|Matthew A. Henson|
August 8, 1866|
Nanjemoy, Maryland, USA
|Died||March 9, 1955
The Bronx, New York, USA
|Spouse(s)||1) Eva Flint; 2) Lucy Ross
|Children||Anauakaq (by Akatingwah)|
Matthew Alexander Henson (August 8, 1866 – March 9, 1955) was the first African-American Arctic explorer, an associate of Robert Peary on seven voyages over a period of nearly 23 years. They made six voyages and spent a total of 18 years in expeditions. Henson served as a navigator and craftsman, traded with Inuit and learned their language, and was known as Peary's "first man" for these arduous travels. During their 1909 expedition to Greenland, Henson accompanied Peary in the small party, including four Inuit men, that has been recognized as the first to reach the Geographic North Pole (although this has also been subject to dispute). Henson was invited in 1937 as a member of The Explorers Club due to his achievement and was the first African American to be accepted.
Based on research into Peary's diary and astronomical observations, Wally Herbert, a later Arctic explorer who reached the North Pole in 1969, concluded in 1989 that Peary's team had not reached the pole. This has been widely accepted, but some continue to dispute this conclusion.
In the late 20th century, S. Allen Counter did research about Henson's contributions and argued for more national recognition of the explorer. By presidential order, in 1988, the remains of Henson and his wife were reinterred with a monument at Arlington National Cemetery, near that for Peary and his wife. Henson has received numerous posthumous honors since then. Counter published a 1991 book about Henson, which included material about his and Peary's Inuit "wives" and sons.
Early life and education
Henson was born on a farm in Nanjemoy, Maryland, on August 8, 1866, to sharecroppers who had been free people of color before the American Civil War. He had an older sister S., born in 1864, and two younger sisters Eliza and S. Matthew's mother died when he was two. His father Lemuel remarried to a woman named Caroline and had additional children with her, including daughters and a son. After his father died, Matthew was sent to live with his uncle in Washington, D.C. He paid for a few years of education for the boy, and died. After his uncle's death, Henson got a job as a dishwasher at "Janey's Home-Cooked Meals Cafe".
At the age of twelve, the youth made his way to Baltimore, Maryland, where he went to sea as a cabin boy on a merchant ship named Katie Hines. Captain Childs took Henson under his wing, treating him like a son and teaching him to read and write. Childs and Henson were close for a long time. Henson sailed around the world with him for the next several years. He visited places such as China, Japan, the Philippines, France, Africa, and southern Russia. He became self-taught and a skilled navigator. After Childs died about 1883, Henson worked as a seaman and then on land.
While working at a clothing store in Washington, D.C., in November 1887, Henson met Commander Robert E. Peary. Learning of Henson's sea experience, Peary recruited him as an aide for his planned voyage and surveying expedition to Nicaragua, with four other men. Peary supervised 45 engineers on the canal survey in Nicaragua. Impressed with Henson’s seamanship on that voyage, Peary recruited him as a colleague and he became "first man" in his expeditions.
After that, for more than 20 years, their expeditions were to the Arctic. Henson traded with the Inuit and mastered their language; he also developed skills in driving the dog sleds and training dog teams in the Inuit way. He was a skilled craftsman, often coming up with solutions for what they needed in the harsh Arctic conditions; they learned to build igloos out of snow, for mobile housing as they traveled. He and Peary with their teams covered thousands of miles in dog sleds and reached the "Farthest North" point of any Arctic expedition in 1906.
In 1908–09, Peary mounted his eighth attempt to reach the North Pole. The expedition was large, as Peary planned to use his system of setting up cached supplies along the way. When he and Henson boarded his ship Roosevelt, leaving Greenland on August 18, 1909, they were accompanied by
"22 Inuit men, 17 Inuit women, 10 children, 246 dogs, 70 tons (64 metric tons) of whale meat from Labrador, the meat and blubber of 50 walruses, hunting equipment, and tons of coal. In February, Henson and Peary departed their anchored ship at Ellesmere Island's Cape Sheridan, with the Inuit men and 130 dogs working to lay a trail and supplies along the route to the Pole."
Peary selected Henson and four Inuit as part 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. He sent Henson on ahead as a scout.
In a newspaper interview, Henson later 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 proceeded to plant the American flag.
In 1912 Matthew Henson published his memoir about his arctic explorations, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole. In his own account, he describes himself as a "general assistant, skilled craftsperson, interpreter [he had learned the Inuit language], and laborer." He later collaborated with Bradley Robinson on his 1947 biography, Dark Companion, which told more about his life.
