MATTHEW HENSON Biography - Pioneers, Explorers & inventors


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Matthew Henson                                                                     
Born August 8, 1866                                                               
Maryland, USA                                                                     
Died March 9, 1955 (aged 88)                                                       
Occupation Explorer                                                               
Matthew Alexander Henson (August 8, 1866 - March 9, 1955) was an American         
explorer and long-time companion to Robert Peary; amongst various expeditions,     
the most famous was a 1909 expedition which claimed to be the first to reach the   
Geographic North Pole. A black American and an employee of Peary's (who was       
notoriously difficult with his charges), Henson did not achieve                   
contemporary recognition in an America where racist views were still common.       
Matthew Henson was born on a farm in Charles County, Maryland in 1866. He was     
still a child when his parents Lemuel and Caroline died, and at the age of         
twelve he went to sea as a cabin boy on a merchant ship. He sailed around the     
world for the next several years, educating himself and becoming a skilled         
navigator. Henson met Commander Robert R. Peary in 1888 and joined him on an       
expedition to Nicaragua. Impressed with Henson's seamanship, Peary recruited him   
as a colleague. For years they made many trips together, including Arctic         
voyages in which Henson traded with the Eskimos and mastered their language,       
built sleds, and trained dog teams. In 1909, Peary mounted his eighth attempt to   
reach the North Pole, selecting Henson to be one of the team of six who would     
make the final run to the Pole. Before the goal was reached, Peary could no       
longer continue on foot and rode in a dog sled. Various accounts say he was ill,   
exhausted, or had frozen toes. In any case, he sent Henson on ahead as a scout.   
In a newspaper interview Henson said: I was in the lead that had overshot the     
mark a couple of miles. We went back then and I could see that my footprints       
were the first at the spot. Henson then proceeded to plant the                     
American flag. Although Admiral Peary received many honors, Henson was largely     
ignored and spent most of the next thirty years working as a clerk in a federal   
customs house in New York. But in 1944 Congress awarded him a duplicate of the     
silver medal given to Peary. Presidents Truman and Eisenhower                     
both honored him before he died in 1955.                                           
In 1912 Henson wrote the book A Negro Explorer at the North Pole about his         
arctic exploration. Later, in 1947 he collaborated with Bradley Robinson on his   
biography Dark Companion. The 1912 book, along with an abortive lecture tour,     
enraged Peary who had always considered Henson no more than a servant and saw     
the attempts at publicity as a breach of faith.                                   
In 1961 an honorary plaque was installed to mark his Maryland birthplace.