One day, Henson saw a sign advertising a ship captain looking for young men to go to sea. Henson figured he had nothing to lose and signed up. That was the beginning of Matthew Henson's sailing career. For the rest of his teenage years, Henson sailed around the world. He learned mathematics, navigation, the operations of a ship and how to read books and maps. By the time he was 21, Matthew Henson was an experienced sailor.
Between his terms at sea, Henson would sometimes work to earn a little money. One job he had would change the course of his life. The year was 1887, the place was a fur and supplies shop in Washington, D. C. where Matthew Henson had been working as a clerk. It was a family owned shop so the owner knew Henson quite well. One day, as Henson was working, a man visited the store to buy some supplies. He was an engineer and explorer named Robert Peary. Peary needed supplies and a servant to take with him on a trip to Nicaragua. He was working for the government to chart the Nicaraguan jungle in hopes of building a canal there. The store owner told Peary that Henson was "bright and strong. He's only 21, but he's already been around the world."
The trip to Nicaragua was the changing point in Henson's life. He used his mapmaking skills from his sailing experience to help Peary chart the Nicaraguan jungle. Peary was so impressed that he made Henson his trusted assistant and fellow explorer.
Peary's dream was to reach the North Pole. He wanted to be the first man in the world to reach it and he wanted Matthew Henson to be right there with him. Henson was there every time except for the first attempt. Over the course of the first five trips, Henson learned everything he possibly could from the Eskimo about surviving in the arctic. He learned to break trails, build camp, repair sleds, drive a dog team, hunt polar bears, and even make clothes out of animal skins. Henson was so skilled and strong that Peary remarked "I couldn't get along without him."
On his last trip to reach the North Pole, Peary took Henson with him. Peary was almost fifty, and more determined that ever to reach the North Pole before he died. Conditions in the arctic favored the expedition. It was spring and the winter storms had passed. The men had just enough supplies to take a single trip to the site that Peary had calculated to be the North Pole. April 9th, 1909, six men made a mad dash for the North Pole. They were (in order from first to last) Matthew Henson, followed by four Eskimos pulling Robert Peary on a sled (his feet were frostbitten.) Henson out ran them all, becoming the first man in the world to reach the North Pole. Peary handed him the American Flag, which he planted at the site, in the snow. He then posed for a picture with the four Eskimo guides who led Peary and Henson to the top of the world.
The explorers returned home to a divided public. Their claim to be the first to reach the North Pole was disputed by some and believed by others. Another explorer even claimed to reach the pole first. Their claim was finally proven to be true but, not without consequence. Matthew Henson was shoved out of the limelight. Peary, his fellow explorer and "friend" claimed that he was the first man to reach the North Pole even though it was not true. Henson, the first man in the world to reach the North pole was reduced to carrying luggage and parking cars to earn a living. Years after that famous expedition, Henson was accepted as a member of the Explorer's Club. It was the club that gave Henson his well deserved recognition. The club worked to get Henson recognized as the true discoverer of the North Pole. Their efforts paid off. In 1954, a year before Henson died, President Dwight D. Eisenhower presented him with an award acknowledging his great accomplishment. Matthew Henson's family was so greatful, that after his death, they donated half of his insurance money to the Explorer's Club.