Matthew Henson

Matthew A. Henson
Born August 8, 1866(1866-08-08)
Nanjemoy, Maryland, USA
Died March 9, 1955(1955-03-09) (aged 88)
The Bronx, New York, USA
Occupation Explorer
Spouse Lucy Ross

Matthew Alexander Henson (August 8, 1866 – March 9, 1955) was an African American explorer and associate of Robert Peary during various expeditions, the most famous being a 1909 expedition which it was discovered that he was the the first person to reach the Geographic North Pole.



Henson was born on a farm in Nanjemoy, Maryland on August 8, 1866.[1] He was still a child when his parents Lemuel and Caroline[citation needed] died. He was sent to live with his uncle, who payed for his education until he died. After his uncles death, Matthew got a job as a dishwasher at "Janey's Home-Cooked Meals Cafe". At the age of twelve he went to sea as a cabin boy on a merchant ship called Katie Hines. The captain, Captain Childs, took Matthew under his wing and thought of him as his son. Childs and Matthew were close for a long time. Matthew sailed around the world for the next several years. He visited places such as China, Japan, the Phillipines, France, Africa, and southern Russia, educating himself and becoming a skilled navigator.

Henson met Commander Robert E. Peary in November 1887 and joined him on an expedition to Nicaragua, with 4 other people that Peary chose. Impressed with Henson’s seamanship, Peary recruited him as a colleague. For years they made many trips together, including Arctic voyages in which Henson traded with the Inuit and mastered their language, built sleds, and trained dog teams. In 1909, Peary mounted his eighth attempt to reach the North Pole, selecting Henson to be one of the team of six who would make the final run to the Pole. Before the goal was reached, Peary could no longer continue on foot and rode in a dog sled. Various accounts say he was ill, exhausted, or had frozen toes. In any case, he sent Henson on ahead as a scout. In a newspaper interview Henson said: “I was in the lead that had overshot the mark a couple of miles. We went back then and I could see that my footprints were the first at the spot.”[2] Henson then proceeded to plant the American flag.

Although Admiral Peary received many honors, Henson was largely ignored and spent most of the next thirty years working as a clerk in a federal customs house in New York. But in 1944 Congress awarded him a duplicate of the silver medal given to Peary.[3] Presidents Truman and Eisenhower both honored him before he died in 1955.[4]

In 1912 Matthew Henson wrote the book A Negro Explorer at the North Pole about his arctic exploration. Later, in 1947 he collaborated with Bradley Robinson on his biography Dark Companion. The 1912 book, along with an abortive lecture tour, enraged Peary who had always considered Henson no more than a servant and saw the attempts at publicity as a breach of faith.[5]

Henson died in the Bronx on March 9, 1955, at the age of 88, and was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery; after her death in 1968, his wife Lucy was buried with him. In 1988, the Hensons' remains were both exhumed and reburied at Arlington National Cemetery, near the grave of Admiral Peary and his wife.[1] In 1961 an honorary plaque was installed to mark his Maryland birthplace.[6]

Henson in 1953, holding a portrait of Robert E. Peary


Henson married Lucy Ross in 1906.

During their expeditions, both Henson and Peary fathered children with Inuit women, two of whom were brought to the attention of the American public by S. Allen Counter, who met them on a Greenland expedition.[7]

With an Inuit woman named Akatingwah, Matthew Henson fathered his only child, a son named Anauakaq. After 1909 Henson never saw Akatingwah or his son again, though he did receive updates about them from other explorers for a time. Anauakaq, who died in 1987, arrived in the United States with Kali Peary, Robert Peary's son, on May 29, 1987, to visit his father's family and grave site. Anaukaq and his wife, Aviaq, had five sons who, in turn, had many children of their own who still reside in Greenland.[8][9]

The "discovery" of Anauakaq and Kali and their meeting with their Henson and Peary relatives were documented in a book and documentary entitled North Pole Legacy: Black, White and Eskimo.[7][8]

Matthew Henson is also a relative of actress Taraji P. Henson ("The Division", Hustle & Flow),[10] and the great-great uncle of Annapolis, Maryland native and film Director Stanley V. Henson, Jr. [11] who is the great-great grandson of Matthew Henson's brother and recently worked with Bill Cosby and Dick Gregory on "Sow your dreams" which includes an appearance by Taraji P. Henson. Matthew Henson's father Lemuel Henson is Stanley V. Henson, Jr's great-great-great grandfather.


