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Matthew Henson Facts

In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, the last great frontier was the North Pole. Though many men had tried to reach it, all of them had failed. That is, until the expedition that was led by Robert Peary.

This expedition would have failed too, if not for Peary’s companion, Matthew Henson. Let’s explore this brave man’s life and how he helped to explore the great unknown.


Early Life

Henson was born on August 8, 1866, in Maryland. His parents were poor freeborn sharecroppers. Both of his parents died when he was young. Henson then had to live with various family members in Washington D.C.

Henson was not happy with his living situation and ran away from home when he was eleven years old. He moved in with a neighbor woman who took pity on him and took care of him. When he was twelve years old, he got a job as a cabin boy on a ship.


The captain of the ship taught Henson to read, write, and how to navigate. After the captain died, Henson went to work as a store clerk. It was there that he met Peary. Peary, who was a navy officer and explorer, hired Henson to join him on his expeditions.

A Brave Explorer

Perry and Henson went on multiple expeditions. Their very first journey together took them to Nicaragua in 1887. Once they returned from this journey, Henson married Eva Flint. Shortly after the wedding, Peary and Henson went forth again, this time to Greenland.

This journey proved influential in Henson’s life, as he embraced the Eskimo culture. He learned the language and the Inuit’s Arctic survival methods.


The team again returned to Greenland in 1893. They wanted to chart the entire ice cap. This trip almost proved disastrous, as they almost ran out of food and supplies.

They actually had to eat all but one of their sled dogs. They would return again in 1896 and 1897.

It was at this time that Henson and his wife Eva divorced. His frequent journeys caused this to happen.


Peary and Henson then made multiple attempts at reaching the North Pole. They were turned back many times, including in 1902 when several members of their party died.

Then, in 1905, melting sea ice blocked their progress and forced them to turn back.

The team’s final, and ultimately successful, try at reaching the North Pole began in 1908. Peary and Henson kept pushing and finally, on April 6, 1909, they reached the North Pole. They did this with four Inuits and 40 dogs.


Later Life

Though Henson was an indispensable member of the team, he was largely overlooked while Peary got all of the credit. Henson went on to work as a clerk in a New York City federal customs house for three decades.

In 1912 he released his memoirs of his journeys and in 1937, finally received the acknowledgment he deserved. He was accepted into the Explorers Club in New York City as an honorary member.

Then in 1944, he and the other members of the team received a Congressional Medal.

Matthew Henson died on March 9, 1955, at the age of 89. He was originally buried in New York City.

However, in 1987 his remains were moved to Arlington National Cemetery. 


A New Frontier

Matthew Henson was a brave explorer who journeyed all over the world. He spent many years and several expeditions trying to reach the North Pole with Robert Peary.

After many years of trying, the pair finally reached it in 1909.

Henson is thought to be the first man to actually reach the North Pole. He was an indispensable member of the team, and Robert Peary wrote that he could not have made the journey without Henson.

Matthew Henson is a true inspiration of how far bravery and determination can take you in life.


History Facts for Kids