Matthew Henson

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Matthew Henson
Matthew Henson 1910.jpg
BornMatthew Alexander Henson
(1866-08-08)August 8, 1866
Nanjemoy, Maryland, U.S.
DiedMarch 9, 1955(1955-03-09) (aged 88)
The Bronx, New York, U.S.
Known forArctic explorer, claimed as the first to reach the geographic North Pole
Eva Flint (m. 1891–1897)

Lucy Ross (m. 1907)

Akatingwah (concubine)
ChildrenAnauakaq (by Akatingwah)

Matthew Alexander Henson (August 8, 1866 – March 9, 1955) was an American explorer who accompanied Robert Peary on seven voyages to the Arctic over a period of nearly 23 years. They spent a total of 18 years on expeditions together.[1] He is best known for his participation in the expedition which claimed to have reached the geographic North Pole on April 6, 1909.

Henson was born in Nanjemoy, Maryland, to African-American sharecropper parents. He spent most of his early life in Washington, D.C., but left school at the age of twelve to become a cabin boy; he later worked as a sales clerk. One of his customers was Robert Peary, who in 1887 hired him as a personal valet. At the time, Peary was working on the Nicaragua Canal. Their first Arctic expedition together was in 1891–92. Henson served as a navigator and craftsman, and was known as Peary's "first man". Like Peary, he studied Inuit survival techniques and had a relationship with an Inuit woman, fathering a child with her.

During their 1908–09 expedition to Greenland, Henson was one of the six men – including Peary and four Inuit assistants – who claimed to have been the first to reach the geographic North Pole. In interviews, Henson identified himself as the first member of the party to reach what they believed was the pole. Their claim achieved widespread acceptance until 1989, when research published by Wally Herbert found that expedition records had likely been falsified and that they had fallen at least 60 miles (97 km) short of the pole.

Henson achieved a degree of fame as a result of his participation in the expedition, and in 1912 published a memoir titled A Negro Explorer at the North Pole. His exploits received renewed attention as he approached old age, and in 1937 he became the first African-American person to be made a life member of The Explorers Club; in 1948 he was elevated to the club's highest level of membership. Henson was awarded the Peary Polar Expedition Medal in 1944, and was received at the White House by Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. In 1988 he and his wife were re-interred at Arlington National Cemetery.

Early life and education[edit]

Henson was born on August 8, 1866 on his parents' farm near the Potomac River in Charles County, Maryland, to sharecroppers who had been free people of color before the American Civil War.[1][2] Along with many former slaves, Matthew's parents were subjected to attacks by the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups that terrorized southern blacks after the Civil War. To escape from racial violence, in 1867 the Henson family sold the farm and moved to Georgetown.[3] He had an older sister S., born in 1864, and two younger sisters Eliza and S.[4] Matthew's mother died when Matthew was seven. 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., who paid for a few years of education for Henson before dying.[1] He attended a black public school for the next six years, during the last of which he took a summer job washing dishes in a restaurant. Matthew's early years were marked by one especially memorable event. When he was 10 years old, he went to a ceremony honoring Abraham Lincoln, the American president who had fought so hard to preserve the Union during the Civil War and had issued the proclamation that had freed slaves in the Confederate states in 1863. At the ceremony, Matthew was greatly inspired by a speech given by Frederick Douglass, the longtime leading figure in the American black community. A former slave turned abolitionist, Douglass called upon blacks to vigorously pursue educational opportunities and battle racial prejudice.[3][better source needed]

At the age of twelve, the youth made his way to Baltimore, Maryland, where he went to sea as a cabin boy on the merchant ship Katie Hines, traveling to ports in China, Japan, Africa, and the Russian Arctic seas.[3][better source needed] The ship's leader, Captain Childs, took Henson under his wing and taught him to read and write.[1]


Henson in his Arctic furs

While working at a Washington D.C. clothing store, B.H.Stinemetz and Sons, 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[clarification needed]; they called him Mahri-Pahluk.[5] He was remembered as the only non-Inuit who became skilled in driving the dog sleds and training dog teams in the Inuit way.[5] He was a skilled craftsman, often coming up with solutions for what the team needed in the harsh Arctic conditions; they learned to build igloos out of snow, for mobile housing as they traveled. His and Peary's teams covered thousands of miles in dog sleds and reached the "Farthest North" point of any Arctic expedition until 1909.[6]

1908–09 expedition[edit]

Photograph of Henson and the four Inuit guides on the last stretch of their 1908–09 expedition, taken by Peary at what they believed to be the North Pole.

