Today we will visit with an American hero, Matthew Henson.
When Robert E. Peary purportedly discovered the North Pole, the person standing beside him was a black man—Matthew A. Henson.
Matthew A. Henson was born in Charles County, Maryland on August 8th, 1866. Orphaned at an early age, he went to sea when he was 13 years old, learned to read and write, and became an able-bodied seaman. In the ensuing years, he held numerous jobs. When he was eighteen, a meeting with Robert E. Peary, then a U.S. navy civil engineer, resulted in a chain of events involving both men standing “on top of the world”.
Henson was hired by Peary and proved to be an indispensable aide over the next quarter century. After realizing that he would not become famous during a stint in Nicaragua, Peary focused on conquering the North Pole.
Named Miy Paluk or Matthew the Kind One by the Inuit, Henson mastered Inuktitut, the language of the Polar Inuit and became an expert sled driver and builder of boats and sleds. Henson considered himself “to all intents an Esquimo, with Esquimos for companions, speaking their language, dressing in the same … clothes … eating the same food, enjoying their pleasures, and frequently sharing their griefs”. His hunting and sledding prowess has entered the annals of Inuit folklore.
Henson accompanied Peary on eight journeys to the Arctic over eighteen years (1891-1909). After several failed attempts to reach the North Pole, Peary and Henson figured that success depended on timing, the two essential factors being essentially when there was enough light to travel and before the temperatures broke up the ice sea.
On April 7, 1909, Henson, Peary and their four Inuit comrades attained their goal. Peary was credited with the “discovery” of the North Pole, although he (Peary) unequivocally declared the pivotal role Henson played as he asserts that when they were “within striking distance of the Pole the men’s work is done. They shall no longer be needed. But Henson is not to return. I can’t get along without him”. If Henson was ignored, the four Inuit were totally forgotten.
It was not until 1937 that Henson’s contribution was acknowledged when, at age 70, he was made an honorary member of the renowned Explorers Club based in New York. In 1944, Congress awarded Henson a joint North Pole Discovery Medal and in 1948, the Geographic Society of Chicago awarded Henson with a gold medal, referring to him as “the first Negro in this country to be honored for scientific achievement in the geographical field”. His achievements were further acknowledged by President Truman in 1950 and President Eisenhower in 1954.
On March 9, 1955, Matthew Henson died in New York City at the age of 88.
With Black history now being an established discipline, interest in the achievements and contributions of forgotten black heroes such as Matthew Henson has been regenerated.
Dr. S. Allen Counter, a neuroscience professor at Harvard with an interest in Black history, as well as a professional explorer and a member of the Explorers Club of New York, has secured Matthew Henson’s rightful place in history.
In 1986, Dr. Counter journeyed to Greenland and found the sons of Robert E. Peary and Matthew Henson (fathered with Inuit women). Subsequently he brought them and their families to the U.S. where they met American relatives and visited their fathers’ gravesites. Dr. Counter successfully petitioned President Reagan to place the remains of Matthew Henson where they belong—among the national heroes in Arlington Cemetery. On April 6, 1988, the remains of Matthew and Lucy Henson and his wife were re-interred with full military honours and an appropriate monument next to Robert and Josephine Peary in Arlington Cemetery.
Dr. Counter also garnered fitting acknowledgement of Matthew Henson’s Arctic and oceanographic explorations. On November13, 1998, the United States Navy commissioned the oceanographic vessel U.S.N.S. Henson, in honor of Matthew Henson.