In 1909, the North Pole was officially “discovered”, with two brave Americans leading the expedition: Robert Peary and Matthew Henson. Hundreds of other explorers had tried before, and failed, dying of exposure or starvation. These two intrepid explorers had worked together for 18 years before the expedition that finally reached the North Pole.
Today is a fitting date to celebrate the accomplishments of an important but lesser-known American hero, Matthew Henson. In fact, he was the first one to actually reach the North Pole: “On April 6, 1909, Henson arrived at Camp Jesup, 89°47′, 45 minutes ahead of Peary, concluding by dead reckoning that he had reached the Pole. Henson greeted Peary, “I think I’m the first man to sit on top of the world.”
To learn more about Henson’s early years as well as the historical context for the incredible adventure of the North Pole expedition, you can’t go wrong with the following book picture book:
Keep on! The Story of Matthew Henson, Co-Discoverer of the North Pole by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by Stephen Alcorn
Matthew Henson began his life of exploration at the young age of 13, when he joined an expedition at sea for 5 years. He learned navigation, history, mathematics–an amazing education not often available to African-Americans born right after the Civil War. The book mostly focuses on his co-discovery of the North Pole, framing the amazing adventure with all its hardships, drama, and exciting events. Excerpts from Henson’s expedition diaries, a timeline, and an epilogue place the story in its historical context.
You’ll find more information about these two explorers, especially their discovery of the North Pole at this site, including a link to Matthew Henson’s first magazine article published in 1910 by a magazine called The World’s Work. It includes photos Henson took with his own camera during the 1909 expedition. (They also include is a restored copy in JPEG format for you to enjoy.)