Matthew Henson: the pioneering African-American Arctic adventurer

Marcel Theroux

Passport details
Matthew Alexander Henson, perhaps the first person to the North Pole. Born Charles County, Maryland, US, 8 August 1866.

Claim to fame
Matthew Henson, the descendant of slaves, has a plausible claim to being the first explorer to reach the North Pole. He grew up in Washington DC and Baltimore, was orphaned and left school at 12 to be a cabin boy. When he was 22, a chance encounter with naval engineer Robert Peary resulted in a lifelong working relationship, including 18 years of Arctic exploration. On 6 April 1909, Henson, Peary and four Inuit drove their dogsleds to the North Pole – or as near as makes no difference. Peary took the credit for being first, but a newspaper article on their return quoted Henson as saying he’d been part of a leading group that had overshot the pole by several miles: “We went back then and I could see my footprints were the first at the spot.”

Supporting documentation
Henson’s engaging 1912 memoir, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole, reads like a Boy’s Own Adventure. Henson’s dog-handling skills, fluent Inuit and all-round resourcefulness were key to the expedition’s success. “I have a steady job carpentering, also interpreting, barbering, tailoring, dog-training,” he writes. The warmth of his response to the Inuit is striking: “I have come to love these people … They are my friends and regard me as theirs.” The memoir’s final page includes the names of 218 Inuit from Smith Sound, on Canada’s Ellesmere Island. Among them are Akatingwah, Henson’s Inuit lover, and Ahnaukaq, their son.

Matthew Henson in his Arctic gear in 1909. Photograph: Getty Images

Distinguishing marks
Henson lived a long life. Photographs show him on board ship and as a genial old codger, but the most arresting image was taken after that dash to the pole: he peers out of his fur parka, quietly challenging assumptions of what an Arctic explorer might look like to some.

Last sighted
Henson lived the rest of his life in relative obscurity, working as a clerk for US Customs, and died in 1955. He married twice, and had no children apart from Ahnaukaq Henson, who, in 1987, at the age of 80, achieved his lifetime ambition of visiting the land of his father’s birth.

Intrepidness rating
Obstacles he faced included ice floes, snowstorms, frostbite and racism: 9.