Matthew Henson at age 21 in 1887 was hired by U.S. Navy Civil Engineer Second Lieutenant Robert E. Peary as a personal valet. But from the beginning the young Black man was much more than a servant who laid out his master’s clothes in the morning and polished his shoes. He quickly became an all-around aide and eventually a virtual partner in polar explorations that spanned 23 years.
Henson was born on August 8, 1866 on his parents farm east of the Potomac River in Charles County, Maryland. They had been free people of color before the Civil War. The family were victims of attacks by the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups, who terrorized freedmen and former free people of color after the war. In 1867 To escape from racial violence in southern Maryland, the Henson family sold the farm and moved to Georgetown, then still an independent town adjacent to the national capitol.
After his father’s early death, he was sent to Washington, D.C. to live with an uncle and had a few years of education a Black public school. At the age of ten the boy, previously at best an indifferent scholar attended a speech by Frederick Douglass who urges Black youth to vigorously pursue educational opportunities and battle against racial prejudice.
But two years later a keen sense of adventure led him to quit school and sign on as a cabin boy on the merchant ship Katie Hines out of Baltimore and sailed to ports in China, Japan, Africa, and the Russian Arctic seas. The ship’s Captain Child was impressed by the quick witted lad and not only helped him polish his reading and writing skills but taught him a great deal about sailing and the basics of navigation.
After returning to Washington Henson got more schooling and worked a variety of jobs. Clerking at the clothing store and outfitters B.H. Stinemetz & Sons was an unusual plum for a young Black. When Lt. Peary stopped by the store to get a suitable pith helmet for his first trip to Nicaragua to supervise the survey of a canal route he hired the salesman and took him on the trip. On that tip Peary was much impressed by Henson’s seamanship and his heartiness in enduring the steaming tropical heat of Central America and the diseases that felled many expedition members.
Peary had already made one trip to the Arctic—an 1885 attempt to survey Greenland by dog sled to determine if it was an island or a part of a larger land mass. Harsh conditions had forced that expedition to turn back but Peary learned much about northern survival skills. He was already thinking about more polar exploration and shared his dreams with Henson who eagerly agreed to accompany him. While they prepared, Peary taught his servant much of what he learned and practiced his critical skills as a navigator.
In 1891 Henson accompanied Peary back to Greenland on board the seal hunting ship S.S. Kite on a trip backed by the American Geographic Society, Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, and the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences. In July sailing in icy waters the ship’s iron tiller suddenly spun around and broke the keel and Peary’s leg. The expedition established a camp at Red Cliff, at the mouth of MacCormick Fjord at the northwest end of Inglefield Gulf.
During Peary’s six month recovery Henson got to know the local Inuit people and mastered their language. They called him Mahri-Pahluk and remembered him as the only non-Inuit who became skilled in driving the dog sleds and in training dog teams in the Inuit way. After Peary recovered and pushed north he proved he was a skilled craftsman, often coming up with solutions for what the team needed in the harsh Arctic conditions and built igloos out of snow instead of using heavy tents for shelter as they traveled. His and Peary’s teams covered thousands of miles in dog sleds and reached the point farthest North of any Arctic expedition yet and established that Greenland was indeed an island.Henson on board the Peary polar expedition's ship Roosevelt in 1908 with a sled. He was an expert dog team driver.
Henson accompanied Peary on six more trips north and was acknowledged at his First Man and de-facto second in command before the 1908-09 drive to be the first to the North Pole. It was the largest expedition yet and was underwritten by the National Geographic Society and Explorers Club. Peary used his system of setting up cached supplies along the way. When he and Henson boarded his ship Roosevelt, leaving Greenland on August 18, 1909, they were accompanied by 22 Inuit men, 17 Inuit women, 10 children, 246 dogs, 70 tons (64 metric tons) of whale meat from Labrador, the meat and blubber of 50 walruses, hunting equipment, and tons of coal. In February, Henson and Peary departed their anchored ship at Ellesmere Island’s Cape Sheridan, with the Inuit men and 130 dogs working to lay a trail and supplies along the route to the Pole.
Peary selected Henson and four Inuit as part of the team of six men 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. He sent Henson ahead as a scout.
In a newspaper interview, Henson later 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.Matthew Henson, center, and four of his Inuit companions were photographed in front of the presumed North geographic polt marked by a flag of the Explorer's Club.
Henson and his Inuit companions were photographed at the supposed pole. Subsequent investigation citing navigational errors have cast doubt on the claim of being first to the Pole. In fact, they were several miles short of that goal. But when their claim was publicized, Peary was proclaimed a hero and he in turn publicly recognized Henson in his reports to his sponsors.
In 1912 Henson published a memoir of his arctic explorations, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole. In this, he describes himself as a “general assistant, skilled craftsperson, interpreter, and laborer.” He later collaborated with author Bradley Robinson on his 1947 biography, Dark Companion, which told more about his life.
At first although Peary received many honors Henson’s contributions were largely ignored except within 1909 the Black community. Henson spent most of the next 30 years working on staff in the U.S. Customs House in New York, a political appointment by admirer Theodore Roosevelt.Peary and Henson were co-honored with a Unites States Postal Service stamp on the centennial of their dash to the North Pole.
He later gained renewed attention. In 1937 Henson was admitted as a member to the prestigious Explorers Club in New York City. In 1944 Congress awarded him and five other Peary aides duplicates of the Peary Polar Expedition Medal, a silver medal given to Peary. Presidents Truman and Eisenhower both honored Henson before he died in 1955.Henson and his wife Lucy with President Dwight Eisenhower in 1954, a year before his death.
Henson was officially married twice. He married Eva Flint in 1891, but their marriage did not survive their long periods of separation and they divorced in 1897. He married Lucy Ross in New York City on September 7, 1907. That marriage endured the strains of separation until Henson settled into his duties as a Customs official. They had no children.
But Henson also had an Inuit family in the far North. His native wife Akatingwah gave him his only child, a son named Anauakaq, born in 1906. Anauakaq’s children are Henson's only descendants. After 1909, Henson never saw Akatingwah or his son again but remained in contact through mutual acquaintances and visitors to their village.
In 1986 Anauakaq and an Inuit son of Peary were discovered and brought to Washington as octogenarians where they met American relatives from both families and visited their fathers’ graves. Anauakaq died a year later. He and his wife Aviaq had five sons and a daughter, who have children of their own. While some still reside in Greenland, others have moved to Sweden or the United States.Henson's Inuit descendants in Greenland in 1999.
Actress Taraji P. Henson best known for starring in the cable series Empire and as African-American mathematician Katherine Johnson in Hidden Figures is a decedent of Matthew’s Maryland family of origin. Joseph Henson born in 1850 was either Matthew’s older brother or his cousin. That would make her Matthew’s great-great niece or cousin. She purchased the ancestral Maryland farm and still owns about 25 acres of it.
Henson died on March 9, 1955 in the Bronx. When he was reinterred in 1986 with his wife Lucy at Arlington National Cemetery members of his Inuit family were in attendance.