole. At that point Peary told Captain Bob Bartlett, commander of the Roosevelt, to return to Cape Columbia. He would make the last dash to the Pole accompanied by Henson. Bartlett was bitterly disappointed, and the next morning walked alone to the north for a few miles as though he would try to make it on his own. He then turned around and headed south. It made sense for Peary to take Henson: he had much more Arctic experience and was an acknowledged master with the dog teams. But there have always been suggestions that Peary sent Bartlett back because he did not want to share the honor of reaching the Pole with anyone else. Given the racial prejudice at the time, Henson and the four Inuit— Ootah, Seegloo, Ooqueah, and Egingwah—did not "count."

A couple of days later, on April 3, Henson was crossing a lane of moving ice, and one of the blocks of ice that he was using for support slipped and he fell into the water. Fortunately one of the Inuit was next to him and was able to pull him out immediately or he would have frozen and drowned. The normal day's procedure was for Peary to leave the night's camp early in the morning and push ahead for two hours breaking the trail ahead. The others would pack up the camp and then catch up with Peary. Then Peary (who at the age of 52 was already suffering from the leukemia that would later kill him) would ride in one of the dogsleds while Henson went ahead and broke trail. They would not see each other until the end of the day.

On April 6, 1909 Henson arrived at a spot that he, just by calculating the distance traveled, thought must be the North Pole. When Peary arrived 45 minutes later, Henson greeted him by saying, "I think I'm the first man to sit on the top of the world." Peary was furious. Peary then attached an American flag to a staff, and the whole expedition went to sleep. At 12:50 p.m. there was a break in the clouds, and Peary was able to take a reading of their location. It showed that they were 3 miles short of the Pole. After another nap, Peary took another reading and then set out with Egingwah and Seegloo to where he thought the Pole must be— without telling Henson. They then spent 30 hours in the vicinity of the Pole, and Henson officially raised the flag over what Peary's calculations told him was the North Pole. (Whether it really was the Pole or not has been a source of controversy ever since.)

Peary and Henson and the four Inuit arrived back at the spot where they had left Bartlett at midnight on April 9, an incredible speed—and reached Cape Columbia on April 23. They stayed there until July 17 when the ice had melted enough for the Roosevelt to steam into open water. They telegraphed news of their triumph from Labrador on September 6, 1909. But by that time, the world already thought that Frederick Cook had been the first one to reach the Pole. Peary spent the next few years defending his claims and was eventually vindicated.

By the time Henson got back to the United States he weighed 112 pounds (his normal weight was 155 pounds), and he was forced to spend several months recovering. For a while, he accompanied Peary on his lecture tours, where he would be exhibited in his Inuit clothes. In 1912 he wrote a book about his experiences (A Negro at the North Pole). However, the book died quickly, and Henson was forced to take a job as a porter working for $16 a week. Thanks to some politically influential friends he was later given a job as a messenger at the United States Customs house in New York at a salary of $20 a week, which was later raised to $40 a week. He retired in 1936, at which time there was an effort to have him awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, but nothing came of it.

As racial attitudes in the United States changed, Henson began to receive more recognition. He was elected a full member of the Explorers Club in New York in 1937, the first Black member. In 1945 all of the survivors of the North Pole expedition received the Navy Medal, but Henson's was awarded in private. When he went to attend a banquet in his honor in Chicago in 1948, none of the downtown hotels would allow him to register because of his race. In 1950, however, he was introduced to President Truman and in 1954 was received by President Eisenhower in the White House. He died in New York in 1955 at the age of 88 and was buried in a private cemetery there. Years later, in 1988, when news of his achievements received more publicity, he was reburied at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors in a plot next to Peary's.

Since Peary and Henson were both married at the time of their Arctic expeditions, it is not surprising that there was no public knowledge that both of them had liaisons with Inuit women. Dating from the 1905 expedition, they both fathered children—Peary had two sons and Henson had a boy named Anaukaq. This information came to light in 1986 when it was revealed that the small Greenland village of Moriussaq was largely made up of Henson's descendants, who had prospered as traders and hunters.

Further Reading

Henson's autobiography, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole was first published in 1912 (New York: 1912). It was reprinted in 1969 with a slightly different title: A Black Explorer at the North Pole (New York: Walker and Company). This edition was reprinted as a paperback by the University of Nebraska Press in Lincoln in 1989.

There are two biographies of Henson: Bradley Robinson, Dark Companion (New York: Robert M. McBride & Co., 1947) and Floyd Miller, Ahdoolo!: The Biography of Matthew A. Henson (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1963).

The story of Henson's descendants is told in "The Henson Family" by S. Allen Counter in the 100th anniversary edition of the National Geographic magazine (September 1988, pp. 422-429). □

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