Matthew Alexander Henson (August 8, 1866 – March 9, 1955) was an African American explorer and associate of Robert Peary on various expeditions, the most famous being a 1909 expedition during which he may have been the first person to reach the Geographic North Pole.
Henson was born on a farm in Nanjemoy, Maryland on August 8, 1866. He was still a child when his parents Lemuel and Caroline died. He was sent to live with his uncle, who paid for his education until he died. After his uncles death, Matthew got a job as a dishwasher at "Janey's Home-Cooked Meals Cafe". At the age of twelve he went to sea as a cabin boy on a merchant ship called Katie Hines. The captain, Captain Childs, took Matthew under his wing and thought of him as his son. Childs and Matthew were close for a long time. Matthew sailed around the world for the next several years. He visited places such as China, Japan, the Phillipines, France, Africa, and southern Russia, educating himself and becoming a skilled navigator.
Henson met Commander Robert E. Peary in November 1887 and joined him on an expedition to Nicaragua, with 4 other people that Peary chose. Impressed with Henson’s seamanship, Peary 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. In a newspaper interview Henson said: “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 then proceeded to plant the American flag.
Although Admiral Peary received many honors, Henson was largely ignored and spent most of the next thirty years working as a clerk in a federal customs house in New York. But in 1944 Congress awarded him a duplicate of the silver medal given to Peary. Presidents Truman and Eisenhower both honored him before he died in 1955.
In 1912 Matthew Henson wrote the book A Negro Explorer at the North Pole about his arctic exploration. Later, in 1947 he collaborated with Bradley Robinson on his biography Dark Companion. 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.
Henson died in the Bronx on March 9, 1955, at the age of 88, and was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery; after her death in 1968, his wife Lucy was buried with him. In 1988, the Hensons' remains were both exhumed and reburied at Arlington National Cemetery, near the grave of Admiral Peary and his wife. In 1961 an honorary plaque was installed to mark his Maryland birthplace.
Matthew Alexander Henson
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