“Great ideals are the glory of man alone…
Only man can get a vision and an inspiration that will lift him above the level of himself and send him forth against all opposition… to do and to dare and to accomplish wonderful and great things for the world and for humanity”.
Matthew A Henson
Matthew A Henson,black explorer, and also a member of the 1909 expedition led by American explorer Robert Peary that is generally credited with discovering the North Pole. Born in Charles County, Maryland, U.S.A. Henson ran away from home at age 11, after both parents had died. As a teen, he traveled the world for six years as a hand aboard the merchant vessel Katie Hines.
Henson was working as a hat store clerk in Washington, D.C., in 1897 when Peary hired him as a valet. Henson traveled with Peary on a survey expedition to Nicaragua in 1897 and accompanied him on seven polar expeditions. Henson quickly proved indispensable to Peary as a navigator in the Arctic and as a translator among the Inuit (Eskimos). Peary said of Henson, ‘He is a better dog driver, and can handle a sledge better than any man living except some of the best of the Eskimos’.
On the morning of April 6, 1909, an expedition made up of Peary, Henson, and four Inuit reached 90 degrees north latitude – the North Pole. Henson, who usually broke trail while pulling a sled, reached the Pole approximately 45 minutes before Peary, although discovery of the North Pole is usually credited to Peary. In recent years, however, most scholars have concluded that the point the expedition reached was actually at least a few miles from the North Pole.
In 1912, Henson wrote A Black Explorer at the North Pole. In 1913, President Taft personally recommended Henson’s appointment to the United States Customs House in New York City in recognition of his exploits in the Arctic. In 1944 Henson received a joint medal from the Congress of the United States, honoring the Peary expedition to the North Pole. He was also honored by President Truman in 1950 and admitted to the Explorer’s Club, but he passed away in relative obscurity. In 1988, he was reburied in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia with full honors.