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illustration of an explorer in the snow with a pack of snow dogs
Art by Randy Pollak;Marcel Jancovic/Shutterstock.com (dogs)
Frozen Dreams

Matthew Henson helped discover the North Pole. It would take many years for the world to discover him.

By Lauren Tarshis
From the February 2020 Issue

Learning Objective: After reading an article about Matthew Henson, co-discoverer of the North Pole, students will conclude that the author wrote the article to inform readers of Henson’s achievements and to make them aware of an explorer who has been overlooked because of his race.

Lexile: 800L-900L, 700L-800L
Guided Reading Level: U
DRA Level: 50
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Author’s Purpose    

As you read, think about why the author wrote this article and what she wants you to know about Matthew Henson

It was April 3, 1909, and an American explorer named Matthew Henson was trudging across the ice-covered Arctic Ocean. This was a frozen wilderness, a land of brutal cold and blinding blizzards. No person could survive here for long. Even polar bears stayed away.

But a fiery excitement warmed Henson’s heart. He felt sure that he was just days from achieving his dream of being one of the first people to set foot on the North Pole.

Henson put his head down and pushed against the fierce wind. Suddenly, he lost his balance. The ice beneath his feet wobbled, and he tumbled into the ocean. The frigid water hit his skin like millions of needles.

The water seemed to grab him and pull him down. Henson had dedicated nearly 20 years of his life trying to get to the North Pole. And now it seemed it would all end here, in the icy blackness of the Arctic Ocean. 

It was April 3, 1909. An American explorer named Matthew Henson was trudging across the Arctic Ocean. This was an ice-covered land of brutal cold and blinding blizzards. No person could survive here for long. Even polar bears stayed away.

But Henson was excited. In a few days, he hoped to achieve his dream of being one of the first people to set foot on the North Pole.

Henson put his head down and pushed against the fierce wind. Suddenly, he lost his balance. The ice beneath him wobbled, and he tumbled into the ocean. The frigid water hit his skin like millions of needles.

The water seemed to grab him and pull him down. Henson had spent nearly 20 years trying to get to the North Pole. And now it seemed it would all end here, in the icy blackness of the Arctic Ocean. 

Kingdom of Ice    

Illustrations by Steve.Stankiewicz    

Matthew Henson was born in 1866, a time when few people traveled more than a few miles from where they were born. There were no airplanes zooming across continents and oceans, no cars or Google Maps. Parts of the world were still mostly unknown. 

One place in particular remained unreachable: the North Pole. It sits in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, which is mostly covered in floating ice. The closest land is Greenland, an island more than 500 miles away.

The native people of Greenland, the Inuit, did not venture close to the North Pole. They believed the area was cursed by a demon called Kokoyah, a knife-toothed beast that lurked under the ice. And the Arctic is indeed cursed—by weather that is colder and stormier than almost anywhere on the planet.

Beginning in the 1500s, European explorers began sailing into the “kingdom of ice.” They searched for ocean routes from Europe to Asia —the Northwest and Northeast Passages.

More than 100 men died trying to find them. Their ships were crushed by the 10-foot-thick slabs of ice that drift across the Arctic. Sailors who escaped onto the ice soon died in temperatures that plunged to 60 degrees below zero. But despite these disasters, the frozen beauty and mystery of the Arctic kept luring explorers and adventurers.

Matthew Henson was born in 1866. In those times, people rarely traveled more than a few miles from where they were born. There were no airplanes zooming across oceans. No cars or Google Maps. Parts of the world were still unknown. 

One place in particular remained unreachable: the North Pole. It sits in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, which is mostly covered in floating ice. The closest land is Greenland, an island more than 500 miles away.

The native people of Greenland, the Inuit, did not dare go near the North Pole. They believed the area was cursed by a demon that lived under the ice. And the Arctic is indeed cursed—by weather that is colder and stormier than almost anywhere on Earth.

In the 1500s, European explorers began sailing into the “kingdom of ice.” They searched for ocean routes from Europe to Asia—the Northwest and Northeast Passages.

More than 100 men died trying to find them. Their ships were crushed by thick slabs of ice that drift across the Arctic. Sailors who escaped soon died in temperatures that dropped to 60 degrees below zero. Even with these dangers, adventurers still wanted to explore the Arctic. 

A Chance Meeting    

AP Images

Robert Peary

It’s doubtful Matthew Henson heard much about the Arctic when he was a boy growing up in Washington, D.C. By the age of 13, Henson was an orphan. As an African American, he faced vicious racism that was common throughout America at the time.

At 13, he walked 40 miles to Baltimore, hoping to get a job as a sailor. He persuaded a ship captain to hire him as a cabin boy—the lowliest job on a ship. Henson sailed around the world. He learned to read and became a skilled sailor and carpenter.

He returned to Washington, D.C., at age 18, hoping his experiences would help him land a good job. But at the time, most white business owners refused to hire African Americans. The best job Henson could find was stocking shelves in a hat store.

