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Matthew A. HensonMatthew Henson

the first man to reach the Nole Pole

Matthew Alexander Henson was born on a farm in Charles County, Maryland, on August 8, 1866. He ran away from home at the age of 11 after suffering a severe beating from his step-mother and made his way to Washington, D.C., where he was taken in by the owner of a restaurant. At the age of 12 he was taken on as a cabin boy by Captain Childs of the Katie Hines. Childs took time to educate Henson, teaching him literature, mathematics, and navigation. After Childs died in 1883, Henson worked odd jobs in Boston, Providence, Buffalo, and New York, before returning to Washington in 1885.

In 1887, Lieutenant Robert Edwin Peary hired Henson as his valet for the second proposed Nicaragua Canal route survey. Once in the field, Peary discovered that Henson was far too intelligent to be relegated to the position of "man-servant" and quickly promoted him to the transit crew. After the job ended Henson returned to Washington, where he took work as a stock boy. A few months later Peary got Henson a job at the League Island Navy Yard in Philadelphia as an errand boy in Peary's office.

In 1890, Peary asked Henson to join his second expedition into the interior of Greenland, even though he could not pay him; Henson volunteered without hesitation. Over the course of several expeditions conducted between 1891 and 1901, Henson and Peary proved that Greenland is an island, discovered and named Independence Bay on the northern coast, and set new "farthest northern point reached" records. The men also established a series of supply depots in preparation for a planned expedition to reach the North Pole.

The expedition that ultimately led to "discovery" of the North Pole set out over the Arctic ice on March 1, 1909. On April 6, 1909, Henson became the first man to reach the North Pole. The party -- consisting of Peary, Henson and four Eskimos -- had come within site of the pole, but Peary was forced to rest before continuing and he sent Henson ahead to confirm the actual location of the Pole; Peary arrived at the Pole 45 minutes later. Although Peary is popularly believed to have been the first man to reach the North Pole, he never actually took that credit for himself; what Peary took credit for was for leading the first successful expedition to the North Pole.

Henson received a number of honors for his achievements, including:
an honorary Master of Science degree from Morgan State College (1924)
membership in the Explorers Club of New York (1937)
an honorary Master of Science degree from Howard University (1939)
a gold medal from the Geographic Society of Chicago (1948)
a citation from the U.S. Department of Defense (1949)
a gymnasium named in his honor at Dillard University (1950)

In 1953, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People presented a bronze bust of Henson to the Explorers Club. In addition, Henson was commended at the White House by President Dwight David Eisenhower for his significant contributions to the success of the discovery of the North Pole, in 1954.

In 1912, the Frederick A. Stokes Co. of New York published Henson's autobiography, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole, which included a foreword by Robert Peary and an introduction by Booker T. Washington. His biography, Dark Companion, written by Bradley Robinson, was published by Robert McBride & Co. in 1947.

Matthew A. Henson died in New York City, on March 9, 1955. That same year, the Maryland General Assembly passed a Memorial Resolution commending the explorer.

On August 12, 1956, in recognition of Henson's achievement, Herbert M. Frisby, another black Marylander and explorer, flew over the North Pole and dropped a steel box containing a U.S. flag, a Maryland State Flag, a photograph of Henson, two articles he had written about Henson which appeared in the Afro-American newspaper, and an inscribed bronze memorial plaque to Henson.

Henson was originally buried in a shared grave at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York City because his widow could not afford an individual plot. Almost immediately after his death, Dr. Allan Counter began a campaign to have Henson interred at Arlington National Cemetery in recognition of his lifetime of achievements, but he was constantly turned down because of Henson's race. The campaign finally paid off, however, when President Ronald Reagan intervened; Henson now rests at Arlington, alongside his wife.

Robert Edwin Peary
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
President Ronald Reagan

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This page was last updated on 03/08/2017.