All the Things

A blog by Holly Papa.

Onward: A Photobiography of African-American Polar Explorer Matthew Henson by Dolores Johnson

by | Apr 20, 2009 | Blog | 3 comments

onwardI first heard of Matthew Henson before at the Utah State History Fair (similar to Science fair, but with history) several years ago. A boy had created a documentary on Matthew Henson. Incredibly well-done documentary and a fascinating story of bravery in the face of danger and racial discrimination. So when I saw this book at the library I had to check it out.

Matthew Henson is one of America’s unsung heroes. Henson is self-educated son of sharecroppers who sets out on his own at the ripe old age of 13!!! He works as a cabin boy and sailor on several ships and travels the world. Eventually, his love for adventure gets him a job with Robert Peary, whose main goal in life was be the first human to reach the North Pole. These two men shared the same passion – to reach the north pole. It took years to accomplish their goal, which was finally achieved on April 6, 1909 just over a hundred years ago.

Without Matthew Henson, Peary would never had made it and you could say the same of Peary. Matthew was very adept at learning the Inuit language and survival techniques, which one more than one occasion saved their lives. Peary was regarded as a hero and awarded prestigious medals, money and a promotion to Rear Admiral in the Navy. Congress even passed  a resolution thanking Peary for his exploration and achievement. Not one of these awards ever mention Matthew Henson because he was African American and most people considered him to Peary’s man servant as opposed to fellow explorer. After Henson’s death, with the help of African American professor Dr. S. Allen Counter, Matthew Henson was later recognized as the co-discoverer of the North pole.

I thought this book was well written and I loved the primary source photographs throughout the book. Lots of great references including a reference to another book for children called Matthew Henson: Co-Discover of the North Pole by Laura Baskes Litwin. I’ll have to check it out. One of my favorite pictures is in the afterword where Matthew Henson at the age of 81 reads to a child from comic book series detailing Henson’s adventure entitled Negro Heroes. I would recommend this book for ages 8 and up and would make an excellent classroom resource on American History and exploration.


  1. Britt

    Ah, yes, the good old History Fair.

    Very interesting.

  2. caribookscoops

    I think I would have enjoyed doing the history fair as a kid, it’s frustrating to plan one, but well worth seeing the projects students create.

    And yes it is definitely an interesting one!


    Way cool! Some extremely valid points! I appreciate you penning this article plus the
    rest of the website is really good.



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