One day, a tall, mustached man came into the store. His name was Robert Peary, and he was an engineer in the U.S. Navy. Peary was preparing for a Navy expedition to map a jungle in Central America. He was looking for a cabin boy. 

Matthew Henson probably didn’t hear much about the Arctic when he was growing up in Washington, D.C. By the age of 13, Henson was an orphan. As an African American, he faced cruel racism that was common throughout America at the time.

At 13, he walked 40 miles to Baltimore, hoping to get a job as a sailor. There, he convinced a ship captain to hire him as a cabin boy—the lowliest job on a ship. Henson sailed around the world. He learned to read and became a skilled sailor and carpenter.

At age 18, Henson returned to Washington, D.C., and looked for a good job. But most white business owners wouldn’t hire African Americans. The best job Henson could find was stocking shelves in a hat store.

One day, a tall man came into the store. His name was Robert Peary, and he was an engineer in the U.S. Navy. Peary was going on a Navy expedition to a jungle in Central America. He was looking for a cabin boy. 

Fierce Ambitions

Illustrations by Steve.Stankiewicz    

Impressed by Henson’s experience at sea, Peary offered him the job. Of course, Henson was capable of far more. But eager to escape the hat shop, he accepted Peary’s offer. Little did he know how this decision would change his life—and history.

As Henson would discover, Peary was a man of fierce ambitions. As a white man trained as an engineer, Peary, unlike Henson, had many opportunities to make his dreams come true. And Peary had big dreams. More explorers were venturing into the Arctic, racing to be the first to reach the North Pole. The winner of this race would become famous. Peary decided that man should be him.

When he and Henson returned from Central America, Peary began planning for a yearlong trip to northern Greenland, the land closest to the North Pole. He wanted Henson to come along as his “manservant.”

By then it was clear to Peary how much more Henson could do; he had impressed Peary on the Central American trip. Henson had taken on complex jobs, working alongside Navy engineers. But Peary’s eyes were clouded by racist ideas. No matter what Henson did, Peary would never see past the color of Henson’s skin to treat him as an equal.

Surely Henson was embittered by this injustice. But he couldn’t resist the chance to see more of the world. 

Peary was impressed by Henson’s experience at sea. He offered Henson the job. Of course, Henson was capable of far more. But he accepted Peary’s offer. Little did he know how this decision would change his life—and history.

Peary had great ambitions. As a white man, Peary had many chances to make his dreams come true. And Peary had big dreams. More explorers were racing to be the first to reach the North Pole. The winner of this race would become famous. Peary decided that man should be him.

When he and Henson returned from Central America, Peary began planning for a yearlong trip to northern Greenland, the land closest to the North Pole. He wanted Henson to come along as his “manservant.”

Peary knew how much more Henson could do. On the Central American trip, Henson had taken on difficult jobs, working alongside Navy engineers. But Peary would never see past the color of Henson’s skin. No matter what Henson did, he was never treated as an equal.

Henson must have been embittered by this unfairness. But he couldn’t say no to a chance to see more of the world. 

Blubber and Blood

Henson and Peary set sail for Greenland in June 1891 with four other men and Peary’s wife, Josephine. One month later, they came ashore and set up camp near a bay. As planned, the ship sailed away and would return in one year to pick them up.

They had made it to the Arctic. But they were still 700 miles from the North Pole. Getting there would mean weeks of trekking through killing cold and ferocious blizzards.

To succeed, they would need help from experts in Arctic survival: Inuit people. The Inuit were skilled ice fishermen and hunters of arctic animals like seals, walruses, and polar bears. They wasted not a single scrap of an animal. They ate the meat and blubber and often drank the blood. They made clothes from skins and furs and carved bones into tools.

The team’s plan was to spend the first months in Greenland preparing food and other supplies they’d need to explore Greenland and find the best route to the North Pole. Peary hired Inuit women to sew them fur clothing and sealskin moccasins, which didn’t freeze and split open in the cold like leather boots did.

During this time, Henson began to forge close friendships with the Inuit people they met. Unlike Peary, Henson learned their language and joined their celebrations. Henson’s Inuit friends taught him how to hunt and ice fish. They taught Henson to drive a dogsled pulled by a team of eight arctic dogs. No other American or European explorers had these kinds of skills. 

Henson and Peary set sail for Greenland in June 1891 with four other men and Peary’s wife, Josephine. One month later, they came ashore and set up camp near a bay. As planned, the ship sailed away. It would return in one year to pick them up.

They had made it to the Arctic. But they were still 700 miles from the North Pole. Getting there would mean weeks of trekking through killing cold and harsh blizzards.

To survive, they would need help from Arctic experts: Inuit people. The Inuit were skilled ice fishermen and hunters of arctic animals like seals, walruses, and polar bears. They did not waste a single scrap of an animal. They ate the meat and blubber and often drank the blood. They made clothes from skins and furs and carved bones into tools.

The team spent the first months in Greenland where they prepared food and other supplies. Peary hired Inuit women to sew them fur clothing and sealskin moccasins, which didn’t freeze and split open in the cold like leather boots did.

