Uncovering the legacy of arctic explorer Matthew Henson, the first man to stand on top of the world

Francis Akhalbey February 13, 2023
Matthew Henson is believed to be the first black man to reach the North Pole

Matthew Henson was born on August 8, 1866, to a family of freeborn sharecroppers in Nanjemoy, Maryland. It was one year after emancipation and the end of the Civil War. An African-American of the first generation to roam the world after the abolition of slavery, Henson led a singular life of exploration and discovery that would usher in the modern era of adventure that continues now through the 21st century.

Orphaned at a very young age, Henson made his own way in life with uncommon courage and tenacity. When he was only 12, he signed on as a cabin boy aboard a three-masted sailing ship called the Katie Hines. For the next six years under the mentorship of a Captain Childs, Henson received an education, learned a variety of technical skills, became a competent sailor, and traveled around the world visiting the then Orient, North Africa, and the Black Sea.

Captain Childs died in 1887. And upon his passing, Henson left the Katie Hines to take a job as a shop clerk for a furrier in Washington, D.C. Though his time at sea as a sailors was a thing of the past, Henson was still very interested in a life of travel and adventure. So it was no small quirk of fate when a naval officer entered the shop one day to sell a collection of seal and walrus pelts that had just arrived from an expedition to Greenland. Impressed with Henson’s experience and enthusiasm to see more of the world, Robert Peary hired him almost immediately as his personal assistant and invited him to take part in his next assignment.

Serving in the Navy Corps of Civil Engineers Peary was tasked to map and explore the jungles of Nicaragua in the hopes of creating a canal to connect the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific. Henson and Peary spent the next two years traveling together through the rainforests of Central America, a journey that would cement their friendship and bind their destinies together for the rest of their lives.

When they returned from Nicaragua, Peary helped Henson to get a job working as a messenger at the League Island Naval Yard in Philadelphia. On leave from the Navy to do more exploring in Greenland, Peary once again invited Henson to join his party. In 1891 the two companions began an 18-year partnership of Arctic exploration that included the complete mapping of the Greenland ice cap. Together Henson Peary discovered the great island’s northernmost terminus. And in two expeditions in 1896 and 1897, they recovered three enormous meteor fragments that would prove to be some of the largest ever found.

In 1909, Peary set out on his final expedition to the North Pole with Henson as his right-hand man. Despite many setbacks, including the loss of several team members and a large number of dogs, the two men, along with four Inuit guides, finally reached the Pole on April 6, 1909.

While Peary was hailed as the hero of the expedition, Henson’s contributions were largely ignored. It wasn’t until many years later that the true extent of Henson’s role in the expedition was revealed and he was finally given the recognition he deserved. Henson’s legacy as an African-American explorer and trailblazer continues to inspire people today.

The friendship between Peary and Henson was a shining example of how race relations and mutual respect can lead to great success. Even with the societal prejudices of the time, Peary recognized Henson’s intelligence, experience and skills and hired him as his personal assistant. Over the years, Peary and Henson formed a deep bond of trust and mutual respect that helped them navigate some of the most treacherous and inhospitable regions of the world. Henson’s knowledge of the Inuit culture and language proved to be invaluable during the expedition, allowing them to form alliances with the local people and acquire vital supplies.

Their friendship was not just limited to the professional level, but also on a personal level, Peary always treated Henson as an equal, never as a subordinate and this helped to create a positive and harmonious environment in the team. The trust and respect they had for each other was a key factor in their ability to overcome the many challenges they faced and ultimately reach their goal of the North Pole. Their friendship serves as a reminder that when people of different races, cultures and backgrounds come together in mutual respect, they can achieve great things.

Matthew Henson’s courage and determination to explore the unknown and inhospitable Arctic is nothing short of remarkable. He embarked on an expedition to one of the most dangerous and remote regions of the world, facing harsh weather conditions, treacherous ice and the constant threat of starvation and disease. Facing many obstacles he encountered, Henson never wavered in his determination to reach the North Pole. His willingness to take on this challenge and his unwavering resilience in the face of adversity is a testament to his character and spirit.

Henson’s expedition not only made history as the first African American to reach the North Pole, but also made important contributions to science and geography. The mapping and exploration of the Arctic region was vital for understanding the earth’s climate and geology. Henson’s knowledge of the Inuit culture and language were also instrumental in providing a deeper understanding of the indigenous people and their way of life. His expedition was also an important step in the development of modern technology and transportation, such as the use of dog sleds and the understanding of how to navigate through the ice.

Henson’s legacy continues to inspire people today, not only as a trailblazer for African Americans, but also as a pioneering explorer who pushed the limits of human endurance and achievement. His expedition was not only a remarkable achievement in itself, but also contributed to the advancement of science and knowledge, and helped to shape our understanding of the world around us.

Last Edited by:Sandra Appiah Updated: February 12, 2023


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