Matthew Alexander Henson: One of the First to Reach the North Pole

Matthew Alexander Henson was born on August 8, 1866, in Charles County, Maryland, U.S. He was an African American explorer.

“My thoughts were on the going and getting forward, and on nothing else.”-Matthew Henson

Who Was Matthew Alexander Henson?

Matthew Henson was an African American explorer who escorted Robert E. Peary on his exploration to the Arctic for years. After which he went on an expedition that is said to have reached the geographic North Pole on April 6, 1909. He later died on March 9, 1955, in New York City, New York.

His Early Life

Matthew Alexander Henson was born on August 8, 1866, on his parents’ farm east of the Potomac River in Charles County, Maryland. Matthew’s parents were continuously attacked by the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups. 

These terrorists bullied the free people of color and southern freedmen after the Civil War. In a bid to escape the racial violence in the southern part of Maryland, in 1867, the Henson family sold their farm and moved to Georgetown, still close to the capital. 

Henson has three sisters, an older sister born in 1864, and two younger sisters. His mother died when he became seven and his father, Lemuel, remarried a woman named Caroline. He later had other children with his second wife, including a son and daughters.

His Education

Orphaned as a youth, Henson was sent to live with his uncle who resided in Washington, D.C. His uncle was responsible for his few years of education but soon died afterward. He attended a public school for blacks for six years and later took a summer job in a restaurant as a dishwasher.  

Mathew Henson

His early years had a series of memorable moments. As a 10-year-old, he attended a special event to honor the great Abraham Lincoln, the American president who worked so hard to keep the union safe during the Civil War. 

He had given the order to free slaves in the occupied Confederate states in 1863. There, Henson was immensely inspired by Frederick Douglass, who gave a speech to the public. The speech was based on calling upon blacks to pursue their education and fight racial prejudice.

Matthew Henson’s Explorations

As a worker in a clothing store in Washington D.C., Henson met Sir Robert E. Peary. Peary recruited him as an aide for his expedition to Nicaragua. This was after hearing of Henson’s sea experience. 

After supervising 45 engineers on the canal survey in Nicaragua, Peary was very much impressed with Henson’s seamanship on that voyage. This got him recruited as the ‘first man’ in Peary’s expeditions. For more than 20 years, their voyage was to the Arctic. 

Matthew Alexander Henson
Scanned by: Retouched by: DT-PKQC’d by: DT-MB

Henson and a team of six men were selected to be part of the last run to the Pole. After a lot of debate concerning the claims to have reached the geographic North pole, the House of Representatives credited Peary’s team for reaching the North Pole.

His Later Life

Henson got married to Eva Flint in 1891, but they divorced in 1897. He later married Lucy Ross in New York City in 1907 with no offspring. During the various expeditions to Greenland, Henson and Peary fathered children with Inuit women.  

A few years later, Henson died in the Bronx on March 9, 1955, at the age of 88. After his wife died in 1968, she was buried with him. Their bodies were moved for reinterment at Arlington National Cemetery in 1988.

Honors/ Legacy

  • Matthew Alexander Henson was invited as a guest of honor to a ceremony specially held by colored citizens in New York. (1909) 
  • A housing project for Phoenix African Americans was named after Matthew. (1940)
  • Henson was invited to the White House. (1954)
  • Before his death, Henson received honorary doctoral degrees from both Howard and Morgan State University. (1955)
  • The former Columbus GPS Block III satellite was renamed after the launch as ‘Matthew Henson’. (2020)

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