The portrait of Matthew Henson



Matthew Alexander Henson was born in 1866 to freeborn sharecroppers. When he was four the family moved from Maryland to Washington DC, but he was still a youth when his parents, Lemuel and Caroline, died. He was sent to live with his uncle, who payed for his education until he died. After his uncles death, Matthew got a job as a dishwasher at “Janey’s Home-Cooked Meals Cafe”

Henson ran away and, aged 12, went to sea for the first time as a cabin boy. It was at this point that Henson met the first of the two men who would shape his destiny. Captain Childs, Henson’s first skipper, educated the boy not only in the ways of the sea but also in more scholarly subjects. Following the death of Childs, Henson returned to Washington and found a job as a furrier.

In 1886 Robert Peary entered the store with some furs he had brought back from the Arctic. The pair took a shine to each other and Peary asked henson to become his personal assistant for his trip to Nicaragua in 1887, the start of the partnership that culminated in the journey to the North Pole 22 years later.

Peary wrote in a magazine article in 1910 that Henson “can handle a sledge better, and is probably a better dog-driver than any other man living”. He also praised his companion’s “adaptability and fitness for the work… and his loyality”. Despite this glowing tribute, Henson’s role in Peary’s triumph was downplayed because of his colour and it wasn’t until 1937 that he was made an honorary member of the Explorers Club in New York.

When Matthew Henson died in 1955 he was buried in the Bronx but 33 years later he was reinterred in the Arlington national cemetery, alongside Peary.

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