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."[6]

Peary selected Henson and four Inuit as part of the team of 6 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.”[7]

Henson proceeded to plant the American flag.

Later life[edit]

Photograph of Henson in civilian clothing, taken from his 1912 book A Negro Explorer at the North Pole.

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."[1] 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, at the suggestion of Theodore Roosevelt.[8]

Henson was admitted as a member to the prestigious Explorers Club in New York City in 1937, and made an honorary member in 1948, of whom there are only 20 per year. In 1944 Congress awarded him and five other Peary aides duplicates of the Peary Polar Expedition Medal, a silver medal given to Peary.[9] Presidents Truman and Eisenhower both honored Henson before he died in 1955.[10]

Henson died in the Bronx on March 9, 1955, at the age of 88. He was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery and survived by his wife Lucy. After her death in 1968, she was buried with him. Thirty two years after he died, his body was moved to Arlington National Cemetery.[2]


Henson married Eva Flint in 1891, but their marriage did not survive their long periods of separation and they divorced in 1897. He later married Lucy Ross in New York City on September 7, 1907.[11][better source needed] They had no children.[12]

During the extended expeditions to Greenland, Henson and Peary both took Inuit women as "country wives" and fathered children with them. Henson's concubine, known as Akatingwah, fathered his only child, a son named Anauakaq, born in 1906.[5] Anauakaq's children are Henson's only descendants.[12] After 1909, Henson never saw Akatingwah or his son again; other explorers sometimes updated him about them.[12]

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. Learning of possible descendants of the explorers, in 1986 he tracked down Henson's and Peary's sons, Anauakaq and Kali, respectively, who were then octogenarians.[13] 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.[14] Anauakaq died in 1987. He and his wife Aviaq had five sons and a daughter, who have children of their own. They reside in Greenland.[12][14][15]

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 film documentary by the same name.[13]

Extended family[edit]

Matthew Henson's only direct descendants were the children of his Inuit son and their children. According to S. Allen Counter, in his lifetime Henson had identified families of two nieces as being part of his extended birth family. They were Virginia Carter Brannum, daughter of Henson's sister Eliza Henson Carter of Washington, D.C., and Olive Henson Fulton of Boston, daughter of his half-brother.[12] 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.[12] Counter later recommended to the United States Navy and the National Geographic Society that Audrey Mebane, daughter of Virginia Brannum, and Olive Henson Fulton be family representatives for any ceremonies honoring Henson.[4]

Henson is believed to be the brother of actress Taraji P. Henson's great-great-grandfather.[16][17]

Representation in other media[edit]

  • S. Allen Counter's book, North Pole Legacy: Black, White and Eskimo (1991), discusses the explorations, as well as Peary and Henson's "country wives" (Inuit women) and their part-Inuit descendants, and historical race relations. He made a film documentary by the same name, shown on the Monitor Channel in 1992.[5]
  • The 1998 TV movie Glory & Honor was about the Peary-Henson explorations and their lives. 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 (1975).[18]
  • Donna Jo Napoli's young adult novel, North, is set against Henson's life and role in polar expeditions.[19]
  • 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."[20]
  • In the graphic novel Sous le soleil de minuit, published in 2015 by writer Juan Díaz Canales and artist Rubén Pellejero, Henson decisively helps Corto Maltese in his Alaskan adventure in 1915.[21]

Legacy and honors[edit]

Henson's grave in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, U.S. The grave of Peary is behind it.
Entrance of where the historic Matthew Henson Public Housing Project once stood.
  • 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.[22]
  • In 1937, The Explorers Club, under its "polar" President Vilhjalmur Stefansson, invited Henson to join its ranks.[23]
  • In 1940, a public housing project, which provided the Phoenix African-American community with affordable housing, was named after Matthew Henson. The land in which the housing project was located was recognized as a historic district by the Phoenix Historic Property Register in June 2005. Only one courtyard with the original buildings remain.[24]
  • In 1945, Henson and other Peary aides were given U.S. Navy medals for their Arctic achievements.
  • 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.[23]
  • In 1954, Henson is invited to the White House[3][better source needed]
  • Before his death in 1955, Henson received honorary doctoral degrees from Howard University and Morgan State University.[2]
  • On May 28, 1986, the United States Postal Service issued a 22 cent postage stamp in honor of Henson and Peary;[25] they were previously honored in 1959, but not by name.[26][27]
  • In 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.[28]
  • In October 1996, the United States Navy commissioned USNS Henson, a Pathfinder class Oceanographic Survey Ship, named in honor of Matthew Henson.
  • In 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[29] in Pomonkey,[30] and elementary schools named for him in Baltimore[31] and Palmer Park.[32]


