On His 150th Birthday, Exploring Matthew Henson’s Legacy and Contribution to America’s Identity as an Arctic Nation

August 8th, 2016, marks the 150th birthday of African American Arctic explorer Matthew Henson, an expert navigator, sled dog driver, hunter, mechanic, and craftsman who accompanied fellow explorer Robert Peary on six Arctic voyages toward the North Pole over 18 years.

More than just an inspiring historical story that merits greater recognition, Matthew Henson’s story remains quite relevant today  --  highlighting issues of diversity, international relations, and the impact of climate change on the Arctic.

To celebrate Arctic exploration and in honor of Henson’s 150th birthday, the U.S. Department of State’s Arctic team is hosting a celebration on August 8 at the National Building Museum, a fitting venue in light of the museum’s special summer installation, ICEBERGS. The event will celebrate the American hero Matthew Henson, the glory age of American Arctic exploration, and the true diversity of the expedition team that earned for America the great privilege of being the first nation to plant its flag at the North Pole.

Henson Life and Contribution as an Arctic Explorer

Born in Maryland in 1866 at the sunset of the era of active slavery in America, Henson’s character, courage, and talent led him down a path that no one could have foreseen: to the “top of the world” and into history as one of the world’s great Arctic explorers.

Matthew Henson during the successful 1909 expedition to the North Pole. [Photo presumed to have been taken Robert Peary]


Henson was a critical member of the 1909 Arctic expedition team that consisted of Peary, Henson, other Americans, and many Inughuit (indigenous people of northern Greenland) that is often credited with being the first to reach the North Pole. Some, including Henson himself, believe that he was actually the first person ever to reach the pole.

Despite this historic achievement, Henson’s accomplishments are not as well-known as they might have been, due in part to racial prejudices that existed during his era. While he was admitted into the prestigious Explorers Club and celebrated widely in the African American community, he was deprived of much of the official recognition received by Peary. Many believe this was due to his race, but it may also have been due in part to his quiet, humble manner (to the Inughuit, he was known as “Mahri-Paluk,” or “Matthew — The Kind One.”)

To Peary himself, in the life-and-death struggle to reach the Pole, race seemed to matter little. As he said in the foreword to Henson’s 1912 book, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole, “The example and experience of Matthew Henson, who has been a member of each and of all of my Arctic expeditions, since ’91….is only another one of the multiplying illustrations of the fact that race, or color, or bringing up, or environment, count nothing against a determined heart, if it is backed and aided by intelligence.

As Commander Donald MacMillan, an accomplished American explorer in his own right who was also on the 1909 expedition, wrote in the Henson biography Dark Companion, “Peary knew Matt Henson’s real worth….Quiet, efficient, modest, at his assigned job perfecting equipment…To Matt, we now went for instruction….Highly respected by the Eskimos, he was easily the most popular man on board ship…Henson, strong physically and above all, fully-experience, was of more real value to our Commander than (the other expedition members) and myself all put together. Matthew Henson went to the Pole with Peary because he was a better man than any one of us.”

Celebrating the Matthew Henson and Understanding America as an Arctic Nation

At Monday’s special event, entitled ‘A Determined Heart’ (drawing on Peary’s aforementioned quote) a series of speakers will highlight the many dimensions of Henson and his accomplishments, while also reminding those assembled of the continued importance of the Arctic for the United States and the rest of the world.

The 1909 expedition team in a photograph taken by Robert Peary himself on April 6, 1909 in the vicinity of the North Pole. Those pictured include Greenlandic Inughuit expedition members Ooqeah, Ootah, Egingwah, and Seeglo, and American Matthew Henson. [Photo credit: Robert Peary, National Geographic]




America is an Arctic nation, and raising awareness of our country’s accomplishments in the Arctic  --  and those who made them possible  --  brings greater richness to this important part of our national identity.

Each expert will give a short, informative talk to a group of invited guests addressing a different aspect of Henson’s rich life, exploring the importance of his legacy, and addressing how climate change is altering human interaction with the Arctic.

U.S. Special Representative for the Arctic, Admiral Robert Papp, the most recently retired Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, will deliver special remarks on Arctic exploration and the Henson/Peary expedition, drawing on his personal experience as a sailor. Recognizing that Peary and Henson’s voyages through the Arctic would not have succeeded without the expertise and assistance of the Inughuit people of northern Greenland,Minister Inuuteq Holm Olsen, the Head of Representation for Greenland at the Danish Embassy, will highlight the stories of the four Inughuit who made the final push to the Pole with Henson and Peary. Greenlander Mr.Anaukaq Allen Matthew Henson of Nuuk will share thoughts on his remarkable great-grandfather from a personal perspective while Dr. Edna Medford, Chair of the History Department at Howard University, will provide her perspective on how Henson’s life and accomplishments serve as a reflection of the challenges and triumphs of African-Americans in the early 20th century.

The Henson and Peary grave sites at Arlington National Cemetery. Henson was reinterred at Arlington following an order by President Ronald Reagan in 1988, who was petitioned by Dr. S. Allen Counter in an effort to gain national recognition for Henson’s accomplishments. [State Department Photo]

With the world warming, all eyes are turning northward, toward the Arctic’s melting sea ice and a new ocean that is opening up at the top of world. Against the backdrop of this complex problem, NASA cryospheric scientist Dr. Thorsten Markus will explore the conditions of Henson’s and Peary’s travel route through the passage between Greenland and Canada today, and explore the question of whether their route would still be passable today, considering new temperature and seasonal ice conditions. Ms. Lacey Flint, Archivist and Curator of Research Collections at the Explorers Club in New York City, will discuss Henson’s membership in this famed society of elite adventurers and share artifacts from his expeditions.

As the ice melts, international cooperation in the Arctic will continue to be important as more open water will allow increased access to the Arctic Ocean for shipping, tourism, and exploration for natural resources. The eight Arctic nations  --  Canada, Norway, Russia, Iceland, Sweden, Finland, the Kingdom of Denmark, and the United States  --  will need to continue the cooperation fostered through the Arctic Council in order to confront these and unforeseen challenges that will mark the future of the Arctic. Henson’s extraordinary communication and collaboration with the Inughuit during his voyages, as well as the remarkable accomplishments that resulted, can and should be an example for all of us to follow in the future.

About the Author: Erin Robertson serves as Arctic Public Affairs Officer in the Office of the Special Representative for the Arctic at the U.S. Department of State.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the Department's Modern Diplomacy publication on Medium.com.



Randy R.
California, USA
August 9, 2016
Erin, Nice article - I'm one of the ex-ARCOites your Dad keeps in touch with, and keeps us up to date on your adventures. He's very PROUD. I'm sure we'll discuss it at breakfast next week.
Arctic Explorer Matthew A. Henson points to a map of the North Pole.
Posted by Erin Robertson
August 7, 2016


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