Manly Lessons from Matthew Henson

Matthew Henson was an American explorer and naturalist who traveled to the Arctic in search of sea otters during the 1800s. This article provides a list of lessons about life, relationships, living with purpose, building lasting work relationships that will influence your success for years to come.

The “robert peary” is the story of an American explorer who was one of the first to explore the Arctic. He spent many years doing this and had a lot of difficult moments, but he persevered through them all.

Manly Lessons from Matthew Henson

“With the exception of the four Esquimos, the Captain had gone, and Commander Peary and I were alone (as we had been so often in the past years), and as we looked at each other, we realized our position, and we knew without speaking that the time had come for us to demonstrate that we were the men who, it had been ordained, should unlock the door that held the mystery of the Arctic.” Matthew Henson, “Matthew Henson,” “Matthew Henson,” “M

What names come to mind when you think about history’s renowned Arctic explorers? What about Ernest Shackleton? Isn’t it Robert Peary? Matthew Henson, perhaps?

Who is Matthew?

While Robert Edwin Peary’s name has been passed down as the first to step foot in the far north (albeit not without debate), the narrative of the man who made the mission possible has been neglected.

What was at the highest top of the earth remained a total mystery for a long time. Was there any land nearby? Is it just the sea? Is this a location where mysterious monsters and marine animals live? Even when a more realistic depiction of the North Pole emerged—that it was mainly made up of floating ice—the competition to claim this uncharted territory remained hot.

Robert Peary’s desire for the Pole, as well as fame, was unquenchable. Between 1886 and 1909, he went on seven arduous Arctic excursions. Matthew Henson was the sole person who joined him on each of those journeys. Together, they overcame the most difficult Arctic conditions and planted the American flag at the North Pole.

Peary, dubbed “the most nasty guy in the history of arctic exploration” by author Fergus Fleming, had little interest in sharing the honor of the achievement with anybody else, particularly a black man. “I must be the peer or superior of everyone around me to be content,” Peary wrote to his mother years before his search for the Pole began.

Henson, on the other hand, made Peary quite uncomfortable. While Peary saw him as a lesser man, Henson was the de facto leader of the Polar expeditions—Henson was in charge of the other men, dogs, and supplies; Henson was in charge of fixing the sledges (tough sleds) and using those sledges to pull Peary to and from the Pole, who’s walking ability had been hampered by the loss of eight of his toes to frostbite on a previous expedition. Without Matthew Henson’s talents, the American flag would not have been the first to fly over the globe.

Peary had secretly intended to leave Henson behind once they were near to the Pole in 1909, so that he could claim the furthest north for himself. However, the expedition made better time than he anticipated (it’s difficult to keep track while you’re lying on a sled), and the crew arrived at the Pole before he could abandon the others.

Peary was crushed that he would have to share the glory of the moment with four Eskimos and a black man. Henson, the man who had saved his life on a previous expedition and had remained completely loyal to him for 22 years, when every other member of the expedition had left due to Peary’s insufferable personality and demands, had immediately ceased to speak to him. Peary prevented Henson from writing, lecturing, or giving interviews about the mission because he was unwilling to share the subsequent fame. On the trip, Henson took 100 photos with his own camera and developed them with his own money. Peary borrowed these photographs and never returned them.


Of course, this freed Peary to lecture and publish freely, portraying himself as the expedition’s single hero, thereby overshadow Henson’s position. But Henson deserves to be included in the pantheon of the world’s greatest explorers, and we can learn a lot about manhood from his life.

Don’t be content with your current situation. Matthew Henson was born in Maryland in 1866. Both of his parents died before he was seven, and he was taken to live with an uncle. Even as a child, Henson knew he wanted more out of life than the mostly menial employment accessible to African-Americans at the time. The young kid set sail for Baltimore and made his way to the docks. He secured a job as a cabin boy on a ship and set sail for China. He found that life on the ocean suited him well, and he spent the next many years of his life studying masculine skills and the virtue of hardihood while sailing all around the globe.

When Peary first encountered Henson in 1888, he was blown away by the veteran sailor’s “more than ordinary brains and pluck.” Peary requested Henson to join him on their first Arctic voyage in 1891 after the two had spent some time touring South America; Henson agreed.

Henson has a history of surprising expectations by continuously widening his views. Slavery had been abolished less than 30 years previously, and not only did prejudice prevent African-Americans from participating in most activities, but it was commonly assumed that blacks would perish in the Arctic’s extreme cold. Henson would go out of his way to show that this isn’t the case.

Matthew Henson posing in fur coat and pants.

Become completely immersed in the culture. Despite the fact that Peary was one of the first explorers to adopt many of the Eskimo methods of traveling and clothing, and despite the fact that he fathered a kid with an Eskimo lady (as did Henson), he considered the Eskimo people as a race of inferior children. He had made no attempt to learn their language. On the other side, Henson spent a lot of time getting to know the Eskimos and learning about their culture. He became proficient in Inuit, making him the only American to master the language at the time. He held them in high regard, and they in turn held him in high regard:

“I have been to all intents and purposes an Esquimo, having Esquimos for friends, speaking their language, clothed in their garb, living in the same sort of caves, eating the same food, experiencing their joys, and often suffering their griefs for periods spanning more than twelve months.” These individuals have grown on me. Every man, woman, and kid in their tribe is familiar to me. They are my pals, and they consider me to be one of theirs.”

