Childhood & Early Life
Matthew Alexander Henson was born on August 8, 1866, in Maryland. His parents were free people of color who worked as sharecroppers. He had three sisters. His mother died when he was just two and his father remarried and fathered more children. Unfortunately his father too died when Matthew was still a young boy.
Orphaned, he went to live with relatives. He spent a few years in the care of his uncle, but he too died not too long after.
Left to fend for himself, he left home and found a job as a cabin boy on a merchant ship named Katie Hines. The ship’s captain, Childs, took young Matthew under his wing. He treated him like a son and taught him to read and write.
The two developed a close bond and sailed around the world together, visiting countries like Japan, China, France, Africa, and the Philippines. Matthew became a skilled navigator as a result of these worldwide travelling experiences.
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His mentor Childs died around 1883 and Henson worked as a seaman for sometime before taking up a job as a clerk at a Washington D.C. clothing store, B.H.Stinemetz and sons.
In November 1887, he met Commander Robert Edwin Peary, an explorer and officer in the U.S. Navy Corps of Civil Engineers. Peary was looking for an aide to accompany him on his future expeditions and when he learned of Henson’s experiences at the sea, he immediately hired him as a valet.
Henson first accompanied Peary on his voyage and surveying expedition to Nicaragua in 1888, where Peary supervised 45 engineers on the canal survey. Henson proved to be a capable seaman on that trip and impressed by him, Peary recruited him as a colleague.
In 1891, Peary and Henson embarked on a Greenland expedition. It was an arduous trip, and several members of the team abandoned the trip long before its actual completion. On this trip Henson learned about the local Eskimo culture and the natives' Arctic survival skills.
They started out on another trip to Greenland in 1895. This time the duo planned to chart the entire ice cap. This journey proved to be very difficult as the team found itself on the brink of starvation at one point and had to resort to killing and eating their sled dogs. Eventually they managed to survive and returned home.
Their inability to reach the North Pole only fuelled their ambition further. Over the next several years, Peary and Henson made several attempts to reach the elusive North Pole. One of their attempts in 1902 ended in tragedy as six of their Eskimo team members died during the voyage.
By the early 1900s, their explorations were gaining national prominence. In 1906, they again embarked on a voyage which was backed by President Theodore Roosevelt. This time they were equipped with a modern vessel which could cut through ice. They reached the closest they had ever been to their destination when they came within 174 miles of the North Pole. However, the mission could not be completed due to unfavorable conditions.
Encouraged by the progress they had made in the 1906 trip, the duo prepared well for their next journey in 1908-09. Peary and Henson were accompanied by 22 Inuit men, 17 Inuit women, 10 children, and 246 dogs on this trip. They also took along several tons of meat.
This journey also proved to be a very difficult one and several people and dogs perished over the course of the voyage. The increasingly inhospitable terrains also made several of the voyagers abandon the trip and return home. Finally on April 6, 1909, Peary, Henson, four Eskimos and 40 dogs reached the North Pole.
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The men were enthusiastically welcomed back home following the success of their expedition though their claim of having reached the North Pole was questioned by many. Nonetheless, Peary was hailed as a hero and showered with accolades. On the other hand, Henson, being an African-American, was largely ignored.
Matthew Henson published his memoir about his arctic explorations, ‘A Negro Explorer at the North Pole’ in 1912. The next year, President William Howard Taft ordered for Henson’s appointment as a clerk in the U.S. Customs House in New York City, a post he held till his retirement in 1936.
Personal Life & Legacy
Henson married a woman named Eva Flint in 1891. Their marriage became strained due to his long absences from home and ended in divorce in 1897.
He tied the knot with Lucy Ross in 1906.
He developed relationships with Inuit women on his voyages and fathered a son named Anauakaq with a woman called Akatingwah around 1906. He did not play any role in the upbringing of his son.
Henson died in New York City on March 9, 1955, at the age of 88 and was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery.