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This Day in History, August 8th

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Matthew Alexander Henson, one of the first men to reach the North Pole, was born August 8, 1866. Henson was born on a farm in Nanjemoy, Maryland and his parents were free people of color who worked as sharecroppers. He lost both of his parents as a child and had to relocate to Washington, D.C. By the age of 13, Henson was an orphan working odd jobs to survive.

He worked as a cabin boy on the Katie Hines ship. The ship’s captain, Captain Childs, took Henson under his wing and valued his education, which often included much reading, writing and instruction on seamanship. During his time aboard the Katie Hines, Henson saw much of the world and was able to travel to Asia, Africa and Europe. In 1884, Captain Childs died and Henson made his way back to Washington, D.C., where he met U.S. Navy engineer Robert E. Peary.

 

Peary was impressed by Henson’s experience, so he hired him to go on a surveying expedition to Nicaragua as well as other expeditions to the Arctic. In 1900, Henson and Peary went farther north than anyone else had ever gone, exploring parts of Greenland and what is now known as the North Pole in 1909. Peary became ill while on the expedition and sent Henson ahead of him to serve as a scout. Henson marked the new region by leaving an American flag.

After the expedition, Peary received many accolades for his accomplishment, but Henson was overlooked because he was an African-American. Peary, Henson, and his team faced wide skepticism due to a lack of verifiable proof. Peary had to testify before Congress about allegedly reaching the North Pole.

In 1912, Henson recorded his experiences in a memoir, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole. The following year, President William Taft ordered that Henson be appointed as a clerk in the U.S. Customs House in New York City. He maintained this job until his retirement in 1936. In 1937, at 70 years old, Henson received acknowledgment when the New York Explorers Club accepted him as an honorary member.

Henson and the other members of the expedition were also awarded a Congressional Medal in 1944. He worked with Bradley Robinson to write the biography, Dark Companion, which was published in 1947. The explorer died in New York City in 1955 at the age of 89, and was also buried in the city.

Henson was re-interred in Arlington National Cemetery near Peary’s monument. Decades after the 1909 expedition to the North Pole, the U.S. Navy commissioned the U.S.N.S. Henson, an oceanographic explorer ship, in honor of Matthew Henson.

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