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Matthew A. Henson
United States
(Charles County, Maryland, 8/8/1866 - 3/9/1955, New York, New York)

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Matthew Henson was born in Maryland in 1886 to a sharecropping family. At the age of twelve he joined the crew of a merchant ship and sailed the world. In 1887 Robert Peary hired him as valet to work with him on a survey in Nicaragua. Henson's skills impressed Peary, who subsequently hired him as an assistant on all of his Arctic expeditions. Henson became invaluable to Peary - fluent in Inuktitut, well-liked by the Inuit, and renowned for his many skills, including driving dog sledges. Henson was the only other American with Peary when the reached the North Pole with four Inuit companions on April 6, 1909. By some accounts he may actually have been the first person to reach the spot. Henson lectured widely and published a book about his experiences on the North Pole expedition, "A Negro Explorer at the North Pole." Henson married Lucy Ross, in 1906 (his first marriage had ended in divorce). He and Lucy had no children. Henson also had a number of Inuit wives during the many years he spent in the north. One, Elatu, died in 1901. A second, Akatingwah, was the mother of his only child, Anoukaq, born ca. 1906. After the North Pole expedition Henson worked as a clerk at the Customs House in New York. He was initially excluded from most of the awards and accolades given to other members of the North Pole expedition, but eventually received recognition for his accomplishments. He received honorary degrees from Howard University and Morgan State University, was named an Honorary Member of the Explores Club, was honored by President Eisenhower at the White House, and was awarded the Chicago Geographical Society Gold medal, among others. Henson died in 1955, in New York City. He continued to receive honors after his death: in 1988 he was reinterred at Arlington National Cemetery, with his wife, Lucy. In 2000 the National Geographic Society awarded him the Hubbard Medal, and numerous parks, schools, and a Naval vessel have been named for him.

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