On April 6, 1909, Matthew Henson stood atop the world with Robert Peary as co-discoverer of the North Pole. When Henson descended from the frigid north his reception was distinctly cool, even in contrast to Peary's less than wholesale embrace by the American public. As public opinion eventually accumulated on Peary's behalf, acknowledgement of Henson was still not forthcoming. It took decades for Henson to achieve fame comparable to Peary's. While this popular recognition is largely posthumous, those who labored alongside Henson during his eighteen year Arctic career have never been short of praise for America's foremost black explorer. As Donald MacMillan remembers in his foreword to Dark Companion, Bradley Robinson's biography of Henson, "Peary knew Matt Henson's real worth [he] was of more real value to our Commander than Bartlett, Marvin, Borup, Goodsell and myself all put together. Matthew Henson went to the Pole with Peary because he was a better man than any one of us." This was an opinion shared by the Inuit, who respected Henson for his immersion in their culture. Of Peary's crew, only Henson was fluent in Inuktitut, and could drive a sledge with native prowess.
Henson was born in Maryland on August 8, 1866. Exploration was in his blood and he went to sea at age twelve as cabin boy aboard the Katie Hines. He made Peary's acquaintance in Washington, D.C. in 1887, when Henson's employer at a hat shop recommended him to Peary as a valet on Peary's surveying expedition to Nicaragua. From this time forward, Henson's destiny was joined to Peary's. After Nicaragua he accompanied Peary on seven Arctic expeditions, culminating in the epic assault on the Pole. While Henson did tour the country on a lecture circuit upon his return, he passed the remainder of his working years with much less fanfare as a messenger and clerk at the Customs House in New York City.
At the age of 70, after more than two decades in the Customs House, he retired with a yearly pension of $1,020. Old age did not bring great financial comfort but Henson did live to see a more public recognition of his Arctic achievements. He was awarded honorary degrees by Howard University and Morgan College and belatedly admitted to the Explorers Club. With his wife Lucy, Henson was honored at the White House by President Eisenhower. Henson died in 1955, the same year as Peary's wife Josephine. Just a short distance from Robert and Josephine, Matthew Henson is buried with Lucy in Arlington National Cemetery. He was re-interred there in 1988, through the lobbying efforts of Harvard professor S. Allen Counter.
More Information and Links
Matthew Henson published his own account of the North Pole trip, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole (1912), recently republished by Invisible Cities Press (2001). There are also numerous biographies of him, including Bradley Robinson's 1947 book Dark Companion: The Story of Matthew Henson. The Arlington Cemetery web site provides information about Henson.