Fascinated by stories of the sea as a young boy, Matthew Henson hungered to explore the world and break trails where few men dared to step. Born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1866 to freeborn sharecroppers, Henson experienced a tumultuous childhood. Raised in Charles County, Maryland, Henson’s mother died when he was only two years old. His father, Lemuel Henson; re-married a woman named Nellie, but died in 1874, leaving Matthew to be raised by his stepmother.
Due to the stress of raising children on her own, Henson’s stepmother was very abusive to him. At 11 years old, after suffering a severe beating by his stepmother, Henson ran away from home to Washington, DC. There he was befriended by Captain Childs of the merchant ship the Katie Hines. Childs hired Henson as a cabin boy and treated him like a son, teaching him math, history and navigation. Henson traveled around the world with Childs to places such as China, Japan and the Black Sea.
When Henson was 17, Childs died, forcing Matthew to abandon his sea life and work odd jobs in Boston, Providence, Buffalo and New York. Eventually, Henson returned to DC, taking a job at a fur shop. In 1887, engineer and explorer Robert Peary visited the shop to sell the owner some furs he obtained on a recent hunting trip to the artic. Talking with the owner, Peary explained he was in search of an assistant to join him on his voyage to Nicaragua. The US government hired Peary to explore the possibility of building a canal that would connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The Panama Canal would eventually be built in 1914.
The fur shop owner recommended Peary hire the 21 year old Henson, explaining he was an experienced seaman. During their two year trip to Nicaragua, Peary was so impressed by Henson’s mapmaking and carpentry skills that he asked Henson to join him as a fellow explorer in his life-long quest to be the first man to reach the North Pole.
In 1891, Peary invited Henson to join him in more exploration of Greenland. Henson eagerly accepted and married Eva Flint prior to embarking on his voyage. During their first exploration to Greenland in 1891, Henson quickly learned the Eskimo language and Artic survival skills such as building camp, breaking trails and driving dog teams. For the next 18 years, Henson’s survival skills proved critical in Peary’s repeated explorations of the Artic.
In 1906, before embarking on his final exploration with Peary to discover the North Pole, Henson married his second wife, Lucy Jane Ross. His marriage to Eva Flint ended earlier in divorce because of Henson’s constant travels. On July 6, 1908, Henson was 40 when he set sail with the 50 year old Peary on the USS Roosevelt for their final attempt to reach the North Pole. In addition to Henson, Peary’s team included five other explorers. They spent six months in the piercing cold above the Artic circle, preparing to strike out toward the Pole in the spring.
Storms, sub-freezing temperatures and breaks in icepacks called “leads” make Artic explorations extremely dangerous. As supplies ran out, Peary’s team members retreated, leaving Henson and Peary, along with their Eskimo guides alone to reach the Pole. Henson’s ‘dead reckoning’ ability, also known as innate sense of direction, led him to out run Peary and become the first man to reach the North Pole on April 9, 1909. Peary, who had frostbitten feet, was being pulled in the snow by their Eskimo companions and reached the Pole 45 minutes later.
Upon returning to the Roosevelt, Peary and Henson learned Dr. Frederick Cook was falsely claiming he had reached the North Pole a full year earlier. The National Geographic Society investigated Cook’s claim and determined it was a hoax. Unfortunately, Cook’s hoax robbed Peary and Henson of the public accolades they should have received at the time.
Eventually, Peary was honored as the sole discoverer of the North Pole, while Henson received almost no recognition for his contribution. This lack of public recognition for his monumental achievement forced Henson to work as a civil servant, living his life in obscurity while Peary received numerous accolades and died as a well known explorer. Determined to set the record straight, in 1946 the Explorers Club of New York City made Henson an honorary member and the club worked diligently to get Henson recognized as the first discoverer of the North Pole.
The club’s effort’s paid off. In 1954 President Dwight Eisenhower presented Henson with an award honoring his extraordinary achievement. Henson died March 9, 1955 and was buried in the Bronx. On the 79th anniversary of the discovery of the North Pole, President Ronald Reagan granted permission for Henson to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery, next to Robert Peary.
In his autobiography A Negro at the North Pole, published in 1912, Henson acknowledged he was inspired by Frederick Douglass to make an achievement in life that would bring recognition to all Blacks. Written on his tombstone is a quote from his autobiography: “The lure of the Artic is tugging at my heart. To me the trail is calling. The old trail. The trail that is always new.“ Henson’s enormous accomplishment shows mankind dreams beckon within us all and can be turned into reality if we simply follow the trail that calls us.
In honor of Henson’s great achievement, HIA Toys is proud to offer our Trailblazer action figure.