Before space, the Arctic was mankind’s great frontier. Only the most intrepid men and women dared venture into the frozen North in search of fame and fortune, and the race to the Arctic created legends on a daily basis. From this era of bravery and innovation came Matthew Henson, the man who would one day detail his epic journey in his autobiography, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole.
You might have heard that the first man to reach the North Pole was Robert Peary. But that's only half right. For several years following the expedition of the white American explorer, the contribution of his right-hand man, explorer, photographer, and craftsman Matthew Alexander Henson, was downplayed in favor of building Peary’s myth. Sure, Peary was there (sitting on a dog sled), but it was Matthew Henson who crossed the finish line first. In so doing he helped create a legacy that inspired African-American explorers for years to come.
Henson was not only the world’s first African-American Arctic explorer, today he is also widely credited as the first American to reach the geographic top of the world. At a time when even the most well-funded expeditions could end in total disaster, Henson made a life forging new paths in unknown lands. And after a career built over several decades and ranging across multiple continents, Henson stands as one of the most important and successful black explorers in history.
Born the son of two freeborn sharecroppers in Maryland in 1866, Henson spent only a few years on the family farm. His mother died when he was four, and Henson's father moved his six children to Washington, DC, where they had family. A few years later, Henson’s father passed away as well.
Henson was left in the hands of other family members at the age of 11, and the preteen took work in a restaurant. When he didn’t find the work to his liking, he left home and walked the 40-plus miles to Baltimore in search of employment.
When the 11-year-old Henson arrived in Baltimore, he started working as a cabin boy on a ship called Katie Hines. While serving on board, the Henson was informally “adopted” by the ship’s captain, a man named Childs. Captain Childs oversaw Henson’s education and his development as a seaman.
Over the course of the next few years, Henson worked happily on the Katie Hines as it traveled to China, Japan, the Philippines, Africa, France, and Russia.
In 1884, Captain Childs took sick and ultimately met his end at sea. Unable to think about life aboard Katie Hines without his mentor, Henson found work on a schooner that was headed for Newfoundland.
Unfortunately, this trip was nothing like his last one. The captain of the fishing schooner was unmerciful, the ship was kept in horrible condition, and the rest of the crew resented the black man who was brought to work alongside them. Henson left the schooner at the first opportunity and slowly made his way back to Washington, DC by working odd jobs throughout the Northeast.
When he returned to Washington, DC, in the 1880s, Henson was among the countless other black men and women searching for gainful employment. The effects of the Civil War and Reconstruction were still wreaking havoc on the United States, crippling its economy and creating an intensifying feeling of hatred and racism. The environment in DC was tense.
Fortunately, Henson found work as a clerk in the clothing shop of B. H. Steinmetz and Sons. Over the next several months, as Henson was tending the shop, Naval Lieutenant Robert Peary walked into the shop seemingly at random. Under the pretense of searching for a new tropical hat, Peary conducted a surreptitious interview of young Henson. Ultimately, he offered Henson a job as his personal servant on an expedition to Nicaragua.
As it happened, B. H. Steinmetz had recognized Henson’s intelligence and his growing discontent and had cajoled Peary into swinging through the shop to meet him.