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Harriman Expedition Retraced



The 1899 Expedition
The 1899


Original Participants

Brief Chronology

Science Aboard the Elder
Aboard the

History of Exploration
Exploration &

Development Along Alaska's Coast
Growth Along Alaska's Coast

Alaska Native Communities


Prof. William H. Brewer

1828 - 1910

William Brewer

William Brewer, photographed in 1864, during his work with the California Geological Survey.
Source: The Bancroft Library
William Brewer was the typical nineteenth century American farm boy. He received a basic education from the district school near Ithaca, New York; he spent a few winters studying at a private academy; but his real classroom was the farm itself. He became interested in the effects of climate and soil conditions on crop yields, and was convinced that science held the answers. At twenty, he took his first trip away from home, traveling to New Haven, Connecticut to study agricultural chemistry at Yale. He did well in his studies, and eventually earned a science degree. He took teaching jobs so that he could work in the winter and travel in the summer.

In 1858, Brewer married and settled in Pennsylvania but he did not stay there long. His young wife and infant son died in 1860. A few months later he was invited to join the first geological survey of California. The state wanted a comprehensive report on its natural resources and agricultural potential. Brewer, after his tragic loss, wanted to be on the move.

Over the next four years he traveled California, mapping the terrain, classifying fossils, testing soil. He became known as a meticulous field worker and this, coupled with his earlier teaching experience, led to an offer of a professorship in agriculture at Yale. He accepted the job, and held it for the next four decades. He remarried, and, for the most part, stayed close to home. He did make a few extended trips, including one to Greenland. He was so delighted with the geology of that northern region, that he became a founding member of The Arctic Club. Thus, in 1899, he was the ideal Harriman scientist, experienced, respected, and enchanted with the Arctic.

Brewer was also seventy-one, and one of the oldest passengers on the Elder. Even so, he held his own, competing with Muir as a storyteller, tramping about all day on glacier fields. His personal diary of the voyage is one of the more faithful records of the trip: daily notations about the temperature, barometric pressure and sea conditions are coupled with private observations about the beauty of the passing scenery.

On returning he contributed a small essay on climate to the volumes published about the expedition. The essay is not of much scientific consequence, but it does give the modern reader a glimpse into the nineteenth century's fascination with the weather, before the time of satellite meteorology and computer forecasting. Brewer died in 1910.




For information on the Harriman Retraced Expedition e-mail: harriman2001@science.smith.edu

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