Matthew Alexander Henson, best known as the first man to reach the North Pole, was born in Maryland on August 8, 1866. At a young age, his mother died and his father moved to Washington, D.C. By age eleven, he was orphaned and taken in by relatives. Soon after, he ran away, walking to Baltimore. A store owner let him sleep and work in the store. By age 12, he was hired as a cabin boy. In the five years he was at sea, the sea captain taught Henson how to read and write and Henson devoured information on ships, geography, history, seamanship and navigation as they traveled the world seas.
In Washington, D.C., in 1887, between voyages or as a result of not being able to find another ship that overlook racial bias, he was working at a store and met Robert Peary, a civil engineer. Peary was buying supplies for his surveying expedition to Nicaragua to chart the jungles for the U.S. government (looking for a canal route) and hired Henson. Henson's mapmaking skills became quite an asset.
In 1890, Peary decided to join the race to the North Pole, in progress since the 1870s. Henson joined Peary's first Arctic expedition; the Americans had officially joined in the race against Italy or Norway. Henson was an expert with sleds, dogs, offered other technical skills, hunted, and was fluent in the Inuit language. They covered 9,000 miles of northern Greenland and Ellesmere Island, Canada, ending the expedition in 1902.
They continued to explore the Arctic, though less successfully due to conditions. On August 18, 1909, they set off on yet another Arctic expedition. After setting up stations along the way, they began the ascent to the northern most point on Earth relay style. Henson frequently helped break the trail during the 475mile journey and was selected by Peary to join him and a few Inuit on the final leg. Peary is quoted as saying, "Henson must go with me. I cannot make it without him." It was clear Peary wanted the best man as a way to ensure success.
On April 6, 1909, Henson's group arrived at Camp Jesup (located 89 degrees, 47 minutes) 45 minutes ahead of Peary. He is quoted as saying to Peary, "I think I'm the first man to sit on top of the world." They worked together for nearly two decades, eight expeditions, in their quest to reach the north pole.
According to Harvard University's Dr. Counter, Henson was expected to take the lead, but stop short of the Pole to let Peary reach it first. Instead, he and two Inuits inadvertently overshot the Pole, and in tracing back their steps, realized Henson's foot print marked the Pole. They waited there for Peary, who was being pulled in a sled, unable to stand for any length of time. Peary was quite upset, their relationship was never the same. Regardless, of which member of Peary's expedition reached the Pole first, the expedition was Peary's and Peary received the credit. It is interesting to note that, in the race to the North Pole, around 750 men died trying to be the first to reach it.
After he retired from explorations and travel, he settled in the Bronx. President Taft appointed him clerk in the U.S. Customs Bureau, where he worked 23 years. It was during this time that he attended Harvard University, earning a master's degree. He also wrote about his sea and Arctic experiences; in 1912, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole (with introductions and forewords by S. Allen Counter, Robert Peary, and Booker T. Washington) was published. He also collaborated with Bradley Robinson on his biography, Dark Companion, in 1947. Henson received honorary degrees from Howard University and Morgan College.
He died March 9, 1955 of a cerebral hemorrhage. Honoring his memory include:
• 1937: The International Explorer's Club accepted him as a member.
• 1944: Received the Congressional Medal of Honor.
• 1945: The U.S. Navy awarded a medal.
• 1954: Received an honor from President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
• 1961: Plaque installed to mark his Maryland birthplace.
• 1986: U.S. Postal Service honors Henson and Peary with a series of four scenes.• April 6, 1988: His body was moved from New York's Bronx Woodlawn Cemetery to Washington D.C.'s Arlington National Cemetery. He is interred next to Robert E. Peary's tomb.
• January 1998: The USNS Henson, an oceanographic explorer ship (T-AGS 63 Class) was christened.
• 2000: The National Geographic Society bestowed the Hubbard Medal for distinction in exploration, discovery, and research--their highest honor.
• Numerous schools are named after him.
A cable television movie, Glory and Honor, about Henson was aired on TNT in 1997. A Hollywood version with Will Smith is being planned. Several books, including some for young readers have been written as well.
During the making of the cable television movie, the actors discussed Henson's character:
"A character like Henson, who starts out kind of undirected, going where the wind blows him, ends up getting the best of what people want from their lives, to live in the moment, to be more process-oriented, to take what life presents them and savor it."
"Henson became goal-directed, he wanted to get to the North Pole as much as Peary did," said Gilbert. "But the added quality he brings to it, that he develops, is he's able to live every moment along the way and learn what life has to present him."
Expedition members and some of the supplies taken with them on the Arctic expedition finally reaching the North Pole:
• Peary and Henson
• 22 Inuit men, 17 Inuit women, 10 children
• 246 sled dogs
• 70 tons of whale meat from Labrador
• Meat and blubber from 50 walruses
• Hunting equipment
• Tons of coal
Today, you can book a adventure travel 5 ½ day trip to the North Pole and call from a satellite telephone.
Compiled from various Internet resources including Wikipedia and the U.S. Postal Service.