African-American Explorers and Astronauts

York traveled with the Louis and Clark expedition.
York traveled with the Louis and Clark expedition.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

For centuries, African-Americans have dreamed of discovering new and distant lands. Some achieved their goals. Their bravery and determination helped them fulfill their dreams.

Both Matthew Alexander Henson and Mae Jemison pushed themselves to continue their journeys even when the roads ahead proved difficult. Henson and others in his group fought the bitter cold and icy stretches of land to reach their destination -- the North Pole. Jemison studied and trained hard so she would be prepared to board a space shuttle and travel into space.

Other African-American explorers and astronauts have blazed trails as well. Their efforts have contributed to building the United States into the strong nation that it is today. Their adventurous spirits inspire us all.

In early America, people of African ancestry played important roles in opening the West as trappers, traders, and scouts. Among them were James Beckwourth, John Baptiste Pointe DuSable, and a man known simply as York.

These men were courageous frontiersmen who helped to shape America during the 1700s and 1800s. In the later part of the 1700s, Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable brought his extensive knowledge and skills as a merchant, fur trader, and farmer to the Midwest. Around 1773 he built a large trading post near Lake Michigan. Later he added a house, two barns, a mill, a dairy, a bakery, a poultry house, a workshop, and many other buildings. The settlement grew to become the city of Chicago.

York, who was once a slave, went on to become a very important member of the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1803-1806. The expedition members mapped new territory and brought back important information about American Indians and various plants, animals, and minerals.

James P. Beckwourth was a mountaineer, a scout, and a pioneer. He also was a successful trapper and trader. He is best known for discovering, in 1850, a safer passage through the Sierra Nevada mountains for those seeking gold nuggets in California. That route is now known as The Beckwourth Trail. He also was one of the founders of Pueblo, Colorado.

Matthew Henson placed a flag at the North Pole.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Matthew Alexander Henson ran away from his Charles County, Maryland, home shortly after his eleventh birthday. At the age of twelve he became a cabin boy on a ship called the Katie Hines. The ship's captain taught Henson geography, mathematics, the Bible, literature, history, and navigation. Young

Henson sailed to China, Japan, North Africa, and the Black Sea.

Henson's seafaring skills proved valuable when he joined explorer Robert Peary in 1887 on an expedition to survey a canal route through Nicaragua. Henson and Peary worked together for eighteen years on seven different and dangerous Arctic explorations.

Over the years, Henson learned to speak the language of the native Arctic people. When several others on Peary's expedition gave up, Henson pressed on despite the many hardships. As a result, on April 6, 1909, Henson reached the North Pole just ahead of Peary. Four native Arctic people were the only others present when the United States flag was planted in the ice of the North Pole.

Go to the next page to learn about more African-American explorers and astronauts.

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