Matthew Alexander Henson

Jun 8th, 2010 | By | Category: Military & Exploration
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matthew alexander henson1866-1955  Matthew Henson and his more famous partner, the explorer Robert Peary, adventured together on eight challenging Arctic expeditions over a period of 18 years, braving lethal conditions. This partnership culminated in their successful assault on the North Pole, the first to reach this milestone in exploration. Henson’s knowledge of navigation, carpentry, sled dogs, and local Inuit customs led Peary to consider him his “indispensable” co-discoverer of the Pole.

An Orphan Goes to Sea

Henson was born in 1866 in Maryland to freeborn sharecroppers. The family moved to Washington, D.C. when he was four. He was orphaned not long thereafter, and together with his siblings lived with an uncle until the age of 12. At that time, fascinated by stories he had heard about the sea, Henson walked to the port at Baltimore, Maryland, and presented himself to the captain of a merchant ship. The captain took him on as cabin boy on journeys to North Africa, Japan, China, and the Black Sea, and Henson learned geography, math, and history along with general seamanship.

When the captain died, Henson returned to Washington and found a job at a furrier shop. Fortuitously, the explorer Robert Peary had recently returned from his first Greenland expedition as an officer with the U.S. Navy Corps of Civil Engineers, bringing with him furs that he wished to sell. He met Henson, and took him on in 1887 as a personal assistant for his upcoming voyage to Central America. Peary valued Henson’s exceptional skills as a navigator, carpenter, and mechanic. In 1891, Peary received leave from the Navy to continue his explorations in Greenland and asked Henson to join the expedition.

Henson married his fiancée, Eva Flint, in April 1891, and two months later was en route to Greenland. There were six members of the ship’s exploration party: Peary, Henson, and four others, including a Dr. Frederick Cook. In Greenland, the party attempted to find the island’s northernmost point. Although Henson was injured and forced to remain at base camp, his carpentry skills proved indispensable. He also befriended the native Inuits, and learned their language, culture, and arctic survival skills; this would prove to be the decisive factor in the success of their Arctic adventures. A second expedition in 1893 cemented the relationship between Peary and Henson, who remained with Peary when the other members abandoned the mission. A third trip in 1895 enabled them to locate Greenland’s northern extreme, but only after overcoming near-starvation by sacrificing sled dogs and through Henson’s heroic efforts to rescue his teammates; Henson himself almost died of hypothermia. In 1896 and 1897, the duo returned to recover meteorites they previously discovered, which they sold to the American Museum of Natural History. By this time, the stress of travel led to Henson’s divorce from his wife. But the proceeds from the meteors, together with funds raised through the new Peary Arctic Club, would finance the ultimate goal: reaching the North Pole.

To the Top of the World

Henson and Peary made several unsuccessful journeys to the Arctic region between the years 1897 and 1906, experiencing the death of Inuit helpers, loss of food supplies, and passage blocked by the ever-shifting extremes of polar ice. Then, with the support of President Theodore Roosevelt, they set sail in 1906 aboard the specially designed U.S.S. Roosevelt, and came within 174 miles of their goal. They returned for repairs and fund-raising, during which period Henson married Lucy Jane Ross.

In 1908, the intrepid (if middle-aged) pair set out on what they knew would be their final attempt. The expedition over-wintered on Ellesmere Island, Canada. They used the six-month Arctic night to hunt for provisions and prepare equipment, including dog sleds (which Henson built), and training in dog handling (supervised by Henson). On March 1, 1909, Peary ordered Henson to lead the party north. Braving formidable conditions, including extreme temperatures, frostbite, hunger, and the lethal vagaries of sea ice, the group advanced across the icepack; at various points, certain members would deposit supplies for the return from the Pole, and turn back. But Peary had mandated that “Henson must go all the way. I can’t make it there without him.”

While Peary used instruments to check their position, Henson used his exceptional “dead reckoning” skill to lead the way. Accounts vary as to whether Henson allowed Peary to precede him, but on April 6, 1909, they planted the American flag at what has been confirmed by scientific methods as being within five miles of the actual Pole.

The party was stunned to learn on their return that a Dr. Frederick Cook (who had accompanied Henson and Peary on their first northern trip) had claimed to have reached the Pole one year earlier. With no one to contest the claim, Cook had already been honored for the achievement. When Peary made charges, an investigation proved that Cook’s claim was a hoax. But a confused public was left with diminished enthusiasm for Henson’s and Peary’s achievement. In particular, while Peary received recognition in his lifetime, Henson suffered the ignominy of a Black hero in the early 20th century. He was refused a pension by Congress, and was denied membership in the New York Explorer’s Club (of which Peary was President). He was finally admitted as an honorary member at age 70, in 1937. He received a medal from the U.S. Navy in 1946, and one from the Chicago Geographic Society. He published his autobiography, Dark Companion, in 1947, and was invited to the White House by President Eisenhower.

But on his death in 1955, Henson was refused burial in Arlington National Cemetery, where his partner Peary lay. This was rectified in 1987 when President Ronald Reagan granted permission for the remains of Henson and his wife to be moved near those of Peary, a fitting final resting place for this true national hero.

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