Matthew Alexander Henson: First African-American at the North Pole

Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum & Arctic Studies Center Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum & Arctic Studies Center

Exhibition: Matthew Alexander Henson: First African-American at the North Pole



Hubbard Hall foyer
Matthew Henson spent years exploring the Arctic with Robert E. Peary and in 1909 he was the only other American to stand with Peary at the North Pole. Henson was excluded from receiving the many honors showered on Peary and the other white members of the expedition. Only near the end of his life did Henson received recognition for his remarkable career as an Arctic explorer.

Matthew Henson, Matt to his friends, was born in Maryland in 1866, the son of free-born sharecroppers. Orphaned at age seven or eight he lived briefly with his uncle in Washington, D.C. before running away to sea when he was eleven.  He traveled the world as a cabin boy and seaman for eight years before returning to Washington. There, in 1887, while working at a haberdashery, he met Robert E. Peary, who was preparing for a survey expedition to Nicaragua. Peary hired Henson as a valet for that trip, the beginning of a long working relationship between the two men.

This exhibit is in conjunction with the AF/AM/50 celebrations.


Unidentified photographer, Matthew Alexander Henson, unidentified location, ca. 1910. Library of Congress.
(l) Robert E. Peary, Matthew Henson in Snow Goggles, unknown location, ca. 1908. National Archives and Records Administration. (r) Unidentified photographer, Matthew Henson (of Peary’s crew) in Arctic Costume on the Deck of the Roosevelt, on arrival at Sidney, Nova Scotia, Sidney, 1906?. Library of Congress.
Emil Diebitsch, Matthew Henson (l) with Group of Inughuit, northwestern Greenland, 1892-1894. Gift of Edward Peary Stafford.
Robert E. Peary, Members of the Party Cheering the Stars and Stripes at the Pole (l-r Ooqueah, Ootah, Henson, Egingwah and Seegloo), North Pole, April 7, 1909. From The North Pole, opposite page 294.