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Simpson Street Free Press

History Tells New Story of First Black American to Reach the North Pole

Robert Peary is recognized as the first person to set foot on the North Pole. While he did not get a lot of recognition at the time, the African-American explorer, Matthew Henson was also ultimately recognized.

Matthew Henson was a skilled explorer. He was very experienced since he began his life on a merchant ship, starting when he was only 12 years old. He learned cartography and maritime astronomy while being at sea in the Arctic. He also spoke one of the main languages of people who lived near the Arctic, known as the Inuit language. Many people knew Henson as Miy Paliuk, which also translated to “Matthew, the kind one.” He also later had a son with an Inuit woman.

40 dogs pulled the sled that transported the explorers. The dogs ran for five days in freezing temperatures, and the men's faces became raw over time. Henson's accomplishments represented that African American people could also be successful. He wrote an autobiography in 1912, that talks about his success and challenges with his teammate and the journey.

When both got back, Peary upgraded to Rear Admiral and spent his life as a hero. Henson got much less recognition and worked silently away from the world as a clerk in the U.S. Customs Service in New York City until he died in 1955. Historians say Peary needed Henson to finish the trip because he knew more about dogs and had more skills necessary for survival than Peary.

Henson’s North Pole accomplishments began getting noticed later in his lifetime. In 1939, he became an honorary member of the Explorers Club in NYC. In 1954, he was invited to the White House by President Dwight Eisenhower to get a commendation. After his death, he received the Hubbard Medal from the National Geographic Society, which Roberty Peary won almost 100 years earlier.

Important historical figures that have been the first to discover major landmarks, should not be forgotten, they deserve the recognition they have earned. Many people who discover new things get recognized for their accomplishments, but some may gain the same acknowledgment until much later. It is important to learn about figures who were vital to the success of missions and discovery and continue to tell their stories and recognize their contributions.

[Source: The Mariners’ Museum; National Geographic; BBC News]

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