Although Admiral Peary received many honors for leading the expedition to the Pole, Henson's contributions were largely ignored during the following decades. He was honored at dinners within the black community in 1909. He spent most of the next 30 years working on staff in the U.S. Customs House in New York, located south of the Bowling Green.
However, he was admitted as a member to the prestigious Explorers Club in New York City in 1937, and made an honorary member in 1948. In 1944 Congress awarded him and five other Peary aides duplicates of the silver medal, the Peary Polar Expedition Medal, given to Peary. Presidents Truman and Eisenhower both honored him before he died in 1955.
His first marriage ended soon after he started on expeditions with Peary. Henson married Lucy Ross in 1906. They had no children.
During the extended expeditions to Greenland, both Henson and Peary took Inuit women as "wives" or concubines and fathered children with them, as was common behavior by male explorers in those years. With Akatingwah, Matthew Henson fathered his only child, a son named Anauakaq. His children are Henson's only descendants. After 1909 Henson never saw Akatingwah or his son again; other explorers sometimes updated him about them. While some accounts circulated in the United States about Peary and his Inuit wife, such facts were generally not widely discussed.
S. Allen Counter, a neuroscientist and director of the Harvard Foundation, had long been interested in Henson's story and traveled in Greenland for research related to it. In 1986 he tracked down Henson's and Peary's sons, who were then octogenarians. He arranged a visit for them the following year to the United States, where they met American relatives from both families and visited their fathers' graves. Anauakaq died later in 1987. He and his wife Aviaq had had five sons and a daughter, who have had children of their own. They reside in Greenland.
Several Inuit family members returned to Washington, D.C., in 1988 for the ceremony of reinterment of Henson and his wife Lucy at Arlington National Cemetery, which Counter had achieved by a petition to President Ronald Reagan to gain recognition of Henson's contributions to Arctic exploration. Counter wrote a book about his finding Anauakaq and Kali, his research on Henson's life and contributions, historical racial relations, and the Inuits' meeting with Henson and Peary relatives in the United States, entitled North Pole Legacy: Black, White and Eskimo (1991). The material was also adapted and produced as a documentary by the same name.
Matthew Henson's only direct descendants were the children of his Inuit son and their children. According to S. Allen Counter, in his lifetime Matthew Alexander Henson had identified families of two nieces as being part of his extended birth family. They were Mrs. Virginia Carter Brannum, daughter of Henson's sister Eliza Henson Carter of Washington, D.C., and Mrs. Olive Henson Fulton of Boston, daughter of his half-brother. In a 1988 article, Counter noted that these two women had letters and photographs certifying their kinship. They were the only family members to attend Henson's funeral in 1955 with his widow Lucy Ross Henson." Counter later recommended to the United States Navy and the National Geographic Society that Mrs. Audrey Mebane, daughter of Virginia Brannum, and Mrs. Olive Henson Fulton be family representatives for any ceremonies honoring Henson.
Representation in other media
- Henson's and Peary's lives and exploits were portrayed in the 1998 TV movie Glory & Honor. Henson was played by Delroy Lindo, and Henry Czerny played Robert Peary. The film won a Primetime Emmy and Lindo won a Golden Satellite Award for his performance.
- Henson's role in polar expeditions was included in E.L. Doctorow's novel, Ragtime.
- Henson's life and role in polar expeditions is used as background in Donna Jo Napoli's young adult novel, North.
- In 2012, Simon Schwartz's graphic-novel about Matthew Henson, entitled Packeis (pack ice), won the Max & Moritz Prize for the "Best German-language Comic Book."
Legacy and honors
- On October 19, 1909, Henson was the guest of honor at a dinner ceremony held by the Colored Citizens of New York, where he was honored by toasts and given a gold watch and chain.
- In 1937, The Explorers Club, under its "polar" President Vilhjalmur Stefansson, invited Henson to join its ranks.
- In 1948, the Club awarded the explorer its highest rank of Honorary Member, an honor reserved for no more than 20 living members at a time.
- In 1945, Henson and other Peary aides were given U.S. Navy medals for their Arctic achievements.
- Before his death in 1955, Henson received honorary doctoral degrees from Howard University and Morgan State University.
- On May 28, 1986, the United States Postal Service issued a 22 cent postage stamp in honor of Henson and Peary; they were previously honored in 1959, but not by name.
- 1988 Henson and his wife Lucy were reinterred in Arlington National Cemetery, with a monument to his exploring achievements, near Peary's grave and monument. Many members from his Inuit descendants (Anauakaq's children) and extended American family attended.
- In October 1996, the United States Navy commissioned USNS Henson, a Pathfinder class Oceanographic Survey Ship, named in honor of Matthew Henson.
