This week in history: Sesquicentennial of African-American explorer Matthew Henson

One hundred and fifty years ago, on August 8, 1866, an African-American boy named Matthew Alexander Henson was born in Charles County, Md. He would grow up to become an explorer best known as the co-discoverer of the North Pole with Robert Edwin Peary in 1909.

Henson was the son of two freeborn black sharecroppers. He lost his mother at an early age. When Henson was four, his father moved the family to Washington, D.C., in search of work opportunities. The father died there a few years later, leaving Henson and his siblings in the care of other family members.

At the age of 11, Henson left home to find his own way. After walking all the way to Baltimore, he found work as a cabin boy on the ship Katie Hines. Its skipper, Capt. Childs, took Henson under his wing and saw to his education, which included instruction in the finer points of seamanship. During his time aboard the Katie Hines, Henson saw much of the world, traveling to Asia, Africa and Europe.

In 1884 Capt. Childs died, and Henson eventually made his way back to Washington, D.C., where he found work as a clerk in a hat shop. It was there that, in the late 1880s, he met Robert Edwin Peary, an explorer and officer in the U.S. Navy Corps of Civil Engineers. Impressed by Henson’s seafaring credentials, Peary hired him as his valet for an upcoming expedition to Nicaragua.

After returning from Nicaragua, Peary found Henson work in Philadelphia, and in April 1891 Henson married Eva Flint. But shortly thereafter, Henson joined Peary again, for an expedition to Greenland. While there, Henson embraced the local Inuit culture, learning the language and the natives’ Arctic survival skills over the course of the next year.

Their next trip to Greenland came in 1893, this time with a goal of charting the entire ice cap. The two-year journey almost ended in tragedy, with Peary’s team on the brink of starvation; they managed to survive by eating all but one of their sled dogs. Despite this perilous trip, the explorers returned to Greenland in 1896 and 1897, to collect three large meteorites they had found during their earlier quests, ultimately selling them to the American Museum of Natural History and using the proceeds to help fund their future expeditions. However, by 1897 Henson’s frequent absences had taken their toll on his marriage, and he and Eva divorced.

Over the next several years, Peary and Henson would make multiple attempts to reach the North Pole. Their 1902 attempt proved tragic, with six native team members perishing due to a lack of food and supplies. However, they made more progress during their 1905 trip: Backed by President Theodore Roosevelt and armed with a then state-of-the-art vessel that had the ability to cut through ice, the team was able to sail within 175 miles of the North Pole. Melted ice blocking the sea path thwarted the mission’s completion, forcing them to turn back. Around this time, Henson fathered a son, Anauakaq, with an Inuit woman, but back at home in 1906 he married Lucy Ross.

The team’s final attempt to reach the North Pole began in 1908. Henson proved an invaluable team member, building sledges and training others on their handling. Of Henson, expedition member Donald Macmillan once noted, “With years of experience equal to that of Peary himself, he was indispensable.”

The expedition continued into the following year, and while other team members turned back, Peary and the ever-loyal Henson trudged on. Peary knew that the mission’s success depended on his trusty companion, stating at the time, “Henson must go all the way. I can’t make it there without him.” Peary, Henson, four Inuit and 40 dogs (the trip had begun with 24 men, 19 sledges and 133 dogs) finally reached the North Pole – or at least they claimed to have.

“Peary shook my hand,” Henson recorded, “and beamed at our four Eskimo dog drivers at 10:30 a.m., Eastern Standard Time, on April 6, 1909.”

Triumphant when they returned, Peary received many accolades for his accomplishment, but in a sign of the times, as an African American, Henson was largely overlooked. Though Peary was lauded by many for his achievement, he and his team faced widespread skepticism. Peary had to testify before Congress about reaching the North Pole due to a lack of verifiable proof. The truth about Peary’s and Henson’s 1909 expedition still remains clouded.

Henson spent the next three decades working as a clerk in a New York federal customs house, but he never forgot his life as an explorer. He recorded his Arctic memoirs in 1912, in the book A Negro Explorer at the North Pole. In 1937, the 70-year-old Henson finally received the acknowledgment he deserved: The highly regarded Explorers Club in New York accepted him as an honorary member. He also received the Gold Medal of the Geographical Society of Chicago. In 1944 he and the other members of the expedition were awarded a Congressional Medal. He worked with Bradley Robinson to write his biography, Dark Companion, which was published in 1947.

Matthew Henson died in New York City on March 9, 1955, and was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery. His wife Lucy was buried beside him in 1968. To honor Henson, in 1987 President Reagan approved the transportation of both their remains for reinterment at Arlington National Cemetery, which is also the burial site of Peary and his wife Josephine.

In 1986 the United States issued a 22-cent postage stamp featuring the images of Peary and Henson together.

Adapted from The and Chase’s Calendar of Events.

Photo: Wikipedia (CC)


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Special to People’s World

People’s World is a voice for progressive change and socialism in the United States. It provides news and analysis of, by, and for the labor and democratic movements to our readers across the country and around the world. People’s World traces its lineage to the Daily Worker newspaper, founded by communists, socialists, union members, and other activists in Chicago in 1924.