Black HIStory: Matthew Alexander Henson

Matthew Alexander Henson (b. August 8th, 1866 – d. March 9th, 1955)

Today’s entry is on arctic explorer Matthew Alexander Henson. Allegedly Henson, along with several other men, were the “first” to reach the Geographic North Pole. He is also a relative of actress Taraji P. Henson.

Having lost both of his parents at very age, Matthew became a cabin boy, sailed around the world for the next several years, educated himself and became a skilled navigator. He eventually met Robert Peary, an American explorer who later commandeered their expedition to the North Pole. Peary was impressed by his seamanship and recruited him as a colleague.

“For years they made many trips together, including Arctic voyages in which Henson traded with the Inuit and mastered their language, built sleds, and trained dog teams. In 1909, Peary mounted his eighth attempt to reach the North Pole, selecting Henson to be one of the team of six who would make the final run to the Pole. Before the goal was reached, Peary could no longer continue on foot and rode in a dog sled. Various accounts say he was ill, exhausted, or had frozen toes. In any case, he sent Henson on ahead as a scout.”

Henson said of the expedition:

“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.”

Henson was the one that planted the American flag.

Peary  received much accolades while Henson, much like Vivien Thomas, was left by the waste side, spending most of the next 30 years as a desk clerk at a federal customs house in New York City. In 1912 Matthew Henson wrote the book “A Negro Explorer at the North Pole” about his arctic exploration… “The 1912 book, along with an abortive lecture tour, enraged Peary who had always considered Henson no more than a servant and saw the attempts at publicity as a breach of faith.”

But in 1944 Congress awarded him a duplicate of the silver medal given to Peary and Presidents Truman and Eisenhower both honored him before he died, in the Bronx, in 1955.

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