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Arctic Explorer-- Matthew Henson
By Dr. Jeff Sanders

Matthew Henson was an American explorer who, with Admiral Robert Peary, were the first men to stand at the North Pole.  But long before he braved the freezing dark and dangerous weather of the Arctic regions, Matthew Henson was sailing the seven seas, eager for adventure.

Matthew was born in Maryland in 1866 to free sharecroppers.  No one would have looked at his humble beginnings and think that he would become a world famous Arctic adventurer.  When he was only four years old, his family moved to Washington DC.  His parents died when he was still a small child, and he was passed around to various relatives.  Matthew ran away at age twelve, and went to sea as a cabin boy.  He loved it.  An old salt, Captain Childs, took him under his wing and taught him the thrill of adventure on the high seas, as well as how to read and write.  Together they sailed through every ocean and sea.  

Before he was twenty, Matthew's friend, Captain Childs, passed away.  So the young man had to find employment elsewhere.  He went to work at a furrier in Washington DC, and there he bumped into Robert Peary of the US Navy Corps of Civil Engineers.  The two hit it off, and Peary soon had a diligent and devoted companion to help him on his many journeys.

By 1891 they were determined to reach the North Pole by way of Greenland.  Henson quickly adapted to the Eskimo culture. . .learning the language fluently. Soon, he could make sledges and drive a team of sled dogs as well as any of the native inhabitants.   This expedition ended in failure, but Henson was the only man who stayed with Peary.  Everyone else had left the team to go home.  

They tried again in 1895 and failed.  Again in 1902. . .failed again. . .but with tragic results.  Six of the Eskimos with them had starved to death on the trip.  

In 1906, with the backing of President Theodore Roosevelt (himself a pretty good explorer), they set out on a large vessel capable of breaking through ice and bringing them to 174 miles from the North Pole.  The ship was blocked by ice, and once again, they had to turn back.

One more time. . . this time, success.  The expedition of 1908-1909 made it.  The team began with 24 men, 19 sledges, and 133 sled dogs.  In April of 1908, they were down to just 6 men.  Peary, Henson, and 4 Eskimos.  Peary was completely worn out, and had frozen feet.  He could only ride in a sled.  He told Matthew Henson to press on:  "Henson must go all the way; I cannot make it without him."  Henson did.  He remarked that he "overshot" the North Pole a few times, but backtracked, and then realized that he was standing on top of the world.  Later, Peary and the rest of the team caught up.

Together, they raised the flag of the United States at the top of the world.

Sadly, when they made it back to the US, Peary received all the attention and accolades.  The United States at that time was tragically not ready to acclaim a black Arctic explorer who had actually made it there first. 

Matthew Henson wrote his memoirs "A Negro Explorer at the North Pole" in 1912.  He spent the next thirty years of his life working in a New York City federal customs house.  His days of sailing the seven seas and exploring new worlds were over.  Sadly.  However, he finally receiving some major recognition in 1937; he was admitted as a member into the presitigious Explorer's Club of New York City.  In 1946 the US Navy gave him a medal for his services in the Arctic expeditions, and he received a gold medal from the Chicago Geographical Club.  Matthew Henson died in Brooklyn on March 5, 1955 and was buried in Woodlawn Cemetary there.

In 1987, in honor of his determined and fearless journeys to the North Pole, President Ronald Reagan approved the transferral of Matthew Henson's body (along with his wife's) to be buried among heroes in Arlington National Cemetary.  

 

 

Sunday, May 19, 2013, 10:41 PM

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