The Incredible Life and Times of Matthew Henson, the Most Underrated Explorer in History

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.

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  • Both Of His Parents Died When He Was Young

    Both Of His Parents Died When He Was Young
    Photo: USCapitol / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    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.

  • He Became A Cabin Boy At Age 11

    He Became A Cabin Boy At Age 11
    Photo: George Schutze / WIkimedia Commons / Public Domain

    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.

  • He Encountered Racism And Harsh Treatment While Sailing

    He Encountered Racism And Harsh Treatment While Sailing
    Photo: Bain News Service, publisher / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    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.

  • An Act Of Kindness Brought Him And Robert Peary Together

    An Act Of Kindness Brought Him And Robert Peary Together
    Photo: NOAA Photo Library / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    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.

  • He Was Quickly Promoted On His First Expedition

    He Was Quickly Promoted On His First Expedition
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Robert Peary initially hired Henson as a valet for his Nicaraguan trip. But when Peary learned of Henson’s extensive experience at sea, his “manservant” was promoted to the transit team before the expedition even set sail. Henson soon became a valued member of the survey team, performing so admirably that he would become Peary’s traveling companion for the next several decades.

  • Peary Named A Point In Greenland After Him

    Peary Named A Point In Greenland After Him
    Photo: Benjamin B. Hampton / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    When the Nicaragua expedition returned home, Robert Peary went back to his day job in the Navy, and Henson returned to work as a stock boy in DC. It wasn’t long, however, until Peary secured work for Henson in his office. Then, Henson volunteered to accompany Peary on his 1891 expedition to Greenland.

    During the trip, Peary broke his leg, fracturing two bones. As he struggled to recover, Henson was instrumental to the expedition. For his part, Peary recovered admirably and was able to help survey Greenland the following year on their arrival. In recognition of Henson's contributions to the endeavor, Peary named Cape Henson after him.