Matthew Alexander Henson was the first African-American Arctic explorer, an associate of Robert Peary on seven voyages over a period of nearly twenty-three years. At the age of twelve, Henson made his way to Baltimore, Maryland, where he went to sea as a cabin boy on a merchant ship named Katie Hines. Henson sailed around the world for the next several years.
While working at a clothing store in Washington, D.C., in November 1887, Henson met Commander Robert E. Peary. Learning of Henson’s sea experience, Peary recruited him as an aide for his planned voyage and surveying expedition to Nicaragua, with four other men. Peary supervised 45 engineers on the canal survey in Nicaragua.
Impressed with Henson’s seamanship on that voyage, Peary recruited him to travel to the Arctic. Henson served as a navigator and craftsman, traded with the Inuit people and learned their language, and was known as Peary’s “first man” for these arduous travels.