Matthew Henson, an African American explorer who was born in Charles County Maryland on August 8, 1866, was the first person in history to reach the North Pole.
At a young age, he was orphaned and lived with his aunt in Washington DC. However, he quit school in order to be a sailor. At the age of 12, he joined Captain Child’s crew on the merchant ship Katie Hinds traveling around the world for six years. He became an expert at charting and navigating.
At age of 20, Henson was discovered by an explorer named Robert E. Peary, who was impressed with the breadth of his geographical knowledge and experience. As a result, Peary invited Henson to join him for an expedition designed to investigate the feasibility of a canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through Nicaragua.
After that expedition, Henson and Peary undertook seven more expeditions with the goal of becoming the first to reach the North Pole, which was Peary’s dream.
Because of how difficult the mission was, they failed six times. Nevertheless, this didn’t stop them from planning the seventh expedition. For it, Henson taught himself how to build sleds, how to master a team of dogs, and how to speak the Inuit language. Henson invested many hours of study to make the corresponding calculations.
All of the hard work and planning paid off because, on April 6, 1909, Matthew Henson arrived at the North Pole and planted the American flag. He arrived 45 minutes ahead of Peary whose progress was a lot slower because he lost several toes to frostbite.
Sadly, it wasn’t until more than 30 years later in 1945 that Henson received the Navy Medal from Congress, and it wasn’t until 1961 that a plaque was erected in his honor at the State House at Annapolis, Maryland.
Henson died in the Bronx, New York City on March 9, 1955, at the age of 88. In 1988, his remains were moved to Arlington National Cemetery, where he was buried with full honors next to his friend, Robert Peary.
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