A very happy 146th birthday to Matthew Henson!
Matt Henson is a seriously cool historical figure. He went to sea at 12 as a cabin boy, where he learnt valuable navigational and seafaring skills. His talents caught explorer Robert Peary’s eye in the late 1880s when the two met in Washington, DC. Overall, Henson accompanied Peary on six different Arctic expeditions over the next 20 years. Henson’s ultimate achievement was being one of the six men to reach the North Pole in April of 1909 (along with Peary and Inuit guides Odaq, Sigluk, Iggianguaq, and Ukkujaaq).
Peary frequently praised Henson’s abilities in the Arctic, and he was undoubtedly one of the most talented and necessary members of any of Peary’s expeditions - an expert dog driver, Henson also was fluent in Inuktitut and was called Miy Paluk (“Matthew the kind one”) by the Inuit members of the expedition. But the racial climate of 1909 meant that Henson, a black man, was generally ignored for his contributions.
Fortunately, the US started to get its act together in terms of racial equality, and Henson was belatedly honored with a Chicago Geographic Society medal that had been awarded earlier to the white members of the expedition shortly before his death in 1955. The US civil rights movement of the 1960s reignited interest in his status as a black explorer, and he received widespread posthumous recognition and accolades. Today, he is recognized as one of the most talented Arctic explorers of his time, and certainly as a pioneering black American. - M