On August 8th, 1866, Matthew Alexander Henson was born in Nanjemoy, Maryland, to parents who were free from slavery and worked as sharecroppers in Charles County, Maryland. Like many black Americans at the time, Henson’s family was victims of attacks by white terrorist groups. His mother died when he was between the ages of four and seven, his father, now a single parent was raising a boy and three girls, and working to make ends meet. At the age of eleven, Henson’s father died, forcing him and his sisters to be raised by family members. Matthew Henson moved to the Washington D.C. area to live with an uncle who was able to pay for his schooling. Unfortunately, Henson’s uncle died after only living with him for a year. He would still attend school after being inspired by a Frederick Douglass speech he was able to witness. He moved to Baltimore, Maryland to find work, which he did find, he worked as a cabin boy on a merchant ship called the Katie Hines, which traveled from continent to continent, from Asia to Africa, exposing Henson to the world for the first time. The captain of the Katie Hines became fond of Henson and took the time to teach him how to read and write. Unfortunately, another important person in Henson’s life passed away, Captain Childs, captain of the Katie Hines passed in 1884, from there, Henson moved back to Washington D.C. to make a living.
At this time, Henson was a world traveler, he developed skills to make a living, and this was just the beginning of his pioneering journey. In 1887, he found work at the clothing store B.H. Steinemetz and Sons. This was the location where Henson would meet Commander Robert E. Peary, who was a famed explorer and officer in the US Navy. The two men had a conversation and during the conversation, Peary learned of Henson’s travels and exploration skills, he found Henson to be useful to him and recruited him to accompany his team on a exploration in Nicaragua, with the intention of building a canal to connect the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Peary was so highly impressed with Henson’s exploration and navigation skills that he hired him full-time to accompany him on future explorations; Henson was Peary’s “first man”, and accompanied him on explorations for two decades. Peary and Henson explored the Arctic, Canada, Greenland, and parts of North America known for freezing climates. During their time exploring the North American Arctic, Henson and Peary became familiar with the landscapes and the indigenous people of these areas, the Inuit. Both Henson and Peary even married women who were Inuit.
In 1893, Henson and Peary went on a two-year journey to Greenland to chart an ice cap; the exploration team almost died of starvation because they ran out of resources; they were able to survive by eating their sled dogs. The two men returned to Greenland a year after leaving from their trip that almost took their lives, this time they were collecting large pieces of meteorites, which they sold and used the money to fund their explorations. By this time, Henson and Peary were interested in reaching the North Pole, they made several attempts, some of the expeditions ended with people losing their lives, but Henson and Peary kept pushing to reach their goal. President Theodore Roosevelt supplied Henson and Peary with a ship that could cut through the frozen ice of the arctic, the ship helped them get closer to the North Pole. The ship did help, but their team got stuck in the ice as they moved closer to the landmass, so they aborted the mission.
1908, is the year that Henson and Peary would make history. With over twenty years of experience traveling the world and exploring the arctic, Henson was primed for this expedition. He was able to build durable sleds, properly train the sled dogs for the mission, and his knowledge of the land greatly helped. Henson and Peary were accompanied by four Inuit people and forty sled dogs, the team reached their destination at the North Pole, led by Mr. Matthew Henson. Even though Henson was the primary leader and navigator of the expedition, Peary, the white man, was given all the credit for leading the expedition, and Henson was given the credit of a helper. After the expedition, Peary spent years working to prove that he and Henson did reach the North Pole. Peary was even forced to testify before congress to prove the mission was real. As for Henson, after his time exploring the world, he worked as a customs clerk in New York, before publishing his book A Negro Explorer at the North Pole in 1912. He became an honorary member of the Explorers Club in New York City and published his biography Dark Companion in 1947. Matthew Henson died on March 9th, 1955, in New York, with his story told from his perspective, but still being hidden by American historians. A black man was the primary leader and the most important component of the explorations with Robert Peary. Peary literally depended on Henson to help him on his expeditions. It is said that after it was all done, Peary took the bulk of the credit. But we are here today to make sure our people know the truth of Matthew Henson. Mr. Mathew Alexander Henson, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
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