Matthew Henson is believed to be the first African-American explorer and is credited alongside Robert Edwin Peary as one of the first two men to reach the North Pole. Henson’s contributions to Peary’s expeditions went largely unnoticed up until his death in 1955, but history reveals that he was an invaluable assistant and explorer.
Henson was born on this day in 1866 in Charles County, Maryland to sharecropper parents who were born free. After becoming an orphan at the age of 12, Henson traveled to Baltimore and became a cabin boy on a merchant ship where he learned to read and write. It was his experience at sea that led to Peary hiring him for a surveying expedition to Nicaragua in 1887.
After exhibiting a high level of skill as a seaman and craftsman, Peary named Henson as his “First Man” and for the next 20 years the pair traveled to the Arctic. In April of 1909, the pair reportedly reached the highest point of the North Pole. Although that claim has been disputed over the years, most historians now agree that Peary and Henson were indeed the first.
Henson’s handiness and his ability to adapt to the harsh conditions of the North helped aid Peary. Henson also learned the language of the native Inuit people and conducted trades with them on Peary’s behalf as his main interpreter.
The accolades for their journeys went mostly to Peary, though Presidents Truman and Eisenhower honored Henson at different junctures before his March 9, 1955 death in the Bronx, New York. In 1937, at the age of 70, Henson was made an honorary member of the exclusive Explorers Club and was celebrated for his achievements in the Black community. In 1944, he and other expedition members were given the Congressional Medal of Honor. His autobiography, Dark Companion, was released in 1947.
In 2000, the National Geographic Society awarded Henson with the Hubbard Medal, which is given in honor of exploration.