Widely recognized as the first man to reach the
North Pole, Matthew Henson's journey began in the Old Line State. Born
in Nanjemoy, Charles County on August 8, 1866, Matthew Alexander Henson
began traveling the world at the ripe age of 13. Henson's mother died
when he was very young, and his father died shortly after moving the family
to Georgetown, right outside of Washington DC. Orphaned at age 11, Henson
worked odd jobs around DC, until the age of 13 when he reportedly walked
to Baltimore City seeking work on a ship in hopes of exploring the world.
In 1879, he found himself on an expedition to China on the merchant ship
Katie Hines, which set sail from Baltimore's harbor. Years later,
after meeting Captain Robert Peary, the two men set out to reach the North
Pole in 1891. By that time, Henson had already made expeditions to Japan,
Spain, Russia, and Nicaragua. Between 1891 and 1908, Henson and Peary made
six attempts at reaching the "top of the world," but with little success.
Their final attempt in 1909 proved to be the breakthrough. On April 9,
1909, Henson, Peary and four Eskimos in their party planted the United States
flag and other mementos at 89' 57'N, the coordinates they believed were the
northern tip of the world. Although later evidence showed that they did
not quite reach the extreme pole, no one at that time had traveled as far.
It took years for Henson to receive recognition as the "first" man to the
Pole, Captain Peary took much of the credit for the journey, and Henson felt
no one would believe that he actually arrived at the Pole forty-five minutes
before Peary, who was slowed by exhaustion and frostbite. But Henson soon
received his due, and was honored in his home state on November 18, 1961,
six years after his death on March 9, 1955, with a plaque that hangs in the
State House in Annapolis. Henson's plaque was the first state-sponsored memorial
honoring an African American.
Copyright November 18, 2005 Maryland State Archives