Matthew Henson, the first man to see the North Pole, was bom in Charles County, Mary¬ land, where he lost his mother when he was only two, and his father when he was eight. He went to live with an uncle in Washing¬ ton, DC, but quit school when he decided to be a sailor.
Running away at the age of 12, Henson joined Captain Child’s crew on the merchant ship Katie Hinds. As Child’s cabin boy, Henson left Baltimore and travelled around the world for six years —- over the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, into the China and Baltic seas and through the Straits of Magellan.
Henson became an expert at charting and navigating before returning to Washington, DC, where he was discovered by the explorer Admiral Robert E. Peary. Peary walked into a clothing store to find Henson, an expert seaman who had retired from the sea before the age of 20, now clerking in a clothing store.
Impressed with the breadth of Henson’s knowledge and experience, Peary invited him to join an expedition designed to investigate the feasibility of a canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through Nicaragua. Henson accepted.
The Nicaragua Expedition quickly showed Peary what an invaluable associate Henson could be. When they were home again, Peary revealed that his dream had always been to be the first man to reach the North Pole, and during their 20 year associ¬ ation, Peary and Henson undertook seven expeditions with this goal in mind.
Six times they were halted by the cru¬ dest conditions, sometimes within a few hundred miles of their destination. Never¬ theless, they began to plan the seventh expedition. Henson had taught himself to build sledges, speak the Inuit language, and master a team of dogs, so when six dog teams left Crane City, Greenland in 1908, it was with Matthew Henson in the lead.
He covered 35 miles the first day and rose early on the second to lead Peary and a team of Inuit experts towards the top of the world. On April 6, 1909, Matthew Henson arrived at the North Pole, followed by his Inuit guides and Commander Peary.
Robert Peary, whose progress was slow¬ er after losing several toes to frostbite, con¬ firmed Henson’s calculations, participated in about 30 hours of study, and planted the American flag.
It wasn’t until 1945 that Henson received the Navy Medal from Congress, and not until 1961 that a plaque was erected in his honor at the State House at Annapolis, Maryland. In 1988, Henson’s remains were moved to Arlington National Cemetery, where he was buried with full honors next to Robert Peary.