Matthew Alexander Henson

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Matthew Alexander Henson

1866-1955

American Explorer

Matthew A. Henson went from clothing salesman to Arctic explorer following a chance meeting with American adventurer and naval engineer Robert E. Peary (1856-1920). For three decades, Henson accompanied Peary on many expeditions to the Arctic, and was a member of the team that in 1909 became the first to reach the North Pole.

Henson was born on August 8, 1866, in Charles County, Maryland. An African-American, he was the son of free parents, both of whom died when he was a boy. After attending a segregated school in Washington, D.C., he spent most of his teen years taking jobs on ships traveling to such places as Africa, the Orient, Asia, and Europe. Eventually, he traded life on the water for one on land, and took employment in a Washington, D.C., clothing store. It was there that he met Peary, who stopped in the shop to buy a pith helmet for his trip to Central America. Peary offered Henson a job as his personal valet, and Henson accepted.

Henson made his first trip with Peary in 1887, when Peary was the engineer-in-chief of a canal project in Nicaragua. After they returned to the United States and before they headed out on their next adventure, Henson passed the time working as a messenger. During this break in their quest for adventure, Peary continued to gather financial backing for future expeditions and requested an 18-month leave from the Navy. On June 6, 1891, Henson, Peary, Peary's wife, and four others set out to explore Greenland. The success of this trip, in which Peary proved that Iceland was indeed an island, brought a long line of financial backers for Peary's future Arctic explorations.

Henson developed a strong attachment to the local people. During the 1891-92 trip, Henson gained respect and admiration from the local Inuit men and women by spending the long Arctic winter learning their language and taking an interest in their culture. They gave him the nickname Maripaluk, which means "kind Matthew." When Peary and Henson returned in 1893 to attempt a crossing of the northern Greenland ice cap, Henson adopted an orphaned Inuit boy.

On this and later trips, Peary developed a keen desire to lead the first team to the North Pole. Early attempts by him and Henson were met with blinding snowstorms, open expanses of water to traverse, and many other obstacles. Nonetheless, they continued their quest. In 1908, with the threat that financial backing would soon dry up, Peary and Henson made one last attempt to reach the North Pole. They headed out on July 6, 1908, making the initial part of the trip on board the ship Theodore Roosevelt. At the same time, another team was preparing to make its run to the North Pole. That team was led by Dr. Frederick Albert Cook, a man who had accompanied Henson and Peary on the 1891 expedition. The 24-man Peary-Henson team embarked on the land portion of its trip in February 1909. On March 31, Peary ordered everyone to return except himself, Henson, and four Inuits, who marched on to the North Pole. According to Peary's calculations, the six explorers reached the target on April 6, 1909. Within days of Peary's public announcement of their success, Cook reported that he had reached the pole first. Peary received over-whelming support for his claim, however, and he has been roundly credited with the honor of leading the first expedition to the pole.

The voyage to and from the North Pole was the last for Henson or Peary. Henson went on to become a messenger for U.S. Customs until his retirement in 1936. Racial prejudice prevented Henson from receiving much initial recognition for his Arctic explorations, but he did receive a number of honors later in his life. In 1955 Henson died at the age of 88 in New York. His remains have since been moved from their original resting place in a private cemetery to the plot next to Peary's in the Arlington National Cemetery.

LESLIE A. MERTZ