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​Matthew Alexander Henson

Matthew Alexander Henson  1866 - 1955

​On April 6, 1909, history was made when two men, one Black and one White, planted the American Flag at the North Pole.  Thus, Matthew A. Henson, a Black man, became one of the first Americans to reach the top of the world.

Henson was born in Charles County, Maryland, in 1866.  He lost his parents at an early age and was raised by an uncle in Washington D.C.  There, he attended elementary school.  When Henson was 13, he became a cabin boy on the merchant ship Katie Hinds for six years.  He later became a seaman and traveled the world.  He sailed across the Pacific Ocean, the China Sea, and the Atlantic Ocean.  He made stops in China, Japan, Africa, Spain, France, and Russia.

In 1888, Henson met Commander Robert E. Peary, of the U.S. Navy, who was an explorer.  Henson asked Peary if he could join his trip to the North Pole.  Henson had been recommended as a servant, but Peary soon saw that Henson's ability as a sailor was more valuable.  Peary later admitted that the expedition was aided by Henson's skills and said, "I couldn't get along without him."

Henson traveled all over the world with Peary from 1891 to 1909.  During this time, he learned to do many things.  He could chart a path for the ship, hunt, handle the dogs, and speak the Eskimo language.  He could also build igloos in sub-zero weather.  The Eskimos admired Henson and called him their "brother."

​On April 6, 1909, along with four Eskimos , Peary and Henson were the first Americans to reach the North Pole.  The men faced harsh conditions.  For the final 68 days of the expedition, it became so cold that their clothing froze solid to their growing beards.  They had to stop often to break away the ice that had formed form their breath and body moisture.  Henson was fond of reading the Bible, reciting the Twenty-Third Psalm and the Fifth Chapter of Matthew.  His Bible readings helped them bear the cold of winter.

After the historic planting of the America flag at the top of the world, Henson and Peary returned to America to discuss their victory in the Arctic.  Because Henson was Black, he was at first denied his rightful place in history.  However, in 1913, President Taft gave him a job as a clerk in the New York Customs House.  Henson worked there for 23 years.

In 1937, Henson was made a member of the Explorers Club and earned a master's degree from Howard University in 1939.  In 1944, Congress awarded medals to him and the five White men who started but quit the 1908 North Pole Expedition.  In 1948, Henson also received a gold medal from the Geographical Society in Chicago.  He was honored by President Truman in 1950 and by President Eisenhower in 1954.

Matthew A. Henson died in 1955, at the age of 89.  He was mourned by his wife Lucy and his sister.  In 1961, six years after his death, the state of Maryland gave money for a monument to Henson, the co-discoverer of the North Pole.

Excerpt from A Gift of Heritage Historic Black Pioneers.

This is only a summary of the life of Matthew A. Henson.