Who is this pioneering Arctic explorer?

Close-up of Matthew Henson in fur coat and hood (Library of Congress)
Matthew Henson was one of the first explorers to reach the North Pole. (Library of Congress)

One of the first people to stand on top of the world was an unheralded African-American explorer named Matthew Henson.

Henson was a critical member of fellow explorer Robert Peary’s famous expedition to the North Pole in 1909.

“Although he may have been an unsung hero to the rest of the world, Matthew Henson’s great achievement remained indelibly imprinted on the hearts of African-Americans,” said Edna Medford, chair of the history department at Howard University in Washington, during an evening to celebrate Arctic exploration and honor Henson’s 150th birthday.

Henson was a big reason the U.S. was the first nation to plant its flag at the North Pole.

Five men standing in snow in front of flag-topped hill (© Robert E. Peary/National Geographic Creative)
Henson and four Inughuit explorers on the expedition to the North Pole (© Robert E. Peary/National Geographic Creative)

“Considering the technology and the science of the day, it was much like trying to go to the moon,” Admiral Robert Papp, the special representative for the Arctic at the U.S. Department of State, said at the event, which was held amid a landscape of artwork depicting ICEBERGS at the National Building Museum.

Known as ‘The Kind One’

Born in 1866 in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. Civil War, Henson faced limited options. The son of Maryland sharecroppers, Henson first went to sea as a 12-year-old boy and became an expert seaman.

Henson and Peary first met in Washington in 1887, when Peary hired Henson to accompany him on an expedition to Nicaragua.

“I can’t get along without him,” Peary said years later when discussing his plans to reach the North Pole with fellow American explorer Donald MacMillan.

The expedition to the North Pole was nine months in the making, beginning in September 1908, when Henson joined Peary and a team of Americans and Inughuit, indigenous people of northern Greenland. The team then set off from camp in Greenland on February 28, 1909. Over rough sea ice, the explorers completed their 665-kilometer journey on April 6, 1909.

More than anything, Henson’s skills, character and determination enabled the group to reach their goal. He mastered the Inughuit language and made sure the expedition relied on effective trekking techniques passed down by the Inughuit for generations.

Henson “instantly became one of their favorite foreigners,” said Henson’s youngest great-grandson, Anaukaq Allen Matthew Henson. “They completely accepted him as their own cousin and even gave him a nickname, ‘Mahri-Paluk,’ which means ‘Matthew, The Kind One.'”

MacMillan once wrote that “Matthew Henson went to the pole with Peary because he was a better man than any one of us.”

Four men in tuxedos (© AP Images)
Henson (second from left), 82, is awarded the gold medal of the Geographic Society of Chicago in 1948. (© AP Images)

In 1937, Henson became the first African American accepted into the Explorers Club, an elite society of accomplished explorers whose members have included U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt and Neil Armstrong, the first person to set foot on the moon.

Henson died in New York in 1955. Thirty years later, President Ronald Reagan ordered that Henson be reburied in Arlington National Cemetery to honor his contributions. Henson lies in rest next to Peary.

During a time of legalized segregation of blacks and whites in the United States, Henson’s 1909 Arctic expedition “challenged the world’s perceptions of what people of color were capable of achieving,” Medford said.