Henson’s understanding of Eskimo culture enabled him to interact with the Eskimos who accompanied them on the trips and learn crucial survival techniques that contributed to the expedition’s success. Greenlandic Inuit continue to tell tales and sing songs about Mahripaluq (“Matt, the nice one”) until this day.

Develop genuine grit. While we romanticize the lives of famous explorers, the reality of life on an expedition was grim and arduous. Temperatures would plunge to 60 degrees below zero in the far north, with gusts capable of making it seem like 125 degrees below zero. In the blink of an eye, these same winds would pick up 100-pound boulders and fling them into the air, shattering and murdering persons.


While the Pole seems to be a sheet of flat ice, it is really studded with 60-100 foot high ridges and speckled with portions of “rubble-ice” that had to be scraped away with pickaxes and could break the sledges into numerous pieces. With the ice stretched as far as the eye could see, the guys trekked for 13 hours at a time. Despite the fact that the march was physically demanding, the guys opted to move rather than sleep. The soldiers would wake up every hour and had to beat their extremities to keep the circulation flowing while sleeping in igloos on blankets directly on top of the snow. And the sound of roaring winds and ice shattering was terrible.

They’d have to wait for the temperature to drop and a thin coating of ice to develop when they came to a lead (an open channel of water between the ice). Then they’d slowly cross with their dogs and sledges, looking for little fissures and holding their breath, knowing that the next step might send them crashing through the ice and drowning. Henson did try a swim once, but was rescued from the sea very soon. He was back on the march as soon as he changed his clothing.

To overcome these challenges, it requires a guy with tenacity, but Henson had it in spades.

Develop your willpower. Arctic exploration was clearly not a pleasant experience. Most men’s incentive to leave home would be sapped after just one of these arduous trips; Henson’s ability to withstand the draw of home and hearth not once, but seven times is a monument to his drive and will. That commitment would be put to the test many times, but perhaps none more so than on an expedition to reach Greenland’s northern border in 1895. The crew had three sledges and 37 dogs as they left Anniversary Lodge. They only had one sledge and one dog when they returned three months later. Henson described the traumatic encounter as a “long race with death,” describing himself as ragged, hungry, freezing, and fatigued. After that, it took him months to restore his health. When he returned to the United States on a ship, he promised adamantly that he would never, ever leave his “happy home in warmer regions.” However, when summer arrived a few months later, he was once again northbound with Peary.

“I have seen too many eager beginnings, and I am sad to report some of them did not finish well,” he observed of the numerous bright-eyed individuals who entered the excursions with zeal only to abandon them halfway through. Henson is not one of them. He was determined to complete the mission and would not give up until the objective was reached.

Feed both your body and mind. When tackling life’s obstacles, Henson recognized that mental power was equally as vital as physical strength. Man cannot survive only on pemmican. He spent the long dark evenings of the Arctic winter with his books when he wasn’t working. He carried works by Peary, Dickens’ Bleak House, Kipling’s Barrack Room Ballads, and Thomas Hood’s poetry with him on the trip to Greenland during the early phases of the expedition. He put just the Bible in his sledge when supplies had to be cut down for the last push. Henson swapped books with the other guys on the trek and had passionate literary conversations over the campfire. Henson also kept a religious notebook, writing notes whenever time and circumstances permitted.


Make your presence felt. Henson didn’t have to say anything to the critics who questioned the presence of a black guy on an Arctic trip; he just got to work. Henson was a Renaissance guy from the Arctic. A fan of Jim Henson, Booker T. Washington, put it succinctly:

“He not only had time and opportunity to refine his knowledge of the literature throughout his twenty-three years as the explorer’s companion, but he also obtained a good practical understanding of all that was a vital element of everyday existence in the ice-bound wilderness of polar exploration.” He worked as a blacksmith, carpenter, and chef at various periods. He was well familiar with the Esquimos’ way of life, rituals, and language. He designed and manufactured the sledges that he used to make the voyage to the Pole. He was not only capable of driving a dog-team or skinning a musk-ox like a local, but he was also a navigator. In this manner, Mr. Henson established himself as the expedition’s most trusted and valuable member.”

Henson’s abilities in trade, hunting, dog-training, barbering, tailoring, and soldering may be added to the skills BTW describes. Every day, he repaired the sledges, and when the ice broke them, he could reassemble the parts to make a new operational sledge. And he accomplished it all despite being surrounded by Arctic storms. He taught himself these abilities by carefully studying others and practicing them until he was comfortable with them.

“He was vital to Peary and of greater genuine worth than the combined contributions of all four White men,” Admiral Donald B. MacMillan wrote in a 1920 edition of National Geographic. This indispensability, along with his masculine fortitude and resolve, ensured him a spot on the trip and in history.

Peary Henson's expedition after successfully raising the flag at north pole.


Matthew Henson’s autobiography, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole,

Fergus Flemin’s Ninety Degrees North



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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the main idea of Matthew Henson?

A: Matthew Henson was a black American who, in 1829 at age six or seven, discovered that he could talk to the wolves and taught himself how to speak with them.

What obstacles did Matthew overcome?

A: Matthew overcame physical and emotional challenges that required him to change his ways.

What is Matthew Henson character traits?

A: Matthew Hensons character traits are kindness, humility and an unrelenting devotion to his goals.