The Arctic Hero the History Books Forgot – Matthew Henson

Many important names are missing from our history books, because history reflects those by which it was written.

For decades, or even centuries, we would be forgiven to think that reaching unchartered territories was solely the occupation of white men. Edmund Hillary, Neil Armstrong and Marco Polo are names well-known to most. The Arctic experts among you might also have heard of Robert Peary, the man cited as the first person to reach the North Pole in 1909.

But in fact, that might not be true.

Robert Peary was accompanied by Matthew Henson. Henson most likely stepped foot at the North Pole first, a man who embarked on every one of the eight trips to reach the Arctic over almost 20 years and who was integral to its success.

So why did Henson only receive the US Navy medal for his achievement, more than three decades after Peary?

Because Henson was black. As a result of the divisive race relations in American society at the time, and for many years afterwards, his achievements were not recognised. To celebrate Black History Month, it felt fitting to shine a light on Henson’s contribution to Arctic exploration.

Henson was born in 1866 America, a year after emancipation and the end of the Civil War. He was orphaned at a young age. At 12 he became a cabin boy, which was the start of his life of exploration.

In his early twenties, Henson met Robert Peary, a navy officer, who hired Henson as his assistant. Together they mapped the rainforests of central America, with the aim of creating a canal to connect the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific – afterall, much exploration at the time was about increasing trade.

By 1891 their quest to map the Greenland ice cap, and eventually reach the North Pole, began.

Along the way they faced constant hazards and temperatures that fell to -50°C, an unimaginable expedition without the gear and advanced technology that we have today. Their quest, and their ultimately successful mission, is detailed in Henson’s autobiography, The Negro at the North Pole.

Unlike Peary, Henson’s contribution to this effort fell into obscurity and he received very little acknowledgement until almost 30 years later when The Explorers Club of New York made him an honorary member. In 1954 he received a special commendation for his early work from President Eisenhower.

Yet Henson was not the only one to fade into the background of Peary’s success. Similarly to many expeditions, reaching the North Pole would not have been possible without the help of indigenous people familiar with the conditions. Accounts point to Henson’s profound respect for the Inuit people, their language and customs. He considered them as partners in this voyage, in a way that he himself was not remembered. 

Henson’s life serves as an example of the power of determination, cooperation and unity. It reminds us that the spirit of adventure knows no boundaries. Exploration is a testament to the human capacity to push beyond limits and discover and learn about the world. So, here’s to celebrating Henson’s legacy and the importance of recognising the stories of diverse explorers who have shaped our world.

Written by Climate Change Communicator, Katie Moss.