During this time, Henson began to make friends with the Inuit people they met. Unlike Peary, Henson learned their language and joined their celebrations. Henson’s Inuit friends taught him how to hunt and ice fish. They taught Henson to drive a dogsled pulled by a team of eight dogs. No other American or European explorers had these kinds of skills. 

Illustrations by Steve.Stankiewicz    

Henson and Peary’s Final Polar Expedition (1908-1909)

Blizzards and Frostbite

In the coming years, Peary and Henson would make five more trips to the Arctic. They faced many near disasters. They got lost in blizzards and at times ran so short of food they nearly starved.

On one trip across the ice, Peary’s feet became so frostbitten that eight of his toes snapped off. He would have lost his feet completely had Henson not pushed him back to camp on a sled, an 11-day journey.

Despite these setbacks, Peary became famous. Back in America between trips, newspapers ran glowing stories about his daring adventures. Henson was rarely mentioned, except as Peary’s “manservant.”

Yet Henson had become as determined as Peary to get to the Pole. And in 1909, on their sixth trip to the Arctic, it seemed their dream was about to come true.

On April 3, they were pushing across the ice. Henson was leading the way along with four Inuit men: Seegloo, Egingwah, Ooqueah, and Ootah. Based on Peary’s measurements, they believed they were about 150 miles from the North Pole. 

In the coming years, Peary and Henson would make five more trips to the Arctic. They faced many near disasters. They got lost in blizzards and nearly starved.

On one trip, Peary’s feet became so frostbitten that eight of his toes snapped off. Peary would have lost both his feet, but Henson pushed him back to camp on a sled—a journey that took 11 days.

Even with all these troubles, Peary became famous. Newspapers ran stories about his daring adventures. Henson was rarely mentioned, except as Peary’s “manservant.”

Yet Henson was determined to get to the Pole. And in 1909, on their sixth trip to the Arctic, it seemed their dream was about to come true.

On April 3, they were pushing across the ice. Henson was leading the way along with four Inuit men: Seegloo, Egingwah, Ooqueah, and Ootah. They were about 150 miles from the North Pole. 

Minutes from Death

Illustrations by Steve.Stankiewicz    

But then came the moment when disaster struck. Henson slipped and tumbled into the frigid Arctic waters. Death comes within minutes in water that cold. Muscles turn to knots. Blood slows. Vision blurs as the brain powers down. Henson was just hours from achieving his dream. But he was sure he was about to die.

And then with a sudden whoosh! he practically flew up out of the water. Ootah, one of the Inuit men, had grabbed Henson, saving his life.

Three days later, Peary, Henson, and the other men all reached the North Pole. Henson planted the American flag in the snow.

But when they returned to America, it was Peary who got sole credit for “discovering” the North Pole. He took his glorious place alongside Ferdinand Magellan and Marco Polo as one of history’s famed explorers. 

But then came the moment when Henson slipped and tumbled into the frigid Arctic waters. Death comes within minutes in water that cold. Muscles turn to knots. Blood slows. Vision blurs as the brain powers down. Henson was just hours from achieving his dream. But he was sure he was about to die.

And then with a sudden whoosh! he flew up out of the water. Ootah, one of the Inuit men, had grabbed Henson, saving his life.

Three days later, Peary, Henson, and the other men all reached the North Pole. Henson planted the American flag in the snow.

When they returned to America, it was Peary who got sole credit for “discovering” the North Pole. Peary took his place alongside Ferdinand Magellan and Marco Polo as one of history’s famed explorers. 

From the Shadows

In the coming decades, Henson won some small awards. Within African American communities, he was deeply admired. But history books mostly ignored Henson’s achievements and those of most African Americans and nonwhite people. Henson lived a quiet life in New York City with his wife, Lucy, working as a messenger. His niece, Olive Henson Fulton, once proudly told classmates that her uncle Matthew was a famous Arctic explorer. Her teacher punished her for lying.

But by the time Henson died in 1955, America was changing. African Americans were fighting for equal rights. In the 1960s, new laws outlawed discrimination based on race. The accomplishments of African Americans began to rise out of history’s shadows. 

In 1988, Matthew Henson’s body was moved to Arlington National Cemetery, the burial ground of many of America’s admired heroes. The gravestone says:

Matthew Alexander Henson

Co-Discoverer of the North Pole.

In the following years, Henson was admired by many African Americans. But history books mostly ignored Henson’s achievements and those of most nonwhite people. Henson lived a quiet life in New York City with his wife, Lucy. His niece, Olive Henson Fulton, once told classmates that her uncle Matthew was a famous Arctic explorer. Her teacher punished her for lying.

By the time Henson died in 1955, America was changing. African Americans were fighting for equal rights. In the 1960s, new laws made it illegal to treat someone differently based on race. The achievements of African Americans began to rise out of history’s shadows. 

In 1988, Matthew Henson’s body was moved to Arlington National Cemetery, the burial ground of many of America’s heroes. The gravestone says:

Matthew Alexander Henson

Co-Discoverer of the North Pole. 

PJF Military Collection/Alamy Stock Photo    

Henson’s gravestone at Arlington National Cemetery