Matthew Henson Reaches the North Pole

by, Jo Carol Hebert

“We’re off!”

On July 6, 1908, Matthew Alexander Henson writes this simple but momentous message in his explorer’s journal.

It is the first entry of his journey to discover the North Pole.

Where It All Began

The son of free-born tenant farmers near Washington, D.C., Matthew left home when he was eleven years old.

Fortunately, a kind woman that owned Janey’s Home Cooked Meals Cafe, took him in and cared for him.

In time, he dreamed of becoming a sailor. Ms. Janey gave him a dollar bill and sadly watched him go.

Gone To Sea to See the World

He walked to Baltimore, Maryland and signed on with Captain Childs as a cabin boy on a ship called The Katy Hines.

For five years, he traveled and educated himself in literature, math, and navigation. When he was seventeen years old,

Captain Childs died and Matthew took odd jobs around the New England area.

download (30)Robert Peary Goes Shopping

As he was working as a store clerk in a Washington, D.C. store, an officer of the U.S. Navy named Robert Peary drops in.

From this chance meeting and his knowledge of navigation, Matthew Henson is hired as a “butler” to Peary. The business relationship works out well. In 1891, the fortunate lad is part of Peary’s crew that makes several exploration trips to Greenland in the Arctic Circle.

Matthew Henson and the Inuit People

As seems to be the pattern of his life, Matthew makes the most of his experiences. He learns the Inuit customs, survival skills, and develops a genuine and personal bond with them.

Next Stop, North Pole

A remarkable and determined man, Peary had the ultimate goal of being the first humanimages (1) to set foot on the geographic location of the North Pole. Peary outfitted the USS Roosevelt for Arctic ice conditions. 

On July 8, 1908, as noted in Matthew Henson’s journal, they slowly sailed out of New York harbor. In March 1909, the crew left the ship at Cape Sheridan at Canada’s northern tip. They began their daring and dangerous trek 413 nautical miles across the ice to their historic destination. 

It was 57 degrees below 0.

The Crew

The crew included Peary, Henson, and other professional polar explorers. Also, four Inuit people, named Ooqueah, Ootah, Egingwah, and Seeglo, who proved vital to the expedition. They had dogs, sleds, scientific equipment, and weather gear.

They built igloos, ate powdered dried meat, and faced impossible odds. Some did not survive.

download (31)Oops!

On April 1, 1909, Peary selected only Henson and four Inuits to make the final approach to the coveted site. They planted the American flag and made camp.

When they took scientific measurements to prove their success, they found they had overshot the geographic goal. In retracing their steps to the accurate site, it appears that Matthew Henson was actually the first human footprint in the frozen tundra of the true North Pole.

After the North Pole

Back to Etah, Greenland and on to New York, the survivors spread the astounding news of the discovery. Peary’s contribution was received with wild acclaim. But Matthew and the Inuits basically sank back into oblivion. Henson went to work at the Customs House in New York.

Fame, At Last

download (32)In time, Matthew Alexander Henson received the well-deserved recognition for his achievements. Among many other honorary events in his name, a major glacier in Greenland is named the Henson Glacier.

He was made an honorary member of the prestigious Explorers Club. The U.S. Navy awards him a medal. President Eisenhower receives him at the White House. A 22-cent postage stamp is released with Henson and Peary’s images. The National Geographic Society awards him a medal of recognition.

The End

Matthew Henson died in 1955. In 1988, his grave was moved next to the resting place of Grave_Marker_Matthew_Henson_Arlington_National_CemeteryPeary at the Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C. A crowd gathered to celebrate his life and his example of perseverance. In attendance was his Inuit son, a legacy of his love for the land and people that live at the top of the world.

Wow! Pretty cool, don’t you think all you Smarty Pants that love adventure? Look for other  Smarty Pants “biographies” about people that did extraordinary things! 

Visit your Library. You can read more about this historic event in Matthew Henson’s own words in his autobiography; A Negro Explorer at the North Pole.

Categories: History

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