African-American explorer Matthew Henson has achieved fame for being part of a team led by Robert Peary that claims they were the first people to reach the Geographic North Pole. Although historians have disputed the claims, Henson and Peary are still regarded as pioneering explorers by all involved. Henson was born on this day in 1866.
Henson was born in the small farming town of Nanjemoy in Southern Maryland to parents Lemuel and Caroline, who were both freeborn sharecroppers. Henson’s mother passed when he was 4, and his father took him to Washington, D.C., for better opportunity. His father died when he was 8, leaving him in the care of relatives.
After running away from home at age 11, the next year Henson became a ship worker and cabin boy. For six years, Henson learned how to read and absorbed navigation skills and other tasks that would eventually help him in his later career. When the ship captain he worked for passed, Henson returned to the nation’s capital and worked as a store clerk.
It was in that store Henson met Peary who hired him as a valet after a recommendation by the store owner.
Henson and Peary headed to Greenland in 1891 for an expedition. Henson adapted quickly to the job, embracing Inuit Eskimo culture and learning their language.
The mission was tough, and Henson was the only member of Peary’s team to remain.
In 1895, the pair led another trip to Greenland, but it was a perilous mission; the team attempted to chart the ice cap in the North but ended up killing and eating their sled dogs to survive due to poor supplies.
After several trips to reach the North Pole, including a voyage supported by President Theodore Roosevelt, who provided them with an ice-cutter ship, Peary and Henson made one final push in 1909 to reach their lofty goal.
Peary fell ill on the last leg of the journey and trusted Henson to lead four Eskimos and 40 dogs (down from an original number of 24 men and 119 sled dogs) to plant the American Flag at the top of the North Pole.
“I was in the lead that had overshot the mark a couple of miles. We went back then and I could see that my footprints were the first at the spot,” said Henson in a newspaper article after the team returned home. As expected, Peary was lauded as a hero while Henson was seen as an afterthought. Peary also faced scrutiny from Congress because of the lack of evidence that the men actually reached the North Pole.
Learn more about Henson and Peary’s travels here:
Henson, after all his great adventures, worked the next 30 years of his life as a store clerk but did not let his achievements fall to the wayside. In 1912, he released the memoir, “A Negro Explorer at The North Pole.” Henson’s 1947 biography, “Dark Companion,” was penned with the help of Bradley Robinson. Henson and his second wife, Lucy, never had children but he did have a son, Anauakaq, with a Inuit woman.
Henson was also honored by the U.S. Navy in 1946 with a medal and was acknowledged by Presidents Truman and Eisenhower before his passing in 1955. Several honors exist marking the legacy of Henson’s travels, including a navy survey ship named after him in 1996. Several national parks and schools also bear his namesake.