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Henson, Matthew (1866-1955)

Matthew Henson was an American explorer who accompanied Robert Peary, most famously on an expedition intended to reach the Geographic North Pole in 1909. Subsequent research and exploration has revealed that Peary and Henson did not reach the North Pole but their failed attempt is still recognized as an important contribution to scientific knowledge. 

Henson was born on a farm in Nanjemoy, Maryland on August 8, 1866.  His parents were free people of color who worked as sharecroppers. Both parents died when Henson was a child and he was subsequently sent to Washington, D.C. to live with an uncle. At the age of 12, after his uncle"s death, Henson moved to Baltimore where he became a cabin boy on a merchant ship, the Katie Hines.  The captain of the vessel taught Henson to read and write.  Henson sailed the world with the Katie Hines for the next few years.  By the age of 20 he had visited China, Japan, The Phillippines, France, Africa, and Russia.

By November 1887 however, Henson worked at a Washington D.C. clothing store where he met Commander Robert E. Peary.  Impressed by Henson"s experience, Peary hired him to go on a surveying expedition to Nicaragua to determine if a canal could be built across the country from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Impressed with Hanson"s skilled Peary called him his "first man" in seven expeditions he led to the Arctic region for the next two decades. Over that time Hensen traded with the Inuit in Canada and Greenland and learned their language.  Eventually he and Peary married Inuit women.

The most important of Peary"s expeditons took place in 1908-09 when Peary led his eighth attempt to reach the North Pole. On August 18, 1909 Peary and Henson left Greenland by ship to begin their effort to reach the Pole.  They were accompanied by 22 Inuit men and 17 Inuit women, 10 children, 246 dogs and 70 tons of whale meat from Labrador, Canada. Peary and Henson left their ship at Ellesmere Island in what is now Nunavut Territory, Canada and with a smaller party of four Inuit men, laid a

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