Naval History and Heritage Command

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Matthew Alexander Henson

8 August 1866 - 9 March 1955



Matthew Henson (1866-1955) was vital to the success of Robert Perry's polar expeditions. By mastering the Inuit's language he gained their trust and aid. He also maintained expedition equipment, trained sled dogs, and built sledges that were used for arctic exploration. Henson was the only African-American on the expeditions and was with Perry on 7 April 1909, the day Perry claimed to have reached the North Pole.

After his polar exploration, Perry had little contact with Henson, who in 1919 began working as a messenger at the New York Custom House, a civil service position that was secured for him by a New York City black politician.

Recognition came to Henson principally after his retirement in 1936; explorer's club membership, 1937; the congressional Perry Polar Expedition Medal, 1944; The U.S. Navy Medal of Merit, 1945; a presidential citation in 1954 and honorary degrees from Morgan State College and Howard University, historically black colleges.

The hydrographic survey ship USNS Henson (T-AGS-63), was named in his honor.

His body is interred in Arlington National Cemetery.

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Published:Wed Dec 09 14:56:03 EST 2015