History | February 23, 2021 7:00 am

Remembering Matthew Henson, The First Person to Reach the North Pole

Despite his 1909 milestone, you may have never heard of the African-American explorer

Matthew Henson and wife with President Eisenhower
Matthew Henson, who reached the North Pole in 1909, helps President Eisenhower locate the spot on the globe during a visit to the White House.
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Sometimes it can take decades for society to properly credit those who made history. Matthew Henson is a particular case in point. Henson was the first explorer to reach the North Pole in 1909, though for years much of the credit went to one of his cohorts on the same mission, Robert Peary. That Peary was white and Henson was Black explains why Henson may not have gotten his due until much later, the United States of 1909 not being the most racially enlightened of nations.

Writing at Messy Nessy Chic, Francky Knapp explained why Henson’s polar milestone was only part of his impressive career. His set of skills were crucial to the expedition. “He studied and spoke Inuktitut better than any other Westerner on the expedition,” Knapp writes, “leading to successful trade and navigation relations with the local Inuit.”

Peary met Henson when the latter was 21, and hired him after learning that Henson had spent nearly half of his life up until that point traveling the world. He accompanied Peary on numerous expeditions and was the first to reach the North Pole during a period of time in the Arctic when Peary fell ill.

As the years passed, Henson’s achievement was more broadly recognized; he was honored at the White House and was posthumously awarded the National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Medal. Henson and Peary were also jointly featured on a postage stamp issued in 1986.

As Knapp’s article points out, Henson’s life story could easily lend itself to a film or miniseries. His life and work have also inspired a number of contemporary artists, including Isaac Julien’s True North and Terry Adkins’s Nutjuitok (Polar Star). It’s a wide-ranging influence for a wide-ranging life.