On April 6, 1909, two Americans and four Eskimos became the first human beings to set foot on the North Pole. The achievement crowned numerous attempts to reach the Pole, over a period of 18 years, by Robert Edwin Peary and Matthew Alexander Henson. On that historic day, it was Henson, an African-American, who first reached the Pole and planted the American flag.
During his lifetime, Robert Peary received many international honors for his achievement. Matthew Henson, however, received comparatively little recognition for his part in the discovery, even though Peary repeatedly acknowledged Henson's indispensability to the success of the Polar expeditions. He was three times refused a pension by Congress, was excluded from the Explorer's Club in which his commander [Peary] was president, and lastly was not considered for burial among the heroes at Arlington National Cemetery at the time of his death.
Matthew Henson was born in Charles County, Md., ran away from his widowed stepmother at about age 11, was taken in by a black woman in Washington, D.C., and at 12 went to sea as a cabin boy on a sailing ship. During the next six years Henson learned to read, write, and navigate. After the death of his captain, Henson held several jobs, finally working as a stock clerk in a hat store in Washington. It was there that he met Robert Peary, who later hired him as a valet on the recommendation of the store's owner. With some breaks in service, Henson was with Peary for eight arctic expeditions over 22 years until their last one, in 1909, the year they reached the North Pole.
After his death in 1955, Matthew Henson was buried in New York City's Woodlawn Cemetery. In 1968, the body of his wife Lucy Ross Henson was buried nearby. In 1987, at the request of Dr. S. Allen Counter of Harvard University, President Ronald Reagan granted permission for the bodies of Henson and his wife to be re-interred at Arlington National Cemetery.
On April 6, 1988, the remains of Matthew Henson and his wife were transported to Washington, D.C., where they were re-interred among other American heroes and near the grave site of Robert Peary and his wife Josephine Deibitsch Peary. Members of Henson's family attended the ceremony along with many of the explorer's admirers from around the world. The re-interment represented the ultimate national recognition that Henson had so long deserved.
The headstone of Matthew Henson and his wife Lucy Ross Henson is made of jet-black Vermont granite, approximately five- feet high, four feet wide, and one-foot thick. The gold-leafed carving includes an excerpt from the explorer's own account of his North Pole adventures.
On the opposite face, the stone contains an inset bronze plaque commemorating several aspects of the North Pole discovery. At the top sits a large bas-relief bust of Henson in Arctic gear. Immediately below, an inscription describes Henson's part in reaching the North Pole. Globes of the world, tilted with the Pole in view, sit at either side.
The central image -- based on a photograph taken by Robert Peary at the Pole on April 6, 1909 -- shows Henson flanked by the four Polar Eskimos who accompanied them on the trip. The American flag flies behind them atop a mound of ice.
With its dogsleds and dramatic ice floes, the bottom panel suggests the struggle that Peary, Henson, and the Eskimos sustained over many years to achieve their goal.