In Nanjemoy, Maryland, on August 8, 1866, a freeborn sharecropper family gave birth to Matthew Henson. After emancipation and the end of the Civil War, it had been a year. Henson, an African-American who was among the first free people to travel the globe after slavery was abolished, led a remarkable life of exploration and discovery that helped to establish the contemporary age of adventure that is now going strong in the twenty-first century.
Henson, who was orphaned at a young age, overcame his adversity with exceptional bravery and persistence. He enlisted as a cabin boy on the Katie Hines, a three-masted sailing ship, when he was just 12 years old. Henson acquired an education, picked up a number of technical skills, became a capable sailor, and explored the world for the following six years while being guided by Captain Childs, visiting the then-Orient, North Africa, and the Black Sea.
In 1887, Capt. Childs passed away. Henson left the Katie Hines after his death to work as a shop assistant for a furrier in Washington, D.C. Henson was still highly interested in a life of travel and adventure, despite the fact that his time at sea as a sailor was in the past. Thus, it was no mere coincidence when a naval officer strolled into the store one day to sell a collection of seal and walrus furs that had recently returned from a Greenland mission. Robert Peary was impressed by Henson’s background and desire to travel more of the world, so he employed him as his personal assistant almost right away and encouraged him to participate in his subsequent project.
Peary, a member of the Navy Corps of Civil Engineers, was tasked with mapping and exploring Nicaragua’s jungles in order to build a canal that would connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The following two years were spent by Henson and Peary trekking through the Central American rainforests; this trip solidified their friendship and tied their futures together for the rest of their lives.
Peary assisted Henson in obtaining employment as a messenger at the League Island Naval Yard in Philadelphia after their return from Nicaragua. Peary once more requested Henson to join his company while on leave from the Navy to do additional exploration in Greenland. The two friends’ 18-year relationship in Arctic exploration began in 1891, during which time they completely mapped the Greenland ice sheet. Henson Peary and his partner located the northernmost point of the vast island. Additionally, they uncovered three gigantic meteor fragments during two missions in 1896 and 1897, which would turn out to be some of the largest ever discovered.
Henson served as Peary’s right-hand man as he embarked on his final voyage to the North Pole in 1909. The two men and four Inuit guides made it to the Pole on April 6, 1909, despite many obstacles, including the deaths of many team members and many dogs.
Peary was celebrated as the expedition’s hero, but Henson’s achievements received little attention. Henson wasn’t given the credit he deserved until many years after the fact, when the full depth of his contribution to the trip was made clear. People are still motivated by Henson’s reputation as an African-American explorer and trailblazer.
Peary and Henson’s friendship served as a shining example of how respect for differences in race may result in great achievement. Henson was hired as Peary’s personal assistant against the biases of the time in society because of his intelligence, experience, and skills. Peary and Henson developed a strong friendship over time based on mutual respect and trust that enabled them to go across some of the world’s most dangerous and hostile terrain. The mission benefited greatly from Henson’s understanding of the Inuit way of life and language, which helped them build relationships with the locals and secure supplies.
Peary treated Henson as an equal, never as a subordinate, and this contributed to the team’s pleasant and peaceful atmosphere. Their friendship extended beyond only their work relationships. They were able to overcome the many obstacles they encountered and eventually attain their goal of the North Pole thanks in large part to the mutual trust and respect they had for one another. Their friendship serves as a reminder that great things are possible when people from all racial, cultural, and social backgrounds work together in an atmosphere of respect.
It takes extraordinary guts and tenacity to explore the hostile and uncharted Arctic, like Matthew Henson did. He set off on an adventure to one of the world’s most remote and hazardous locations, where he had to contend with extreme weather, perilous ice, and the constant fear of starvation and disease. Henson faced numerous challenges, but he never lost focus on his goal of getting to the North Pole. A tribute to his character and soul is his readiness to accept this task and his unfailing resiliency in the face of difficulty.
In addition to being the first African American to reach the North Pole, Henson’s trip achieved significant advances in science and geography. Understanding the earth’s climate and geology required thorough mapping and research of the Arctic region. A greater understanding of the indigenous people and their way of life was also made possible by Henson’s familiarity with Inuit culture and language. His expedition also played a significant role in the advancement of contemporary technology and modes of transportation, such as the use of dog sleds and knowledge of ice navigation.
In addition to becoming a trailblazer for African Americans, Henson also pushed the boundaries of human endurance and achievement. His legacy continues to inspire people today. His journey was not only a spectacular accomplishment in and of itself, but it also advanced science and knowledge and influenced how we view the world.