In 1909, Matthew Henson planted an American flag at the North Pole. Claimed by many as the first to reach the pole, Henson’s trek alongside his colleague, Naval engineer Robert E. Peary, Henson’s achievement was extraordinary for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that Matthew Henson was an African-American explorer.
Born to sharecroppers -- or “free people of color” as they were once known -- in rural Maryland in late summer of 1866, Henson’s family was routinely terrorized by local factions of the Ku Klux Klan. The Civil War had just ended and, though his family and their community were considered free people, the KKK’s reign of terror forced them to move from rural Nanjemoy, on the banks of the Potomac, to Georgetown, then an independent community in Maryland adjacent to the nation’s capital.
Inspired by a speech by legendary orator and freed slave Fredrick Douglass, Henson made his way to the port of Baltimore at the age of only twelve, finding work as a cabin boy on a merchant ship which would take him to China, Japan, Africa and Russia. It was on this ship, the Katie Hines, that Henson learned to read and write, fulfilling Douglass’s challenge that young black boys and girls pursue education in order to fight racism.
In 1887, while working in Washington D.C., Henson met Naval engineer Commander Robert E. Peary. Learning of his seaworthiness, Peary tapped Henson as an aide for a journey to Nicaragua. It was along this trip that Peary, impressed with Henson’s skills on a ship, appointed Henson to be his first man.
Over the next two decades, the duo ventured to the Arctic several times, trading with Inuit, learning their language, while exchanging ideas and learning their skills. According to the Inuit, Henson, then fluent in their language, was the only outsider to that point who had mastered the use of a dogsled. He could build igloos and became an expert in surviving the harsh environs of the Arctic.
In August of 1909, Henson, Peary and a large team of Inuit, along with hundreds of dogs and seventy tons of whale meat, departed Ellesmere Island at the southern edge of the Arctic Ocean. By the time they reached the Pole, Peary was unable to continue the trek. Some said it was illness while others reported he had “frozen toes.”
He sent Henson ahead as a scout who, several miles and at least one extended backtrack later, planted the American flag at the North Pole, becoming arguably the first human ever to reach that point.
From child of sharecroppers in post-Civil War American to twelve-year-old world-traveling seaman to legendary explorer and landmark adventurer, Matthew Henson was one of the original members of the Die Living nation.