Historic Photos Celebrate Pioneering Black Explorer

Largely ignored for nearly a century, Matthew Henson made big contributions to polar exploration.

One of the pioneering polar explorers from the Golden Age of Exploration grew up as a poor orphan in Baltimore, and his achievements later in life were largely ignored because of his race.

Matthew Henson was one of the era’s few African-American explorers, and he may have been the first man, black or white, to reach the North Pole. His grueling adventures alongside U.S. Navy engineer Robert E. Peary are chronicled in these dramatic early photos.

Henson was born in 1866, on August 8. At age 13, as an orphan, he became a cabin boy on a ship, where the vessel’s captain taught him to read and write. Henson was working as a store clerk in Washington, D.C. in 1887 when he met Peary. Peary hired him as a valet, and the two began a long working relationship that spanned half a dozen epic voyages over two decades.

In 1900 Henson and Peary went farther north than anyone else had before. Later they broke their own record. The pair explored Greenland and possibly made it to the North Pole in 1909, accompanied by four Inuit men. Although it’s been difficult to confirm, Henson believed he was the first person to make it to the pole.

The Reel Story: Matthew Henson

"I can't get along without him," Peary said of Henson, who was an expert dog-sledder, hunter, craftsman, and navigator who even became fluent in Inuit. After his exploring days Henson worked as an official in the U.S. Customs House in New York City. He died in 1955. (Learn about epic South Pole explorations.)

For nearly a century, Henson’s contributions to polar explorations were downplayed in favor of Peary. But in 2000, Henson was posthumously awarded National Geographic’s highest honor for exploration, the Hubbard Medal.

In 1988, Henson and his wife were reinterred at the Arlington National Cemetery, alongside Peary. In 1996, an oceanographic survey ship was named the U.S.N.S Henson in his honor.

This story was previously published on February 24, 2016, and updated on August 8. It was updated again on February 23, 2018.