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Matthew Henson Reaches the North Pole

Most of us know that Robert Edwin Peary was the first man to reach the North Pole. Many of us are also aware that Roald Amundson won the race to the South Pole. Ernest Shackleton made history by not reaching the South Pole. Since February is Black History Month, it might be a good time to take a look at Matthew Henson, who may have stepped on the North Pole just ahead of Peary.

1910 Photo of Matthew Henson

1910 Photo of Matthew Henson [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Orphaned when he was very young, at the age of 12 Henson signed on as a cabin boy aboard a sailing ship, where he learned many technical skills, including navigation. Henson first served with Peary while he was with the Navy Corps of Engineers. Henson traveled with Peary on seven voyages over a period of 23 years. Before Peary’s eighth and final attempt to reach the Pole, Peary said that “Henson must go all the way. I can’t make it without him.” On April 6, 1909, Peary, Henson and four Inuit men were recognized at the first to reach the Geographic North Pole. When they were taking their official measurements, Henson discovered that his footprints had already crossed the spot of the Geographic North Pole. It is believed that Henson planted the U.S. flag for the team.

Matthew Henson in 1912

1912 Photo of Matthew Henson [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Polar Explorer Robert Edwin Peary

Robert Edwin Peary [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When the party returned to the United States, Robert Peary received most, if not all, of the attention for conquering the Pole, and for almost 20 years Henson received little acknowledgement for his achievement. In 1912, Peary did write a glowing forward to Henson’s autobiography. In 1937, Henson was invited to become the first African-American member of The Explorers Club. In 1946, Henson was awarded a medal, identical to the one given to Peary, by the U.S. Navy. And in 1954, he was invited to the White House by President Dwight Eisenhower to receive a special commendation for his early work as an explorer on the behalf of the United States of America.

Henson died in 1955.

On April 6, 1988, by order of President Ronald Reagan, Henson’s body was re-interred next to Peary’s tomb at Arlington National Cemetery. Henson’s monument reads: “Matthew Alexander Henson: Co-Discoverer of the North Pole.”

Find out more about Matthew Henson and other African-American heroes during Black History Month with eLibrary!

Tom Mason

Tom Mason

editor, eLibrary at ProQuest
Tom Mason

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