He was born Matthew Alexander Henson in Maryland in 1866, the son of two freeborn black sharecroppers. His mother died when he was young and his father a few years later and aged eleven Henson left home.
He eventually found work as a cabin boy on the ship Katie Hines and the skipper, Captain Childs, took Henson under his wing and saw to his education including the finer points of seamanship as they travelled to Europe, Asia and Africa.
Childs died in 1884 and Henson returned to Washington and found work in a hat shop and it was there that he had a chance meeting with the renowned explorer Robert Peary. Impressed by the young man’s seafaring knowledge, Peary hired him as his valet on an upcoming expedition to Nicaragua.
But it was in 1891 when Henson and Peary made their first journey north together spending a year in Greenland where Henson embraced the Inuit culture, learning their language and their arctic survival skills.
The pair returned in 1893 with the aim of charting the entire ice cap and their two-year trek almost ended in tragedy when the team found themselves on the brink of starvation, only surviving by eating all but one of their sledge dogs.
Despite this scare, Henson and Peary returned to Greenland in 1896 and 1897 to recover three meteorites they had found on their previous trips which they sold to the American Museum of Natural History to fund a further expedition.
Over the coming years, they made several unsuccessful attempts to reach the North Pole, some of them ending badly, but in 1905 they won the backing of President Theodore Roosevelt who provided them with a ship capable of cutting through the ice to bring them within 175 miles of the pole.
[themedy_pullright colour=”red” colour_custom=”” text=”Henson must go all the way. I can’t make it there without him.”]Their final attempt came in 1908. Henson trained the team in arctic survival skills, including sledge-making and handling. The expedition went on into 1909 and some of the team turned back. Peary knew that the mission’s success depended on his companion, saying, ‘Henson must go all the way. I can’t make it there without him.’
On 6th April 1909, they finally reached the North Pole. The team that began with twenty-four men, nineteen sledges and 133 dogs had been reduced to just Henson and Peary, four Inuits and forty dogs.
They returned in triumph but while Peary was lauded, Henson’s role was largely overlooked, a sad reflection of the attitude of the time towards African-Americans, and he spent the next thirty years working as an official at the US Customs House in New York.
Henson recorded his experiences in 1912, publishing A Negro Explorer at the North Pole with a foreword by Peary, and it wasn’t until 1937 that his part in the achievement was recognised when he was made an honorary member of the prestigious Explorers’ Club in New York. Henson and other members of the team were awarded the Congressional Medal in 1944 and in 1947 he published his biography, Dark Companion.
Henson died in 1955 and was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York. However, in 1987 President Ronald Reagan approved his reinterment at Arlington National Cemetery where Robert Peary was also buried.