Matthew Henson

By: David Dailey


American explorer Matthew Alexander Henson was born on August 8, 1866, in Charles County, Maryland. The son of two freeborn black sharecroppers, Henson lost his mother at an early age. When Henson was 4 years old, his father moved the family to Washington, D.C., in search for work opportunities. His father died there, leaving Henson and his siblings in the care of relatives. Henson ran away from home at age 11, and was taken in by a woman who lived near his home. At age 12, he left to work as a cabin boy on a ship, The Katie Hines. Over the next six years and under the mentorship of Captain Childs, Henson learned literacy and navigation skills.


Henson never really went to school as a child. He was mentored by Captain Childs, of the Katie Hines, who taught Henson mathematics, literacy, and navigation. Although in the 1930's henson went to school and earned a Master degree from Harvard University.

Henson, Peary and Their Expeditions

Henson and Peary first met in Washington D.C. in 1887, as Peary prepared for an expedition to Nicaragua. Henson was working as a store clerk when Peary hired him as a valet. From that point on they would be partners in many historical explorations.

One of their first expeditions was when they traveled to the interior of Greenland in 1886. Peary led an expedition in 1891 to Northern Greenland. On this trip Peary proved that Greenland was an island. Through these expeditions Henson was his personal assistant and dog driver.

In 1898 the two, along with others, traveled on the ship The Windward to discover the North Pole. After four years they did not reach the pole. The expedition traveled farther north than anyone had reached in the American Arctic, 390 miles south of the pole.

In 1905 they tried again on The Roosevelt, a ship designed to sail among masses of moving ice. Hardships forced the party to go back after coming within 200 miles south of the pole, another record.

In 1908 Peary and Henson set out over ice from Ellesmere Island. On April 6, 1909 they finally reached the North Pole. The first people ever to set foot on the North Pole that day were Robert Peary and Matthew Henson, who were accompanied by four Eskimos. It is said that Peary had to rest three miles from the pole making Henson the first American to reach the North Pole.


During expeditions from 1891 until 1909 they had journeyed across the northern tip of Greenland and Ellesmere Island - hoping to find a land bridge or island reaching northward. They learned to travel over the shifting sea ice while looking for a route to the Pole. They retrieved meteorites, one of which weighed over 70,000 pounds, now displayed at the Museum of Natural History. They proved that the North Pole is over a deep but partially frozen ocean. They lowered measuring instruments to record the oceans depth where no scientist had done so before.


There are over hundreds of books about Henson and his adventures, although Henson only wrote a few himself. In 1912 Henson wrote a book about his explorations titled "A Negro Explorer at the North Pole". Later, in 1947, he worked with author Bradley Robinson on another book. That book, called "Dark Companion", was Henson's biography.


Northward Over the Great Ice