Bridging the 19th and 20th centuries, African-American Matthew Henson's life is a story of heroism and adventure lived out despite the confines of racial prejudice. He accompanied Robert E. Peary on polar expeditions and later received a presidential appointment at the U.S. Custom House in New York.
Henson was born in Maryland on Aug. 6, 1866, one year after the Civil War, and lived to see the birth of the civil rights movement in the 1950s. Orphaned at age 11, he began working on the ship, Katie Hines, at age 12 where he learned to read and write. He used these skills to advance himself from manual to clerical work. After moving to Washington, D.C., he became a store clerk and met the explorer Robert E. Peary.
In 1889 Peary offered Henson a job as a messenger at the League Island Navy Yard in Philadelphia which he performed until his first trip to the Arctic. From 1891 to 1902, he accompanied Peary on northern expeditions, covering over 9,000 miles mostly by dog sled. In 1906, Peary and his team, which included Henson, set out again; this time in hopes of reaching the North Pole. Unfortunately, the weather forced them to turn back.
Undaunted, Peary initiated another expedition two years later. On July 6, 1908, Peary and 23 others left New York harbor for Ellesmere Island, the staging point for the polar expedition. As the mission advanced toward the North Pole, Peary ordered men in the support parties to turn back or to stay at outlying camps. This left Peary, Henson, and four others to make the final leg of the journey.
On April 6, 1909, Henson arrived 45 minutes before Peary at the point where Peary would establish Camp Jessup. Henson greeted Peary stating "I think I'm the first man to sit on top of the world." Peary determined that Henson was correct and that Camp Jessup was situated on the North Pole. As to Peary's reaction to Henson's prior arrival to the North Pole, Henson recalled that he was "hopping mad."
Returning from the North Pole, Henson found that his accomplishments as an explorer could not surmount the prevailing attitudes of the times. Following the model of other explorers, he wrote a book about his experience and attempted a national lecture tour, but he was shut out of the lecture circuit. He worked as a handyman in a Brooklyn garage and took a second job at the post office until his situation came to the attention of President William Howard Taft. He had Henson appointed to a federal position in the New York custom house, and Henson remained on staff until he retired in 1936 at age 70.
Though Henson received some recognition during his lifetime, it was only following Henson's death in 1955 that his contributions were fully acknowledged and appreciated. In 1988, his remains were exhumed from Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx and given a hero's interment at Arlington Cemetery. In 2000, the National Geographic Society posthumously awarded Henson its highest honor, the Hubbard Medal. This medal had been granted to Peary shortly after the expedition's return from the North Pole.