Matthew Henson State Park: A Lush, Wooded Oasis
Matthew Alexander Henson (1866 – 1955) was an African-American explorer who achieved an impressive feat in 1909 – he reached the North Pole with Robert E. Peary. Despite his accomplishments, he often didn’t receive the recognition he deserved due to the racial tensions during his time. Today, few schools and parks bear his name, including the picturesque Matthew Henson State Park, located just outside of Washington DC in Montgomery County, Maryland.
As you enter the nearly 5-mile paved path within the park, the hum of traffic fades away, and all you can see is greenery. A raised wooden walkway takes you over a wetland, and with birds singing overhead, it’s not uncommon to see deer and wild turkey roam around. The park is an oasis of calm for visitors, many of whom may not know who Matthew Henson was unless they stop at a roadside sign showing a timeline of his life.
A Surprising Detail
The sign shows a photograph of Henson wrapped in skins, with a hood over his head, wearing a sober scowl and sporting a bushy mustache. His appearance fits the polar explorer archetype in every way except one: Henson was black. Meeting Peary and his first expeditions were exciting and adventurous, but nonetheless, Henson was hardly recognized compared to his white counterparts in contemporary times.
A Victorian Adventure Novel
Henson’s life was something of a Victorian adventure novel. Born into a family of peasants, Henson worked odd jobs before joining the crew of a merchant ship and sailing to faraway coasts. He later met Robert Peary in 1887, who invited him to work as his assistant on an inspection mission to Nicaragua due to Henson’s impressive character and talent.
The Pivotal Stage of Henson’s Career
The pivotal stage of Henson’s career began in 1891, when he accompanied Peary to the Arctic Circle in search of the North Pole. Over the course of seven attempts from 1891 to 1909, Henson was Peary’s closest associate. The Arctic was unforgiving, so Henson learned the art of mushing and adapted Inuit tools such as fur garments and dog sleds, hunting polar animals with a rifle.
The Final Expedition
Their final expedition in 1909 marked a turning point in Henson’s life. As supplies ran out, Peary ordered everyone in his group of 50 back to the ship, except for four Inuits and Henson. The next day, Henson had a feeling that they were now at the North Pole, so Peary placed a note and the American flag in an empty can and buried it in the ice, pinpointing their location with a sextant. They then turned back to the ship to return home.
Unfortunately, Henson’s moment of glory was short-lived. When he returned to the United States at the height of racial tension, historians were skeptical of Henson’s involvement and contribution to their journey. However, most agree that Peary could not have ventured this far north without Henson, who fully embraced Inuit life and researched ancient survival skills.
It wasn’t until 1937 that Henson was admitted as a member of the Explorers Club and eventually honored by Presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower as well. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, where a memorial was finally erected to him in 1988, 33 years later. Today, a handful of sites bear his name, including several schools, a park, and a ship that does oceanographic research.
In recent years, the Explorers Club has made an effort to reclaim Henson’s legacy by creating a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee led by JR Harris. In 2022, the club posthumously inducted four new members: Seegloo, Egingwah, Ooqueah, and Ootah, the Inuit who accompanied Henson and Peary on their last expedition. “In my opinion, they are all co-discoverers of the North Pole, all six of them,” says Harris. “Those four men are finally getting the recognition they deserve.”
Matthew Henson may have been overlooked by historians and society during his time, but his legacy lives on. The Matthew Henson State Park is a stunning tribute to his life and achievements, where visitors can connect with nature and learn about the unsung hero who was instrumental in reaching the North Pole.