The year was 1909—roughly three centuries after the Age of Discovery ended and five decades prior to the Space Race. For explorers of the period, the North Pole represented one of the last untrodden frontiers still up for grabs. Robert E. Peary ventured onto the polar sea ice in February of that year, hoping to beat his competitors to the spot. Upon returning to the U.S., Peary was celebrated as the first man to reach world’s northernmost point, but it was his assistant, an African American man named Matthew Henson, who some experts now believe deserves the distinction.
Henson was born in Charles County, Maryland on August 8, 1866, a year after the end of the Civil War. His parents—both freeborn sharecroppers—died before they had a chance to see him grow up. Henson probably lived with relatives, but with little tying him to his home in Washington D.C., he set out on his own.
Biographies have conflicting stories about Henson's teenage years, but it's likely that he gained experience as a sailor on a vessel named the Katie Hines. When he was about 18, Henson returned to Washington D.C., where he accepted a job as a clerk at a hat shop. It was there that he crossed paths with the man who would shape his destiny. Robert E. Peary met Henson in 1887 as a U.S. Naval officer with dreams of Arctic adventures. When he entered the shop where Henson worked, looking to sell seal and walrus pelts from a recent expedition to Greenland, it immediately became clear the two were kindred spirits. Peary admired Henson’s experience and enthusiasm, so he hired him to join an upcoming surveying expedition to Nicaragua. Eager to see more of the world, the 21-year-old accepted.
On this trip Henson proved himself an invaluable aide. At the end of their mission, Henson was among the first men Peary had in mind to accompany him on his next escapade.
After returning to the East Coast—specifically, Philadelphia—just long enough to start a new job as a Navy Yard messenger and marry his first wife, Eva Flint, Henson was preparing to set sail once again. This time the destination was the iced-over extremes of Greenland. Robert Peary had grown obsessed with the idea of being the first person to reach the North Pole, and he wasn’t alone. Explorers from the U.S., Italy, and Norway were all clamoring to beat each other in the race to the top of the world.
The team’s initial trip to Greenland was the first of many expeditions into the unforgiving Arctic. With Henson at his side, Peary had a key advantage over his adversaries. Aside from serving as a blacksmith, carpenter, hunter, and dog driver, Henson was one of the few Arctic explorers and the only member of Peary’s party who took the time to learn Inuktitut, the Inuit language. He had a knack for building trust with the local people and quickly adapted to their ways of life. Robert Peary once said of his comrade: "He is a better dog driver and can handle a sledge better than any man living, except some of the best Esquimo [sic] hunters themselves."
It was this rapport with the Inuit and the habits borrowed from their culture that helped Peary and Henson survive in the Arctic for so many years. During that time they seized tons of iron-rich meteorite (not without controversy), mapped Greenland’s ice cap, and traveled deeper into the Arctic than any explorer had before them. Unfortunately, Henson’s success up north resulted in the failure of his marriage back home. He married his second wife, Lucy Ross, during a return visit in 1906, but his only son, Anaukaq, was born of an Inuit woman he met during his travels.
After 17 years spent intermittently in the Arctic, there was one goal Peary and Henson had yet to accomplish: setting foot on the North Pole. They launched what would be their eighth and final effort to reach the frozen finish line in the summer of 1908. In their custom-designed vessel, the Roosevelt, the crew set up camp on Ellesmere Island at Canada’s northern edge in the winter of 1908-1909. Here, Peary put his plans into action: he had developed a system for laying supplies along his route to the North Pole, so that he didn't need to carry so much gear. It was the job of 20-odd men to station food and equipment along the route before returning to camp, while Peary's group made the full trek to the Pole. That core team included Robert Peary, four Inuit assistants named Ooqueah, Ootah, Egingwah, and Seegloo; and Matthew Henson. "Henson must go all the way," Peary reportedly said while planning the expedition. "I can’t make it there without him."
Henson ended up leading the party to their target. Peary had lost eight toes to frostbite on an earlier expedition, and he may have been riding on a sledge for the final leg of the journey. Henson was 45 minutes ahead, breaking the trail—and actually overshot their mark. Not realizing their mistake until it was too late, Henson and two of the Inuit guides arrived at the Pole on April 6, 1909, with Peary bringing up the rear.
Peary got busy making calculations of their geographical position, which would prove that the party had reached 90° North. If he was irate about Henson beating him to his life's goal, he didn't say so—but the two remained on strained terms for the duration of their trip. Henson later wrote: "From the time we knew we were at the Pole, Commander Peary scarcely spoke to me [...] It nearly broke my heart that he would rise in the morning and slip away on the homeward trail without rapping on the ice for me, as was the established custom." By the time the two of them made it back home, one of the most successful partnerships in the history of exploration had disintegrated.
The controversy over who deserved of title of first person to reach the North Pole wasn’t limited to the two men. After returning to the States, they learned that another American, Frederick Cook, claimed to have beat them to the pole a year earlier. The photographic evidence Cook used to back up his assertion was eventually discredited, and in 1911 a Congressional Inquiry led to the official recognition of Peary’s achievement. (Today, Peary's claim to have reached the North Pole is still disputed.)
Robert Peary’s legacy would be cemented in history books from that point forward, but due to his skin color, Matthew Henson’s contributions were largely written out of the story. For a time, he struggled to find enough work to support his family. He spent almost three decades working at the U.S. Customs Bureau in New York City.
But though he may not have received all the credit he deserved during his lifetime, his feats didn’t go unrecognized. African American leaders hailed him as a hero and role model, and in 1937, he was made a life member of the prestigious Explorers Club in New York City. In 1944, he was awarded a Congressional medal, and he was honored by President Eisenhower during the 1950s.
Matthew Henson died on March 9, 1955 at 88 years old. His remains were initially buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, but he's since been laid to rest, according to his wishes, alongside Robert Peary in Arlington National Cemetery.