merchant ship“So, convince me. Why should I accept a boy like yourself aboard the Katie Hines?”

The man leaned back in his chair. He patted his scruffy white beard into place a time or two, then crossed his hands across the giant stomach that rolled out in front of him. He looked at Matthew expectantly with his bright blue eyes.

Matthew just spent the better part of the evening trying to get the attention of the grandfatherly captain. It was hard since he was supposed to always stay in the back washing dishes and all of the captains were only in port for short periods. But Matthew was determined to get away from the sadness to explore the excitement of the sea.

Now that he finally got a captain to talk to him, though, Matthew had no idea what to say. How was he supposed to convince a captain to take on a scrawny kid from the farm? What would convince him?

“Well, sir, I’m a hard-worker,” Matthew finally blurted out. “I worked hard on the farm ever since I can remember.”

“How do I know you’re not running away from hard work?” the captain asked.

“I ain’t leaving the farm,” Matthew answered quickly. “I was sent away when Pa died. I ain’t been on the farm for two winters now.”

“So you’re leaving your Ma on her own?”

“No, sir!” Matthew was shocked at the suggestion. “No, sir. Ma died when I was still a babe. I don’t even remember her. I had sisters, but I don’t know where they was sent.”

The captain tilted his head. He was still looking at Matthew. It was like he wanted a different angle on him.

“You were sent away from the farm, you said,” his voice was softer than it had been, but still just as demanding. “Where are you supposed to be, boy?”

Washington DC

“Nowhere I guess,” Matthew answered truthfully. He could see the big man didn’t like his answer, so he quickly started to explain the rest. “When Pa died, Caroline moved us in with uncle in the city. That was fine. The city was like nothing I ever seen before. All the people! I even got to go to school.”

Matthew didn’t realize it, but at the thought of seeing the new places, people, and ideas was exciting to him. His eyes lit up with it and he could feel his heart beating in his chest. He allowed himself to remember the good times for a moment. But, like always, they were quickly chased away by the sadness.

“What happened?” the captain asked softly.

“Uncle died, too,” Matthew said, looking back down to the floor. That had been hard. He was only 11 when it happened. The adults came and took care of his uncle. After the funeral, though, no one knew what to do with him. He was old enough to fend for himself, they figured. It was 1878. Lots of boys were doing it.

Matthew was on his own. After a moment, he told the captain, “I went to work at Janey’s.”

“What makes you think you can be a good cabin boy?”

“I had six sisters and a step-mother,” Matthew said with a grin. “I know how to keep things cleaned up nice and neat like you need on a ship.”

Matthew HensonWhen Captain Childs decided to accept Matthew Henson on board his ship, he became like a father to the lonely boy. He taught Matthew how to read and write, mathematics, geography, history, and the Bible. He also taught him everything he could about being a good sailor and explorer as they traveled to places like China, Japan, North Africa, and the Black Sea.

It was a good foundation for Matthew to become the famous explorer he would one day be. Matthew Henson (1866-1955) is credited as being the first African-American, and among the first men, to travel to the North Pole.

Matthew Henson opens new worlds