Name at birth: Matthew Alexander Henson
Matthew A. Henson was the longtime assistant to Robert E. Peary on his expeditions to the North Pole. Henson is believed to be the first man to actually reach the pole, some 45 minutes ahead of Peary, on 6 April 1909. Henson, an African-American, ran away from home at the age of 11 and went to sea as a cabin boy. An able and intelligent seaman, he was hired by Peary in the late 1880s and accompanied him on his 1891 Greenland expedition. An expert with sleds and dogs and fluent in the Inuit language, Henson joined Peary off and on for nearly two decades in the quest to reach the pole. Although Peary was celebrated for the achievement, he was also criticized in that era for not taking along a white man. Peary frequently praised Henson as the best man for the job, but Henson's role was largely unrecognized for years. After reaching the pole he earned a living as a customs clerk in New York and occasionally lectured on his experiences. In 1947 Henson published his story, A Negro at the North Pole (with a foreword by Booker T. Washington) and toward the end of his life he received many awards and tributes. On 6 April 1988 his body was moved from Woodlawn Cemetery in New York and re-interred next to Peary's tomb at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D. C.
The U.S.N.S. Henson, an oceanographic explorer ship (T-AGS 63 Class), was put into service in January of 1998.
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