"Hidden Figures" Actress Taraji P. Henson's Great-Great Uncle was First to Reach the North Pole
Updated: Jun 13
The "Hidden Figures" actress has a relative in her family tree who made a great contribution to science by being the first to reach the North Pole.
Actress and author Taraji P. Henson starred in the historical drama movie Hidden Figures, portraying real-life African-American mathematician Katherine Johnson, whose work contributed to NASA, the space race, and the advancement of science.
An interesting tie-in to Taraji's ancestry is that her great-great uncle, Matthew Alexander Henson, also made major contributions in the fields of science and exploration.
Matthew Henson was an American explorer who was part of an expedition which claimed to be the first to reach the North Pole, with Matthew himself, an African-American, being the first member of the party to reach the North Pole.
Matthew was the half-brother of Taraji P. Henson's great-great grandfather, Joseph Henson. The Henson family hailed from Nanjemoy, a very small village in Maryland south of Washington, D.C. where the Henson family lived for at least three generations.
Matthew Henson was born 8 August 1866 to sharecropper parents Lemuel Henson and Caroline Waters Gaines. Lemuel Henson is Taraji P. Henson's 3rd great grandfather. He and his family were free people of color before the American Civil War.
At the age of twelve, Matthew Henson began working as a ship cabin boy, waiting on officers and running errands for the captain. Matthew worked for six years aboard ships before returning to Washington, D.C. to work as a salesclerk in a clothing store. One day a customer entered the store, changing 21 year-old Matthew's life forever. That customer was US Navy admiral and American Explorer Robert Peary. Upon learning of Henson's seagoing experience, Peary immediately hired Henson as a valet.
Matthew Henson first joined Peary on surveying expeditions in Nicaragua. During their time together, Peary was so impressed with Henson that he recruited him as a colleague for future expeditions. After their assignment in hot and humid Central America, they set their sights on an altogether different landscape: the barren, frozen lands in the Arctic.
In 1891–92, Henson joined Peary on their first Arctic expedition, serving as a navigator and craftsman. Henson was esteemed by all in the expedition as Peary's "first man."
In all, Henson accompanied Peary on seven voyages to the Arctic, spanning a period of 23 years, 18 of which the two were on expeditions together. Henson and Peary's expeditions attempting to reach the geographic North Pole were funded by various groups, including the American Geographic Society, the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, and the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences.
During their Arctic voyages, Henson traded with the native Inuit people and became fluent in their language. Called Mahri-Pahluk by the Inuit, Henson was said to be the only one of the explorers who mastered their language and could drive a sled dog team as good as any native.
During their expeditions in Greenland, Henson and Peary both took Inuit women as "country wives" and had children with them. Henson's concubine, Akatingwah, fathered his only child, a son named Anauakaq, born in 1906.
During their 1908-1909 Arctic expedition, Peary selected Henson and four other Inuit men for his team to make the final push for the North Pole. During this stretch, Peary became unable to continue on foot due to frost bite and rode in a dog sled. Peary sent Henson ahead as a scout. In the lead of the team, on 6 April 1909, Matthew Henson became the first known person to reach the North Pole, where he planted the American flag.
While the claim of reaching the North Pole was debated in newspapers of the day, The National Geographic Society and the Naval Affairs Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives both credited Peary's team with having reached the North Pole.
While Admiral Peary received many accolades for leading the team, Henson's contributions to the expeditions were generally only known in the African-American community, where Henson was honored at dinners celebrating his achievement. Henson later published a couple memoirs, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole, and Dark Companion.
In later years, Henson finally received the wider recognition he deserved. In 1937 he was admitted as a member to the prestigious Explorers Club in New York City, a professional society promoting scientific exploration. In 1944 Congress awarded Henson (and five other explorers from the expedition) duplicates of the silver Peary Polar Expedition Medal that was given to Peary. Henson was also honored by Presidents Truman and Eisenhower.
Matthew Henson passed away on 3 September 1955 in New York City. In 1988, the remains of Henson and his wife, Lucy, were relocated to Arlington National Cemetery in a commemoration ceremony.
Taraji P. Henson, the great-great niece of Matthew Henson, attended North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, where she intended to study electrical engineering. She later transferred to Howard University to study drama.
In 2015, Taraji P. Henson won the Critics Choice Television Award for Best Actress in a Drama Series (for Empire), becoming the first African-American actress in the history of the awards show to do so. It appears that Taraji's Henson family have been African-American trailblazers of "firsts" down to the present day.
About the Author
As a genealogist and family historian, I enjoy researching the family trees of notable figures. It gives me a sense of their background and what makes them who they are today. To see their roots and where they come from is inspiring. I’m often in awe of the experiences of their ancestors and how they connect to the present. I hope to inspire others to research their own family trees and find out where they come from by sharing interesting insights from the family trees of notable figures.
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