Matthew Henson

Matthew Henson

(1866-1955)

DJ Name: MatthYOUUUU(soulja boy tell ‘em)

Everyone knows that Santa Claus lives in the North Pole with Mrs. Claus, who bakes lots of snowflake-shaped cookies, and their posse of elves and reindeer. But lots of people are unaware that someone else once stepped foot on that barren land of ice and snow on a mission to locate Santa’s workshop, and he didn’t even have Rudolph to help guide his sleigh. Nay, Matthew Henson made much of the trek on foot, plus with 70 tons of whale meat. While he was trudging up snowy mountains and spelunking in igloos, Matthew shuffled up a playlist that kept his heart warm and fuzzy, even on the coldest of nights. 

Press play and listen to his favorite tunes while we take you back in time to learn about this very cold and very bold adventurer.

Matthew Alexander Henson was born on August 8, 1866, to sharecropper parents who were free Black Americans prior to the Civil War. He grew up in Nanjemoy, Maryland, which is situated right off the Potomac River and about an hour’s drive from Washington, D.C. Matthew’s life was turned upside down when he became orphaned at 12 years old. Left with no dowry, no money, no family background (oops, that’s Tevye’s daughters who fiddled on roofs but also Matthew who did not fiddle on roofs), he signed on to be a cabin boy (basically he was employed to wait on the ship’s officers and passengers) aboard a three-masted sailing ship called the Katie Hines. He spent the next six years sailin’ the seas and seizin’ the day. Captain Childs served as his mentor aboard the Katie Hines, teaching him how to read and write, along with a variety of technical skills and how to be a competent sailor. Plus, he got the opportunity to sail all around the world, passing through North Africa, the Black Sea and parts of Asia — all before he was 18. 

After Captain Childs passed away in 1887, Matthew said “sea” ya later to the Katie Hines and took a job as a shop clerk in D.C. However, he wasn’t totally enamored by his new landlubbing life, and he longed to explore more. So it was if the universe was giving Matthew a sign and a path back to a life of adventure when Robert Peary entered the shop one day while Matthew was working. Robert, who had done his own fair share of exploring, had entered the shop to sell his collection of seal and walrus pelts that he’d accumulated during his expedition in Greenland. The two got to talking, and Robert offered Matthew the role of Robert’s Personal Assistant and said “Adventure is Out There!” and invited him to take part in his next assignment.

Matthew said heck yeah, and the two got to work mapping and exploring Nicargua’s jungles. The goal was to hopefully be able to construct a canal that would connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. For two years, the tag team of Matthew and Robert had the reign of Central America’s rainforests and they became the closest of pals as they learned to rely on each other.

They returned back to the States for a quick minute around 1890, where they drifted into separate jobs, but they rekindled their exploratory bromance in 1891 when they rendezvoused for an Arctic adventure. For this 18-year partnership, they aimed to create a complete mapping of the Greenland ice cap. For a land that is supposed to be Green, Greenland sure had a whole lotta ice to study. 

Together, this dynamic duo dawdled all around the Arctic and completed two expeditions in 1896 and 1897 that led them to recover three big meteor fragments that they sold to the American Museum of Natural History in New York for $40,000. That money helped sustain their Arctic expeditions for another 10 years.

Perhaps because Robert was white and Matthew was Black, coupled with Robert’s veteran status, Robert was definitely the face of the group. People knew him, but Matthew played an immeasurably important role behind the scenes. Matthew’s skills as a carpenter and craftsman allowed him to craft and maintain all of the sledges (picture dog sleds) they used in their expeditions. He was also fluent in Inuit, and he struck up friendships with some of the Arctic natives. They also taught him survival and travel skills in the Arctic’s harsh environment, which was super helpful for their expeditions. 

A big moment for their expedition team came in 1906 when they trekked within just 174 miles of the North Pole (and Santa’s workshop!) via ship using a state-of-the-art ice breaker. With the help of Theodore Roosevelt, the team set sail on a three-masted, steam-powered schooner named none other than the Roosevelt, and the team made it closer to the North Pole than any other team in history. But it was still too “schoon” for them to make it all the way to the North Pole because of dangerous conditions, inadequate supplies and technology, and a terrifying security force of elves to face. 

Two years later, though, it was time to try again. Both Robert and Matthew had reached the big four-oh, and they realized that this would probs have to be their last exploration over the hill due to their age. They once again boarded the Roosevelt and headed out from New York Harbor on July 6, 1908. Less than four months earlier, James Madison University was founded in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Both were important events, OK? The plan was to deposit loads of food and gear along the way with small teams, and then just a small group of six people would complete the full journey to the North Pole. On September 5, 1908 the bundled up, rag-tag team of ‘splorers, which consisted of Henson, Peary and four Inuit pals, gathered at Cape Sheridan where they spent the long winter storing supplies of meat like deer and rabbit. Several of the wives of the Inuit men came along to sew clothing they would need as well. The team harnessed up their reindeer, checked their lists twice and took to the skies as they soared into the North Pole over frozen lakes and mountains. OK. Maybe not.

However, led by Henson, the crew did hit the road (read: snowy paths) on March 1, 1909 and they spent the next five weeks racing towards the North Pole in the cold. It was cold like 65 degrees BELOW zero cold. Have you ever been that chilly? Same. Sledging across the literal tundra, Henson and the squad faced cracking ice, snow and patches of open water (yikes). Matthew Henson wrote that the team raced for stretches of 12-14 hours in their sledges and were determined to make it through the horrendous conditions in an effort to beat any melting ice and power through the blinding mist. In April, though, they could smell Mrs. Claus’ cookies and knew they made it. 

OK well, so what really happened was that one morning the sun kinda shone through the misty conditions and Henson, who was in the lead sled during this expedition, documented that based on their glimpse of the sky they were only a few days away and on course to meet the North Pole. At the end of a long day’s trek and when the light was seemingly at the end of the ice, Henson wrote, “We were in good spirits and none of us were cold.” UH. WHAT? We’re cold just writing about him. 

When the team arrived in the North Pole it was somewhat anticlimactic because they couldn’t take measurements of their location based on the sun at noon when it was evening and the sun was…well…not out. So Henson’s pal Peary took those measurements the next day at noon and confirmed that they were in fact standing in the Pole of the North itself. Who got there first? Historic Shuffler Henson that’s who! As the leader of the group, he was the first to set sled into the North Pole and even went so far as to overshoot the mark. However when Henson and Peary returned home, Peary received acknowledgement for discovering the North Pole while Henson was just his companion. This was due to the fact that he was an African-American man and given the discrimination he faced based on the color of his skin, people couldn’t face up to the fact that a Black man discovered the North Pole. 

After the celebration of the North Pole’s discovery, Peary and Henson went their separate ways. Peary stayed in the spotlight of fame as a big time explorer who was promoted to Rear Admiral and traveled the world until his death on February 20, 1920. Meanwhile, Matthew Henson took a job as a clerk with the federal customs house in Manhattan per recommendation of Theodore Roosevelt. He spent the next 30-ish years living and working a quieter life than he was used to. 

Eventually, Henson’s contribution and leadership for the discovery of the North Pole (and Santa!) was recognized by The Explorers Club of New York and credit was finally given where credit was due. Henson was awarded the same medal from the U.S. Navy that Peary received for his brave, adventuring spirit and exploratory genius. And, President Eisenhower invited Henson to the White House in April 1954 for a special tribute for his work as an explorer. Matthew Henson passed away a year later on March 9, 1955 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery where he was laid to rest with full military honors near his pal, Robert Peary.

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