Matthew A. Henson (1866-1955)

Bradley Robinson

Abstract


America's only famous Negro polar explorer was the co-author to the major geographical quest of the century - the search for the North Pole. ... At the age of 12 he escaped a loveless home - he never knew his mother, who died when he was two - and found his way to Baltimore and the benign Captain Childs, master of the ship Katie Hines. Befriending the frail, hungry, frightened boy, Capt. Childs bent the rules in signing Matt on as cabin boy; he recorded Henson's age as 15 rather than the illegal age of 12. In the five years that Matt sailed on the Katie Hines, Childs taught the young Negro reading, writing, mathematics, navigation, and general proficiency at the sailor's varied trade. These skills would ultimately prove indispensable in Henson's travels with Robert Peary. ... After proving his value to Peary during a year in the Nicaraguan jungle, Henson worked alongside him in a Philadelphia shipyard until Peary took another leave of absence to return to Greenland in 1891. Henson joined the party. His ocher-coloured skin, far from an asset in the racist U.S., helped him in the Arctic. To the Eskimo, Henson was not a white man but a prodigal brother who had forgotten his native tongue and the ways of survival in the harsh northern environment. In successive expeditions, his rapidly growing skills in speaking the Eskimo language, driving dogsleds, hunting, and trading for dogs and furs proved invaluable. In a short time "Miy Paluk", as the Eskimos called him, was to become hero and legend. He was the most important member of the seven expeditions spread over a period of 18 years. One expedition alone lasted four years, during which Matt's courage, sacrifice and physical strength saved Peary's life and the lives of others more than once. ... In 1898 the Navy granted Peary a four-year leave of absence to search for the Pole once more. Peary planned to approach his goal this time via the frozen arctic sea. ... Henson selected the field teams, choosing the best and strongest Eskimo hunters, skilled sledge builders and dog handlers. The Eskimos were loyal to Matt, who now spoke their language fluently. ... On the next-to-last march of the successful expedition, Henson knew at the outset how far the last day's journey would be, and his experience told him how many hours it would take to travel that distance. The sun was his clock. Sighting the position of the sun as he started that final advance on 6 April 1909, Matt knew where it would be when he had reached the Pole. Thus it was that he arrived 45 minutes before Peary, who, after taking an instrument sighting, said "This is it, the Pole at last". ... Back in the States, Matt drifted into semi-obscurity. In 1913, President Taft appointed him to a Civil Service job as a messenger boy at the New York Customs House. Over the ensuing years, as many as six bills were introduced in Congress to retire Matt with honour and a pension, but all failed. ...

Keywords


Biographies; Expeditions; Explorers; Henson, Matthew Alexander, 1866-1955; History; Fort Conger, Nunavut; Greenland; North Pole

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14430/arctic2253