- 2000, the National Geographic Society awarded the Hubbard Medal to Matthew A. Henson posthumously. The medal was presented to Henson's great-niece Audrey Mebane at the newly named Matthew A. Henson Earth Conservation Center in Washington, D.C.; in addition, the NGS established a scholarship in Henson's name.
- Places in Maryland named in Henson's honor include the following: Matthew Henson State Park in Aspen Hill, Matthew Henson Middle School in Pomonkey, and elementary schools named for him in Baltimore and Palmer Park.
- Deirdre C. Stam, "Introduction to The Explorers Club Edition," Matthew A. Henson's Historic Arctic Journey: The Classic Account of One of the World's Greatest Black Explorers, Globe Pequot, 2009, pp. 3–6
- "Historical Information: Matthew Alexander Henson Co-Discoverer of the North Pole with Robert E. Peary.". Arlington National Cemetery. Retrieved 2008-02-05.
- Bradley Robinson, "Matthew Henson genealogy", Matthew A. Henson website, 2012, accessed 2 October 2013
- Anna Brendle, Profile: "African-American North Pole Explorer Matthew Henson", National Geographic, 15 January 2003, accessed 3 October 2013.
- "Matt Henson, Who Reached Pole With Peary in 1909, Dies at 88; He Was the Only American With Explorer", New York Times, 10 March 1955.
- "Vote Grants Medals to Peary Aides", New York Times, 20 January 1944.
- "President Greets Last Survivor of Peary Arctic Dash", New York Times, 7 April 1954.
- Counter, S. Allen, "The Henson Family", National Geographic, 174, September 1988, pp. 414–429.
- People: "Dr. S. Allen Counter", Intercultural Issues, 2005–2009, Harvard Foundation, Harvard University, accessed 1 October 2013.
- Dr. S. Allen Counter, "North Pole Legacy: Black, White, and Eskimo" (1991; Invisible Cities Press, reprint 2001).
- "Ahnahkaq [sic] Henson, 80, Dies; A Son of Explorer With Peary", New York Times, 12 July 1987.
- Morris, Christopher; Doctorow (1999). Christopher D. Morris, ed. Conversations with E. L. Doctorow. E.L. Univ. Press of Mississippi. p. 215. ISBN 1-57806-144-X.
- Napoli, Donna Jo (2004). North. Harper Collins. p. 344. ISBN 0-06-057987-0.
- "International Comic-Salon Erlangen". Kultur- und Freizeitamt Erlangen. Retrieved May 14, 2013.
- "Colored Citizens of New York and Vicinity". Retrieved 1 October 2013.
- "Peary Aide is Honored: Matthew Henson, 81, Made Member of Celebrated Club", New York Times, 12 May 1948.
- Scott catalog # 2223.
- Scott catalog # 1128.
- "Veterans and the Military on Stamps", pp. 5, 30, found at USPS website. Retrieved September 25, 2008.
- R. Drummond Ayres Jr., "Matt Henson, Aide at Pole, Rejoins Peary", New York Times, 7 April 1988.
- Matthew Henson Middle School.
- "About: Matthew Alexander Henson". Retrieved 2008-02-01.
- "Matthew Henson Elementary School #29". Baltimore City Public School System.
- "Matthew Henson Elementary School". Prince George's County Public Schools.
- Counter, S. Allen, "The Henson Family", National Geographic, 174, September 1988, pp. 414–429
- Henson, Matthew A. (April 1910). "The Negro At The North Pole: The Story Of The Last Dash, Told By Commander Peary's Only American Companion At The Top Of The Earth". The World's Work: A History of Our Time XIX: 12825–12837. Retrieved 2009-07-10.
- Miles, J. H., Davis, J. J., Ferguson-Roberts, S. E., and Giles, R. G. (2001). Almanac of African American Heritage, Paramus, NJ: Prentice Hall Press.
- Miller, Floyd. Ahdoolo! Ahdoolo! The Biography of Matthew A. Henson, New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1963, full text online at Internet Archive – no footnotes or sources
- Potter, J. (2002). African American Firsts, New York, NY: Kensington Publishing Corp.
- Robinson, Bradley. Dark Companion, 1947 (biography of Henson)
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Matthew Henson.|
- "Matthew A. Henson", Arlington Cemetery
- Matthew A. Henson, website by Bradley Robinson (son of 1947 biographer)
- Matthew A. Henson Family Tree, Website by Bradley Robinson
- People: "Dr. S. Allen Counter", Intercultural Issues, 2005–2009, Harvard Foundation, Harvard University
- The Matthew Henson Earth Conservation Center
- Works by Matthew Henson at Project Gutenberg
- Glory & Honor, Internet Movie Database
- Matthew Henson at Find a Grave