The Explorers Club, under its "polar" President Vilhjalmur Stefansson, invited Henson to join its ranks in 1937. Eleven years later the Club reconsidered Henson's membership and instead awarded Henson its highest rank of Honorary Member, an honor reserved for no more than 20 living members at a time.[12]

On May 28, 1986, the United States Postal Service issued a 22 cent postage stamp in honor of Henson and Peary;[13] they were previously honored in 1959, but not by name.[14][15]

On April 6, 1988 Henson was reinterred in Arlington National Cemetery near Peary's monument. Many members from his American family and his Inuit family (Anauakaq's children) were in attendance.[16]

In October 1996, the United States Navy commissioned USNS Henson, a Pathfinder class Oceanographic Survey Ship, in honor of Matthew Henson.

On November 28, 2000, the National Geographic Society awarded the Hubbard Medal to Matthew A. Henson posthumously. Dr. S. Allen Counter petitioned the National Geographic Society for many years to present its most prestigious medal to Henson. He attended the ceremony with Audrey Mebane, Henson's 74-year-old great-niece. The medal was presented at the newly named Matthew A. Henson Earth Conservation Center (MAHECC) in Washington, D.C., and accompanied a scholarship given in Henson's name by NGS.

The Matthew Henson Earth Conservation Center in Washington, D.C. is named for him, as are Matthew Henson State Park in Aspen Hill, Maryland, Matthew Henson Middle School[17] in Pomonkey, Maryland,[18] Matthew Henson Elementary School[19] in Baltimore, Maryland and Matthew Henson Elementary School[20] in Palmer Park, Maryland. Matthew Henson lived for a time in the landmark Dunbar Apartments in Harlem, in New York City.

In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Matthew Henson on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.[21]


Henson's exploits and life were portrayed in the 1998 TV movie Glory & Honor. Henson was played by Delroy Lindo, and Henry Czerny played Robert Peary. The film won a Primetime Emmy and a Golden Satellite Award for Lindo's performance as Henson.[22]

Henson's role in polar expeditions was part of E.L. Doctorow's book Ragtime.[23]


  1. ^ a b "Historical Information: Matthew Alexander Henson Co-Discoverer of the North Pole with Robert E. Peary.". Arlington National Cemetery. Retrieved 2008-02-05. 
  2. ^ "Matt Henson, Who Reached Pole With Peary in 1909, Dies at 88; He Was the Only American With Explorer", The New York Times, 10 March 1955
  3. ^ "Vote Grants Medals to Peary Aides", The New York Times, 20 January 1944
  4. ^ "President Greets Last Survivor of Peary Arctic Dash", The New York Times, 7 April 1954
  5. ^ "The Tragedy of America's Exploited Black Pioneer Polar Explorer Matthew Henson". The Frederick A. Cook Society. Retrieved 2008-02-05. 
  6. ^ "Polar Hero Honored: Maryland Unveils Plaque to Matthew Henson, a Negro", The New York Times, 19 November 1961
  7. ^ a b Dr. S. Allen Counter, "North Pole Legacy: Black, White, and Eskimo" (Invisible Cities Press, 2001).
  8. ^ a b Harvard University website
  9. ^ "Ahnahkaq [sic] Henson, 80, Dies; A Son of Explorer With Peary", The New York Times, 12 July 1987
  10. ^ Black Voices website
  11. ^ [1]
  12. ^ "Peary Aide is Honored: Matthew Henson, 81, Made Member of Celebrated Club", The New York Times, 12 May 1948
  13. ^ Scott catalog # 2223.
  14. ^ Scott catalog # 1128.
  15. ^ "Veterans and the Military on Stamps", pp. 5, 30, found at USPS website. Retrieved September 25, 2008.
  16. ^ R. Drummond Ayres Jr., "Matt Henson, Aide at Pole, Rejoins Peary", The New York Times, 7 April 1988
  17. ^ Matthew Henson Middle School
  18. ^ "About: Matthew Alexander Henson". Retrieved 2008-02-01. 
  19. ^ "Matthew Henson Elementary School #29". Baltimore City Public School System. 
  20. ^ "Matthew Henson Elementary School". Prince George's County Public Schools. 
  21. ^ Asante, Molefi Kete (2002). 100 Greatest African Americans: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books. ISBN 1-57392-963-8.
  22. ^ Awards for "Glory & Honor" at The Internet Movie Database
  23. ^ Morris, Christopher; Doctorow (1999). Christopher D. Morris. ed. Conversations with E.L. Doctorow. E.L.. Univ. Press of Mississippi. pp. 215. ISBN 157806144X. 


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