Matt's place in history
Donald McMillan said Matt was:
"...a better man than any of us."
Legendary African-American Arctic explorer Matthew Henson was born
into poverty, ran away from home and went to sea at age 12. Yet he
grew up to become a famous American hero whose long term partnership
with Robert E. Peary allowed them to discover the North Pole in 1909.
Today Matthew Henson is remembered as a truly remarkable and well
loved man; one who helped others, never spoke unkindly or harbored
anger, was enthusiastic, and highly skilled in many disciplines. When
men were starving and no food could be hunted, Henson declared he
would find game - and he returned with fresh meat to keep them alive.
When others could not go on, he carried them home. When even the
indomitable Peary felt they were going to die he gained courage when
he looked at Matthews face.
Henson's partnership with the Inuit people contributed to the
astounding success of the
1909 North Pole
expedition. The Inuit people made a legend of Henson, whom they
called "Matthew the kind one." However, what should have been a
glorious public reception was turned into a bitter nightmare of
controversy when hoaxer, con artist, and later Federal Prisoner #
23118, Dr. Frederick Cook, claimed he
reached the Pole a year earlier. The public was bitterly
confused and divided by Dr. Cook for several
months until Cook's lies became his downfall. Permanent damage had
been done to the honor of the 1909 expedition team.
The public of 1910
had no place for an African-American hero; so Henson was never given
the recognition he earned through the 18 years and 7 highly dangerous,
difficult Arctic journeys he endured with Peary. His rewards and
recognition came gradually. In the 1930's he was made a member of the
New York Explorers Club of which Peary had once been the President.
All the other famous explorers knew how valuable Matt had been at the
North Pole. Freuchen, Stefansson, MacMillan, Bartlett and others kept
close friendships with him.
Henson's biography, Dark Companion, was
written by my father with Matt in 1947. His entire life story was
finally told, the book was a success, and Matt began to be recognized
for his vital role in reaching the Pole. He was interviewed by the
press and spoke on radio. President Eisenhower hosted Matt and his
wife Lucy at the White House. His funeral was well attended by his
many friends, my parents, and fellow members of the New York Explorers
Club. Today his spirit lives on to inspire each new generation with
tales of his courage, accomplishments and above all exceptional
Matt has been memorialized in many ways. There is a
Henson school in the county where he was
born, the USNS Henson sails the world's
oceans, a dozen books in print about him are
sold over the Internet, thousands visit his grave site next to Admiral
Peary's in Arlington National Cemetery.
Henson is commemorated in US Postal stamps,
plaques, and medals. Delroy Lindo
recently portrayed him in a highly successful TNT
movie. Dr. S. Allen Counter of Harvard has located
Henson's Inuit family. Dr. Counter was
responsible for the Hubbard Medal award and
can be heard on the
BBC audio program.