Matthew Henson (1866-1955) was born on a farm in Charles County, Maryland. He was still a child when his parents Lemuel and Caroline died, and at the age of twelve he went to sea as a cabin boy on a merchant ship. He sailed around the world for the next several years, educating himself and becoming a skilled navigator. Henson met Commander Robert E. Peary in 1888 and joined him on an expedition to Nicaragua. Impressed with Henson’s seamanship, Peary recruited him as a colleague. For years they made many trips together, including Arctic voyages in which Henson traded with the Inuit and mastered their language, built sleds, and trained dog teams. In 1909, Peary mounted his eighth attempt to reach the North Pole, selecting Henson to be one of the team of six who would make the final run to the Pole. Before the goal was reached, Peary could no longer continue on foot and rode in a dog sled. Various accounts say he was ill, exhausted, or had frozen toes. In any case, he sent Henson on ahead as a scout.
In a newspaper interview Henson said: “I was in the lead that had overshot the mark a couple of miles. We went back then and I could see that my footprints were the first at the spot.” Henson then proceeded to plant the American flag. Although Admiral Peary received many honors, Henson was largely ignored and spent most of the next thirty years working as a clerk in a federal customs house in New York. But in 1944 Congress awarded him a duplicate of the silver medal given to Peary. Presidents Truman and Eisenhower both honored him before he died. In 1912 Henson wrote the book A Negro Explorer at the North Pole about his arctic exploration. Later, in 1947 he collaborated with Bradley Robinson on his biography Dark Companion. The 1912 book, along with an abortive lecture tour, enraged Peary who had always considered Henson no more than a servant and saw the attempts at publicity as a breach of faith