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Matthew Henson was the first black man to set foot on the North Pole


Did you know …

Was an African-American the first to discover the North Pole? There are several contradictory “discoveries” of the North Pole.

Many books have printed that Robert Peary was the first person to discover the North Pole. Others pay tribute to Roald Amundsen for the discovery while flying over the North Pole. However, it is undisputed that Matthew Henson was the first black man to set foot on the North Pole, in February 1909.

Matthew Alexander Henson was born in Maryland on August 8, 1866, just after the Civil War. His parents were free sharecroppers descended from slaves. They moved the family to Washington, D.C.

Matthew was orphaned at age 11 and with his adventurous spirit he walked to Baltimore and was hired on a merchant ship at age 12 as a cabin boy. He went to sea for about six years to learn to read, write and sail. His travels have taken him to Europe, Africa and Asia.

When Henson returned to dry land, he found employment at a clothing store in Washington, DC. It was there that he met US Navy Commander Robert E. Peary. When Peary heard of the young man’s seafaring adventures, he hired him to be an assistant on his voyage and assigned him to survey Nicaragua.

Henson, navigator and craftsman, became Peary’s “first man”. They traveled and explored Greenland and the Arctic from 1891 to 1909, making seven expeditions before reaching the North Pole. Henson and Peary learned the Inuit language and studied and imitated how the Inuit survived in icy winds and wastelands. He learned to build and live in igloos, and he wore baggy sealskin parkas that allowed sweat to evaporate without cooling him down. The Inuit had fond memories of Henson as the only non-Inuit who could build a sled and ride in the snow behind the dogs. They were amazed that he could train the dogs to pull sleds the way the Inuit did.

In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt supported Peary and Henson and they had a state-of-the-art ship capable of traversing ice. They sailed within 175 miles of the North Pole but had to turn back as melting ice blocked their passage. After six failures to reach the North Pole, they finally succeeded in April 1909.

In 1912 Henson published a memoir, “A Negro Explorer at the North Pole”. He made a statement: “I think I’m the first man to sit on top of the world.”

He was very popular with the natives. In his memoirs, he writes: “I learned to love these people. He also said, “They are my friends and consider me their own.” On the last page of his memoirs, Henson recorded the 218 names of the Inuit of Smith Sound on Ellesmere Island in Canada.

Peary received many honors, but his expedition was heavily criticized for including a black man. Many felt that because of this it could not be verified that Peary and Henson had actually reached the North Pole. Henson continued to be overlooked, so much so that he and Peary had a falling out.

It wasn’t until late in his life, in 1937, at the age of 70, that Henson was finally inducted into the elite Explorer’s Club. In 1944, he and other expedition members were awarded the Congressional Medal for Polar Exploration.

Matthew Henson died on March 9, 1955 at the age of 88. He was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery. To honor Henson, in 1987 President Ronald Reagan approved transporting Henson and his wife, Lucy, to their reburial at Arlington National Cemetery. The National Cemetery is also the final resting place of Peary and his wife Josephine.

Not complaining about our cold weather here in Michigan. At least we can go home to warm up. Imagine what Matthew Henson and Robert Peary experienced while exploring the North Pole.