Matthew Henson Black Arctic Explorer

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Matthew Henson

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Matthew Henson The Black Arctic Explorer who was the first Man who reached the Arctic North Pole.

Born in Maryland in 1866 just after the Civil War, Matthew Henson was only a boy when both of his parents died. Henson lived with an uncle in Washington, DC before striking out on his own at the age of 11. He traveled by foot to Baltimore, where he hoped he could get work on a ship. He succeeded, and he became a cabin boy on a freighter. He saw the world including China, Europe, and North Africa and learned how to read and write thanks to the ship’s kindly captain, who saw that the young boy was bright and eager to learn. After six years of sailing the ocean, Henson’s captain died; grieving for the man who had done so much for him, Henson returned to Washington and took a job as a store clerk in a furrier’s shop.

It was at the store that Henson met navy lieutenant Robert Edwin Peary, who was selling some pelts and took a shine to the young man as they discussed their various adventures. Peary gave him a job as his assistant on an upcoming survey trip of Nicaragua. Henson, missing the adventure of travel, soon became a permanent member of Peary’s crew. When Peary announced plans to reach the top of Greenland in 1891, Henson happily joined the officer on his journey. After that, for more than 20 years, their expeditions were to the Arctic. Henson traded with the Inuit and mastered their language; they called him Mahri-Pahluk. He was remembered as the only non-Inuit who became skilled in driving the dog sleds and training dog teams in the Inuit way.He was a skilled craftsman, often coming up with solutions for what the team needed in the harsh Arctic conditions; they learned to build igloos out of snow, for mobile housing as they traveled. Peary grew to count on Henson, whose carpentry, mechanical, and dog-driving skills were second to none.

Over the next several years, Peary, always with Henson at his side, were determined to reach the North Pole. They would make attempt after attempt, each one unsuccessful due to the harshness of the conditions. He and Peary with their teams covered thousands of miles in dog sleds and reached the “Farthest North” point of any Arctic expedition in 1906. In 1908, they decided to make one final attempt since time was running against them (Peary was 50, Henson 40). Because of Henson’s knowledge of Eskimos and their language as well as being the only member of the team to do so. He gained the their confidence and trust and Henson paved the way for the success of the expedition (as did a special ice-cutting boat built especially for the expedition). Henson actually arrived closest to the Pole in advance of Peary and had crossed the point of what was called the north pole, Peary trudged the last few miles to plant the American flag. But Peary seemed to resent Henson for arriving ahead of him, and their relations on the return trip were strained although cordial and never quite the same afterwards.

Commander Peary was celebrated for his achievement upon his return to America; although Matt Henson had technically gotten there first, he did not receive the same attention, and in short order he had to find new work. He ended up parking cars in New York. Fortunately, friends lobbied on his behalf, and Henson’s fortunes began to change. He received a civil service appointment from President Taft that gave him a more comfortable living. He published an autobiography in 1912, and a subsequent biography made Henson’s role in the North Pole expeditions more widely known. He received a Congressional Medal in 1944 and a Presidential Citation in 1950. By the time he died in 1955, Matthew Henson could rest easy, having been recognized as the co-founder of the North Pole.