Matthew Henson

All about Matthew Henson Fun Science Facts for Kids - Image of Matthew Henson
All about Matthew Henson Fun Science Facts for Kids - Image of Matthew Henson

Matthew Henson was an African-American explorer who played a crucial role in the discovery of the North Pole. He accompanied Robert Peary on multiple expeditions to the Arctic and was instrumental in navigating and surveying the treacherous terrain.

Despite facing racial discrimination and harsh conditions, Henson’s determination and expertise made him an invaluable member of the team. His contributions to polar exploration have since been recognized and celebrated.

Matthew Henson Facts For Kids

  • Matthew Henson was an Arctic explorer.
  • He was born on August 8, 1866.
  • Henson was part of the first team to reach the North Pole.
  • He worked closely with explorer Robert Peary.
  • Henson was African American, a trailblazer for his time.
  • He wrote a book called “A Negro Explorer at the North Pole.”
  • Henson spoke Inuit, the language of the Arctic natives.
  • He was recognized by the U.S. in 1912 for his achievements.
  • Henson passed away on March 9, 1955.
  • A U.S. Navy ship was named in his honor.

Robert E. Peary

Matthew Henson, an essential African-American explorer, made significant contributions to Robert E. Peary’s North Pole expeditions, where he was not merely an assistant but a co-explorer. Henson’s unique value lay in his remarkable strength, courage, and aptitude for survival in the severe, icy wilderness.

In 1909, Henson and Peary established themselves as the first explorers to reach the North Pole, a landmark achievement in exploration history. Notably, Henson mastered the Inuit language to foster good relations and communication with the indigenous people during their expeditions. Despite racial biases of that era frequently minimizing Henson’s role, he is now widely acknowledged for his pivotal role in Arctic exploration.

North Pole exploration

He played a vital role in Robert Peary’s team, making history in 1909 as part of the first-ever expedition to reach the North Pole despite the challenging conditions of freezing temperatures and perilous terrains.

Henson’s multifaceted role on the team included not only exploration but also craftsmanship, dog sled driving, and interpreting, thanks to his acquired knowledge of the Inuit language and survival techniques which proved essential during their expeditions. His persistent courage and determination were overshadowed for many years due to racial discrimination, leading to his achievements remaining largely unrecognized.

Today, however, Henson’s pioneering spirit and resilience are celebrated, solidifying his place as an iconic figure in North Pole exploration.

Arctic expeditions

From an early age of 13, Henson displayed a keen interest in exploration, which later saw him play an instrumental role in the team led by Robert E. Peary, claiming the North Pole conquest in April 1909.

As the first African-American Arctic explorer, Henson’s unique ability to interact with the Inuit people, a skill that underpinned the respect and appreciation he held for them, proved vital to the success of these daunting expeditions.

Henson’s remarkable determination and resilience to withstand the severe freezing conditions of the Arctic underscore his significant contributions to the exploration world, marking him as a true pioneer in Arctic expeditions.

African American explorers

He played a crucial role in several voyages led by renowned American explorer Robert Peary. In 1909, Henson defied the racial barriers of the era and carved history by being among the earliest people to reach the North Pole.

His prowess as a craftsman, his ability to converse with the Inuit people, and his unyielding determination were instrumental in surmounting manifold challenges during these expeditions. Henson’s feats have inspired countless people, underscoring that neither race nor background should ever hinder one’s aspirations or spirit of adventure.

Inuit guides and collaborators

As one of the first people to reach the North Pole, under the leadership of Robert Peary, Henson’s unique bond with the Inuit community played a pivotal role in the success of their expeditions. His ability to communicate in their language, coupled with his adoption of their survival skills such as constructing igloos and dog sledding, significantly contributed to their progress.

Henson’s respect for the Inuit culture and lifestyle further strengthened this collaboration. His relationship with the Inuit people exemplifies the fundamental role of cross-cultural understanding and cooperation in accomplishing shared objectives.

A Negro Explorer at the North Pole (Henson’s autobiography)

He was a remarkable explorer, etched his name in history as part of the first successful expedition to the North Pole, under the leadership of Robert E. Peary, on April 6, 1909. His extraordinary journey was not only confined to exploration but also extended to mastering the craft of linguistics and navigation.

He skillfully learned Inuit, the native language of Greenland, making him not only an explorer but also a linguist and navigator. Henson’s adventures are candidly encapsulated in his autobiography, ‘A Negro Explorer at the North Pole’. This first-hand account gives an enlightening perspective into the trials and victories of polar exploration, especially for children, highlighting the unique experiences of the early 20th century.


