Matthew Alexander Henson was born August 8, 1866, in Charles County, Maryland. He was an infant when his mother died. When young Matthew was four years old, his father moved the family to Washington, D.C. Henson’s father died just a few years later. Henson and his siblings were left in the care of family members.
When he was 11 years old, Henson left home. He worked in a restaurant for a short period before walking to Baltimore, Maryland. There, he found work as a cabin boy on the ship, the Katie Hines. Captain Childs, the ship’s skipper, took Henson under his tutelage. Henson gained an education and the opportunity to travel the world.
After Captain Childs died in 1884, Henson returned to Washington, D.C. He worked as a clerk in a hat shop. In 1887, he met Robert Edwin Peary. Peary was an explorer and officer in the U.S. Navy. After hearing about Henson’s experience at sea, Peary hired him to be his valet for an upcoming expedition. Shortly thereafter, they set sail for Nicaragua.
When they returned from Nicaragua, Henson worked in Philadelphia and married Eva Flint in 1891. Not long after, he joined Peary on another expedition. They traveled to Greenland. There, he embraced the Eskimo culture. He learned their language and survival techniques.
Between 1893 and 1897, Henson accompanied Peary on three more expeditions to Greenland. In 1893, their expedition nearly ended tragically. The crew almost died of starvation. Had they not eaten all but one sled dog, they surely would have perished. In 1896 and 1897, however, they found large meteorites. They sold them to the American Museum of Natural History and their proceeds funded their future expeditions.
In 1897, Henson’s frequent absences finally took a toll on his marriage. His wife, Eva, divorced him. For almost a decade Henson joined Peary on a number of failed expeditions to the North Pole. In 1902, their expedition was a tragedy. Six Eskimo team members died of starvation. By 1905, Theodore Roosevelt funded their next expedition. They came within 175 miles of the North Pole but melted ice blocked their path and they were forced to abort the mission.
By 1906, Henson had fathered a son with an Inuit woman. However, when he returned home, he married Lucy Ross. In 1908, one final team of 24 men, 19 sledges, and 133 dogs set sail for the North Pole. By the time they reached the North Pole, only Henson, Peary, four Eskimo sailors, and 40 dogs remained. By 1909, they had reached the North Pole.
Upon return, Henson received no accolades for his contribution to the expedition to the North Pole. He wrote about his seafaring days in his memoirs A Negro Explorer at the North Pole. In 1947, he published his autobiography, Dark Companion. Matthew Henson died on March 9, 1955. He was 89 years old. In 1987, he was honored for his work by Ronald Reagan.
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