Leaders and Heroes
Matthew A. Henson (1866-1955)
Matthew A. Henson was a Black explorer and one of two Americans in Robert Peary’s successful 1909 expedition to the geographic North Pole. He was the only American chosen for the final stretch to the Pole. Henson was fluent in the Indigenous language, an excellent hunter, cook, sled team driver, and troubleshooter. He created the sledges used in the expedition and saved Peary's life twice during the many expeditions he took with Peary. Peary repeatedly stated that the expedition would not have been possible without Matthew Henson.
In spite of his contributions, however, Henson’s crucial role and status as Arctic explorer and American hero was greatly diminished. While Peary was presented with over 30 medals and mementos on his return to the United States, Henson received a gold watch and chain. Where Peary was appointed a Rear Admiral and retired with a fully military pension, Henson was given a lifetime appointment as a clerk in the government Customs Office. Although Henson’s appointment included a pension, the amount was not large enough to support him and his wife after he was compelled to retire in August 1936.
This exhibit includes two items related to Henson. First is the memoir Henson published after his "return to civilization" as he puts it. In addition to his explorations, Henson recounts the various events, stressors and complexities of working intimately with others in an extreme and dangerous environment. Special Collections' copy includes photographs taken by Henson himself, which offer valuable and literal insight into his time above the Arctic Circle.
The second item related to Henson in the exhibit is a children’s book documenting his life. The author covers traumatic and confusing run ins with racism in his childhood and teen years, up to Henson's integral role keeping Peary's many excursions fed, safe and well. The book contains many beautiful line drawings which explore a softer side of Henson's very full and active life.