Undertaking multiple expeditions alongside Robert Peary, Henson displayed resilience and courage as they traversed the harsh, icy terrain, braving freezing temperatures. These journeys were instrumental in accumulating scientific knowledge about the Arctic.

Henson’s pioneering spirit was exemplified when he and Peary purportedly became the first people to reach the North Pole, a central point in the Arctic Ocean encircled by Greenland’s extensive ice sheets. Henson’s inspirational bravery and persistence have cemented his place as a significant figure in the history of Arctic exploration.

The Roosevelt (ship used in expeditions)

He played a pivotal role in Robert Peary’s renowned expedition to the North Pole on the Roosevelt, a robust ship named after President Theodore Roosevelt and specifically designed to endure the extreme conditions of Arctic exploration.

Henson’s invaluable contributions to the mission, as a proficient navigator, craftsman, and translator, were critical to its success. His mastery of the Inuit language, in particular, facilitated effective communication with the locals during their journey. The combination of Henson’s bravery and his broad range of skills greatly contributed to the triumph of this demanding expedition.

Exploration in the early 20th century

He is best remembered as a crucial participant in the first successful North Pole expedition in 1909, which was captained by Robert E. Peary. Henson’s bravery, unyielding determination, and proficiency in navigation and survival enabled him to overcome severe weather conditions and various obstacles, proving vital for the expedition’s success.

His accomplishments not only signified a critical juncture in exploration history but also shattered racial boundaries, considering the limited representation of African Americans in significant exploration expeditions at that time. The tale of Henson’s expedition to the North Pole serves as a powerful testament to his adventurous spirit and unwavering resilience in the face of adversity.

Polar geography and climate

Matthew Henson made a significant mark in the Polar geographical landscape, distinguished by its extreme cold and heavy ice. As part of the pioneering team that first reached the North Pole in 1909, Henson adapted to the harsh polar climate by assimilating the survival techniques of the Inuit people, including igloo construction and hunting.

His ability to learn their language further underscores his remarkable adaptability. Henson’s experiences and contributions provide a captivating glimpse into the demanding conditions of the Polar regions.

All about Matthew Henson Fun Science Facts for Kids - image of Matthew Henson and Robert Peary
All about Matthew Henson Fun Science Facts for Kids – image of Matthew Henson and Robert Peary

Henson was born on August 8, 1866, in Maryland. His parents were freeborn, black sharecroppers. His mother died shortly after he was born. His father took the family to Washington D.C. to look for work. He died when Henson was young, leaving family members to care for the young boy.

Henson ran away from home when he was 11. A neighbor woman took him in and cared for him. When he was 12, he went to work as a cabin boy on a ship. The captain taught him to read and taught him navigating. When the captain died, Henson went to work as a store clerk. There he met Edwin Peary, a navy officer and explorer. Peary hired Henson to go on his expeditions. Their group has been recognized as the first to reach the North Pole.

Fun Facts About Matthew Henson for Kids

  • Henson and Peary went on many expeditions to explore Greenland and the Arctic Circle. Henson learned the survival skills of the Eskimo people.
  • Two of the trips ended poorly. On one trip, the team nearly starved to death. They had to eat some of their sled dogs.
  • On another trip, six Eskimo teammates died of starvation and exposure to the cold.
  • In 1909, Peary and Henson reached the North Pole.
  • Peary received a lot of fame and glory for his expedition, but as a black man, Henson’s efforts were mostly ignored.
  • Finally, when Henson was 70 years old, he received an award from the U.S. Navy and a gold medal from the Chicago Geographic Society.

Matthew Henson Vocabulary

  1. Advantage: favorable circumstances
  2. Sharecropper: a person who rents farmland from an owner, grows crops and shares the profits with the owner
  3. Navigate: map out and direct the course of a ship

All About Matthew Henson Video for Kids

Check out this cool video about Matthew Henson for kids:

Matthew Henson Q&A

Question: What happened to Matthew Henson after the expeditions were over?

Answer: Henson was 43 years old when he and Peary traveled to the North Pole. He came home and spent the next 30 years working as a clerk at a New York federal customs house. He also wrote two books. He was almost 90 years old when he died. He was buried in a New York City cemetery. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan authorized the moving of the bodies of he and his wife Lucy to Arlington National Cemetery, as a sign of respect and honor.