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Harriman Expedition Retraced

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The 1899 Expedition
The 1899
Expedition


 

Original Participants
Original
Participants

Brief Chronology
Brief
Chronology

Science Aboard the Elder
Science
Aboard the
Elder

History of Exploration
Exploration &
Settlement

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

Alaska Native Communities
Alaska
Natives

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John Burroughs

1837-1921


John Burroughs

John Burroughs, photographed in Yosemite in 1909 by F. P. Clapworthy.
Source: California Academy of Sciences.
John Burroughs was sixty-two years old and a self-proclaimed "home body" when Edward Harriman asked him to join the Alaska Expedition in 1899. Burroughs was not a traveler, nor was he a scientist. As a young man he'd tried his hand at many things: at botany, medicine, school teaching and office work at the Treasury in Washington, D.C. It was in Washington that he'd come under the influence of Walt Whitman. The poet urged Burroughs to leave his office job and write full time. Burroughs moved to the Catskill Mountains in New York State, and maintained a successful writing career for decades. He had published hundreds of articles on birds, flowers, and natural wonders of all sorts - his 27 books had sold over two million copies. He was the most famous nature writer of the day.

His fame made him a natural choice for the Harriman trip. As he himself said, he "was not a man of science," but could "graze eagerly in every one of its fields - astronomy, geology, botany, zoology, physics, chemistry, natural history."

True; but John Burroughs liked grazing close to home. He'd never seen the American West, and had certainly never seen Alaska. He enjoyed the train trip west but, once on board the Elder, was often seasick and always cold. However, there were bright spots. Even in the more remote ports, he came across people who had read his books, a fact the pleased him no end.

Burroughs became the official historian of the expedition, and the history he wrote is filled with rich description and sharp opinion. Nature west of the Mississippi was too showy for his tastes: it "seems to covet the utmost publicity." The small houses set out on the vast prairies affected him "like a nightmare," and he referred to the grand vistas of Alaska as "unfamiliar nature." The official story of the voyage is also spiced with observations about Burroughs's own friendly rivalry with John Muir. "In John Muir we had an authority on glaciers, and a thorough one -- so thorough that he would not allow the rest of the party to have an opinion on the subject." But at the same time Burroughs was eloquent in his description of the new things he saw. Fur seals, he wrote, "suggested huge larvae... They appear to be yet in a kind of sack or envelope. The males wriggle about like a man in a bag; but once in the water they are part of the wave, as fleet and nimble as a fish, or as a bird in the air."

After the trip, Burroughs continued to write, but he never took another trip even remotely like the one he'd made to Alaska. By World War I, his kind of writing had fallen out of favor, and after his death in 1920, his reputation slowly dimmed. It was only with the rebirth of the American environmental movement in the 1960s that his name, and the vital intimacies of his writings, came again into the public eye.


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

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