Celebrate Black History Month by reading about a little known explorer who helped find the North Pole.


Library of Congress

In honor of Black History Month, staff member Raul Becerra shares info on important but lesser known figures like Matthew Henson.

Raul Becerra, Copy Editor

February is Black History Month, and to celebrate this, we will take a look at some of the little known and influential black figures. This year, we will take a look at Matthew Alexander Henson.


Born in 1866, Matthew was orphaned as a youth. He went to sea at the age of 12 to become a cabin boy on the sailing ship Katie Hines. Later during his life, he met Robert E. Peary, an explorer, who hired him.


Matthew would join Robert in many expeditions. Their first trip was to Nicaragua. Matthew would later join Robert in an expedition to Greenland, where Henson embraced Eskimo culture, learning their language and Arctic survival skills.


Their next voyage in Greenland would be more dangerous, with their goal of charting the entire ice cap. This two-year journey tested the limits of these explorers, forcing them to eat all but one of their sled dogs. The team survived, however, and sold their two meteorites to the Museum of Natural History to fund future expeditions.


Matthew and Peary would make several attempts to the North Pole. Their first attempt in 1902 proved to be unsuccessful. They made more progress on their 1905 trip because they were backed by President Roosevelt. They had to turn around because of a giant ice block.


The team’s final attempt to the North Pole was in 1908: Matthew proved to be an invaluable team member, as he built sleds and taught others how to handle them. He was such a great team member, that Peary would state at the time, “Henson must go all the way. I can’t make it there without him.” On April 6, 1909, Matthew, Peary, four Eskimos, and 40 dogs, finally made it to the North Pole.


When they returned, Peary received much praise for his accomplishments, but Matthew was forgotten because of his race. Matthew would spend the next three decades working as a clerk. In 1944, he finally got the recognition he deserved. He was awarded a Congressional Medal.


The life of Matthew is really interesting and exciting. His life plays like an adventure book. It’s sad that he remains somewhat unknown to many people.


To learn more about Matthew Henson, click this link