Three Black Explorers Who Made History
February 13, 2021

It’s Black History Month! Who doesn’t love a good tale about early adventurers and the lands they trekked? These three Black explorers defied the odds and deserve to be celebrated for their amazing achievements.

Matthew Henson

Matthew Henson’s life is like something from a really good novel. At the age of 13 and as an orphan, Henson became a cabin boy on a ship in 1879. About a decade later, he met US Navy engineer Robert Peary. Thus began their long exploration partnership lasting more than 20 years. The two documented their many trips to the north, including one where the pair may have reached the North Pole in 1909 and it’s possible that between the two men, Henson reached it first, and Henson believed he was.

Unfortunately, Henson’s achievements were downplayed and Peary got more credit at the time. (Ya know, because racism.) Henson was posthumously awarded the Hubbard Medal in 2000.


Mae Jemison

On September 12, 1992, Mae Jemison made history by becoming the first Black woman to travel into space. During her mission, she orbited Earth for about eight days and was part of a team that conducted experiments. It was also the 50th shuttle mission and the same mission that included the first married couple in space.

The STS-47 crew – Jemison can be seen on the right in the blue closest to the camera

Before making her journey into space, Jemison was raised in Chicago, went to Stanford and Cornell, was a doctor in the Peace Corps in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and also conducted vaccine research with the Centers for Disease Control.

I think my favorite thing about Jemison is that she finished serving in the Peace Corps and was like, “I think I’d like to be an astronaut now.”

After her interstellar adventure, Jemison started a consulting firm, founded a science camp for kids, was a professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth, received a boatload of honors and awards and did, like, a lot of other cool things related to medicine, science, space, and much more.


James Beckwourth

The mountainous terrain of western Nevada and eastern California was no match for explorer James Beckwourth. In 1851, Beckwourth led the first wagon train of settlers through the Beckwourth Pass. In the same area, you can also find the community of Beckwourth, not far from Beckwourth Peak. Thousands of settlers used the trail.

Born into slavery, Beckwourth later became a fur trader in 1842, becoming known as an especially apt trapper. He married the daughter of a Crow chief and lived with the band for several years and, according to his later account, rose to prominence within the Crow Nation.

He later volunteered with the US Army during the Second Seminole War and later—like so many others—went to California during the Gold Rush. The Sierra Nevada Mountains proved to be one of the many tremendous obstacles for settlers and Beckwourth’s trail helped ease their journey and helped them to avoid 150 miles of extra travel as well as more dangerous passes like the infamous Donner Pass.

Jillianne Hamilton is a history enthusiast and the author of The Spirited Mrs. Pringle (historical fiction), The Hobby Shop on Barnaby Street (historical romance), and The Lazy Historian’s Guide to the Wives of Henry VIII (non-fiction). Jill launched The Lazy Historian in 2015. She lives in Charlottetown on Canada’s beautiful east coast. Learn more.

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Hi, I'm Jillianne.

I'm a historical fiction writer, a lover of history, and a hoarder of books. I'm the author of The Spirited Mrs. Pringle, The Hobby Shop on Barnaby Street, and The Lazy Historian's Guide to the Wives of Henry VIII.

The Lazy Historian is a history blog featuring stories from the past with sass. With a focus on Western European and women's history, I delve into anything fascinating. Learn more.