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Biography of Matthew Henson


In 1908 explorer Robert Peary set out to reach the North Pole. His mission began with 24 men, 19 sledges and 133 dogs. By April of the following year, Peary had four men, 40 dogs and his most trusted and loyal team member—Matthew Henson.

As the team trudged through the Arctic, Peary said, “Henson must go all the way. I can’t make it there without him.”

On April 6, 1909, Peary and Henson became the first men in history to reach the North Pole.

Early Life

Henson was born Matthew Alexander Henson in Charles County, Md. On August 8, 1866. His parents worked as sharecroppers.

Following the death of his mother in 1870, Henson’s father moved the family to Washington D.C. By Henson’s tenth birthday, his father also died, leaving him and his siblings as orphans.

At the age of eleven, Henson ran away from home and within a year he was working on a ship as a cabin boy. While working on the ship, Henson became the mentee of Captain Childs, who taught him not only to read and write, but also navigation skills.

Henson returned to Washington D.C. after Childs’ death and worked with a furrier.

While working with the furrier, Henson met Peary who would enlist Henson’s services as a valet during travel expeditions.

Life as an Explorer  

Peary and Henson embarked on an expedition of Greenland in 1891. During this time period, Henson became interested in learning about the Eskimo culture. Henson and Peary spent two years in Greenland, learning the language and various survival skills that Eskimos used.

For the next several years Henson would accompany Peary on several expeditions to Greenland to collect meteorites which were sold to the American Museum of Natural History.

The proceeds of Peary and Henson’s findings in Greenland would fund expeditions as they tried to reach the North Pole. In 1902, the team attempted to reach the North Pole only to have several Eskimo members die from starvation.

But by 1906 with the financial support of former President Theodore Roosevelt, Peary and Henson were able to purchase a vessel