Who Needs A GPS When You Have Matthew Henson

Matthew Henson 1910/Unknown/Wikimedia/Public Domain

August 28, 2017

History would have us believe that a Black Eskimo was as fictive as Santa Claus. But here’s a simple truth: the North pole was discovered by a Black man. That’s right.

Contrary to popular belief, Lewis & Clark and Christopher Columbus were not the only ones interested in exploring the world.

Matthew Henson was practically a walking GPS. Orphaned at age 11, he found home aboard a ship in Baltimore working as a cabin helper. He honed his navigation skills while traveling to countries across Asia, Africa, and Europe.

Taking a keen interest in Henson, Captain Childs taught him everything he knew about seamanship in addition to how to write and read. By the time Henson was 22, he had credentials that surpassed even those of men who had extensive naval experience.

Notable seafarer Robert Peary caught wind of Henson’s unparalleled abilities and insisted on meeting him. As Peary was gearing up for a journey across the Arctic, he soon realized he needed Henson on his team if he stood any chance of completing the trek.

Early attempts at reaching the globe’s northernmost point had ended in tragedy with dozens of crew members and over 100 sled dogs dying along the way, so Henson knew the feat would be a daunting challenge.

Henson fully immersed himself in Inuit Culture during the trip by learning the native language, mastering the art of training sled dogs, and hunting wild game. Peary said, “[Henson] was more Eskimo than some of them,” which was a well-deserved compliment.

One early brisk morning, Henson set off on his own to explore the Arctic. With no map in sight, he stumbled within a few miles of the North Pole before running out of rations. When he returned to the camp, he told the crew what he had discovered and they left immediately.

On April 6, 1909, Henson along with Peary, four Eskimos, and 40 sled dogs became the first to ever officially reach the North Pole.

Unfortunately, Henson did not receive his due credit until much later in life as no one would accept (or believe) that a Black man could have possibly achieved the impossible so it was credited entirely to Perry.

Sound familiar? Listen, it took 46 years before he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his leading role in the exploration.

If you want to learn more about Henson’s monumental accomplishment, check out these two books: A Negro Explorer in New York and Dark Companion. Both show Henson’s undeniable determination and shine a light onto a marvelous window of little known Black history.

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