Matthew Henson

Who was the first documented person to set foot on the North Pole? History classes have likely taught you that it was Robert Peary in 1909. That, dear reader, isn’t the whole truth. His co-explorer, Matthew Henson, was alongside Peary every step of the way, and likely reached the point first.

Matthew Henson in Greenland, 1901.
Photo courtesy of Frederick Cook / Wikimedia Commons

Matthew Alexander Henson was born in Nanjemoy, Maryland on August 8, 1866, to freeborn Black sharecroppers. His mother died in his early youth and his father moved the family to Washington, D.C. before passing away himself, leaving Henson and his siblings orphaned but in the care of family. Henson left home at age 11 and walked approximately 40 miles to Baltimore, Maryland. In Baltimore, he took a position as a cabin boy on the ship Katie Hines. During this time, he was mentored by the ship’s skipper, Captain Childs, and traveled to Asia, Africa, and Europe.

Henson eventually made his way back to Washington, D.C. He began working as a clerk in a hat shop, where he met explorer Robert Edwin Peary in 1887 as Peary needed to sell seal and walrus pelts he had collected during his most recent Greenlandic expedition. Henson impressed Peary, who hired him to valet his expedition to Nicaragua. As an officer of the Navy Corps of Civil Engineers, Peary was a mapper and hoped to help create a canal to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The two-year journey was successful, as was the bonding experience between the two men. Henson returned to the US and married Eva Flint in April 1891.

Shortly after the marriage, Henson and Peary left for Greenland. Henson took to the Greenlandic Inuit culture, learning both the language and necessary daily survival skills over the course of a year. They traveled to Greenland again in 1893, nearly starving to death and having to resort to eating almost all of their sled dogs. They returned yet again in 1896 and 1897 to collect meteorites, selling them to the American Museum of Natural History for $40,000 to help fund future expeditions. Henson’s near-constant absences decimated his marriage, and he and Eva divorced in 1897. Peary and Henson did not stop exploring, and set their sights on the North Pole.

Peary and Henson continued to explore as partners. While Peary was the figurehead of the group, Henson kept everything together through his Inuit knowledge and carpentry skills; he built all of the team’s sledges. He was also a very good hunter, fisherman, and dog handler. But the Arctic is hostile. In 1902, six Inuit members of Peary’s team died from starvation. Future endeavors could have been equally disastrous had President Theodore Roosevelt not intervened in 1905 by providing a steam-powered vessel (aptly named the Roosevelt) that could cut through the ice. This allowed the team to come within 175 miles of the North Pole, but they still fell short. In 1908, the team made their final attempt, with 24 men and 133 dogs. As team members began to turn back, Peary and Henson were resolute. On April 6, 1909, Peary, Henson, Inuit team members Ooqueah, Ootah, Egingwah, and Seegloo, and 40 dogs reached the North Pole. Immediately, an unspoken debate ensued about which man reached the exact point first. Henson was quoted by a newspaper that he had overshot the point by several miles, but upon returning saw that his footprints had been first at the spot. Peary and Henson, long-standing partners, became estranged.

Around the time of the 1905 expedition, Henson fathered a son, named Anauakaq, with an Inuit woman named Akatingwah. In 1906, he married Lucy Ross. Upon returning from the 1908-1909 expedition, Peary received accolades while Henson, as an African American, was largely ignored. Henson was indispensable to the success of the missions, with Peary himself having said, “I won’t make it [to the North Pole] without him.” Yet he was relegated to sidekick and companion to Peary. While Peary continued traveling as a Rear Admiral in the Navy until his death in 1920, Henson spent the next thirty years working as a clerk in a federal customs house in New York. He wrote memoirs in 1912, published as A Negro Explorer at the North Pole. He finally began to receive recognition late in his life; at age 70 he was accepted as an honorary member into the Explorers Club and at age 77 he was awarded a Congressional Medal.

Henson died on March 9, 1955 in New York City, at the age of 88. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan approved the reinterment of the bodies of Henson and his wife Lucy at Arlington National Cemetery, where Peary and his wife Josephine are buried. It’s worth noting that there was a lack of verifiable evidence to support the reaching of the North Pole, as only the six men involved were able to verify it. Regardless of the successfulness of that expedition, it is undeniable that Henson had a distinguished career as an explorer that was largely overlooked because of his race, and that he deserves just as much credit in the history books as Robert Peary.

Matthew Henson in 1953, holding a portrait of Robert Peary.
Photo courtesy of Roger Higgins / Wikimedia Commons

Material sourced:
Mills, James. “The Legacy of Arctic Explorer Matthew Henson.”

Further reading:
A Negro Explorer at the North Pole by Matthew Henson, 1912
Dark Companion by Bradley Robinson, 1947

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