  1. ^ a b c d e 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
  2. ^ a b c "Biography of Matthew Alexander Henson". Arlington National Cemetery. Retrieved January 18, 2018.
  3. ^ a b c d Michael., Gilman, (1988). Matthew Henson. New York: Chelsea House Publishers. ISBN 1555465900. OCLC 16581828.
  4. ^ a b Bradley Robinson, "Matthew Henson genealogy", Matthew A. Henson website, 2012, accessed 2 October 2013
  5. ^ a b c d Stephanie Schorow (AP), "Descendant of Black man and Eskimo woman are unique", in Daily News (Bowling Green, KY), 17 May 1992
  6. ^ a b Anna Brendle, Profile: "African-American North Pole Explorer Matthew Henson", National Geographic, 15 January 2003, accessed 3 October 2013.
  7. ^ "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.
  8. ^ Mills, James (February 28, 2014). "The Legacy of Arctic Explorer Matthew Henson". Beyond the Edge. Retrieved 2018-01-18.
  9. ^ "Vote Grants Medals to Peary Aides", New York Times, 20 January 1944.
  10. ^ "President Greets Last Survivor of Peary Arctic Dash", New York Times, 7 April 1954.
  11. ^ Marriage License for New York County number 22771 for the year 1907. Municipal Archives of the City of New York. 31 Chambers Street, Room 103, New York City 10007
  12. ^ a b c d e f Counter, S. Allen, "The Henson Family", National Geographic, 174, September 1988, pp. 414–429.
  13. ^ a b People: "Dr. S. Allen Counter" Archived 2006-02-21 at the Wayback Machine., Intercultural Issues, 2005–2009, Harvard Foundation, Harvard University, accessed 1 October 2013.
  14. ^ a b Dr. S. Allen Counter, "North Pole Legacy: Black, White, and Eskimo" (1991; Invisible Cities Press, reprint 2001).
  15. ^ "Ahnahkaq [sic] Henson, 80, Dies; A Son of Explorer With Peary", New York Times, 12 July 1987.
  16. ^ Tucker, Neely (October 6, 2011). Henson, spent most of her summers as a child in Scotland Neck, NC a small town in between Rocky Mount and Ronoake Rapids, NC about a hour and a half from Raleigh, NC and 45 mins from VA stateline. "The real Taraji Henson". The Washington Post.
  17. ^ Williams, Kam (2008). "Taraji Shares All, Even the Surprising Color of Her Panties". African American Literature Book Club. Archived from the original on November 21, 2008. Retrieved April 13, 2015. Yes, he's my great-great cousin. He was the brother of my great-great-grandfather. Matthew would send him letters about his travels while out on his expeditions.
  18. ^ 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.
  19. ^ Napoli, Donna Jo (2004). North. Harper Collins. p. 344. ISBN 0-06-057987-0.
  20. ^ "International Comic-Salon Erlangen". Kultur- und Freizeitamt Erlangen. Retrieved May 14, 2013.
  21. ^ (in Spanish)Bajo el sol de medianoche, Juan Díaz Canales and Rubén Pellejero, Norma Editorial, Barcelona, 2015. ISBN 978-84-679-2054-3
  22. ^ "Colored Citizens of New York and Vicinity". Retrieved 1 October 2013.
  23. ^ a b "Peary Aide is Honored: Matthew Henson, 81, Made Member of Celebrated Club", New York Times, 12 May 1948.
  24. ^ "Phoenix Housing Site" (PDF).
  25. ^ Scott catalog # 2223.
  26. ^ Scott catalog # 1128.
  27. ^ "Veterans and the Military on Stamps", pp. 5, 30, found at USPS website Archived 2006-01-27 at the Wayback Machine.. Retrieved September 25, 2008.
  28. ^ R. Drummond Ayres Jr., "Matt Henson, Aide at Pole, Rejoins Peary", New York Times, 7 April 1988.
  29. ^ Matthew Henson Middle School. Archived 2006-10-08 at the Wayback Machine.
  30. ^ "About: Matthew Alexander Henson". Archived from the original on 2008-03-02. Retrieved 2008-02-01.
  31. ^ "Matthew Henson Elementary School #29". Baltimore City Public School System.[permanent dead link]
  32. ^ "Matthew Henson Elementary School". Prince George's County Public Schools. Archived from the original on 2007-01-07.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]