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Harriman Expedition Retraced

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Looking at Primary Sources


Historical research requires the use of primary sources of information. These are actual records produced at the time historical events are taking place. Primary sources for the Harriman Alaska Expedition include the letters, diaries, maps, navigation charts, field notes, photographs and sketches created before and during the 1899 trip by people who took part in or witnessed the expedition. These sources are used to create secondary sources of historical information. Books, magazine articles, and Web sites are all examples of secondary sources based on primary documents.

The illustrations on this page are copies of a single primary document, one of thousands used in by historians in researching the Harriman Expedition. The first illustration shows a portion of the front page of the document, a brief letter from C. Hart Merriam to geologist B.K. Emerson. Merriam is inviting Emerson to become part of the expedition.

Merriam's letter

A portion of a note written by C. Hart Merriam to B.K. Emerson before the Harriman Expedition.
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Emerson's note

Emerson's scrawled notes on the back of Merriam's letter.
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A researcher's first job is determine the document's authenticity by raising questions about the letter itself. Where did the document come from? Is it consistent with other documents produced by Merriam? Does the penmanship, paper and ink belong to the period in which it was created? Since this letter was found among Emerson's files, and since the penmanship and style are consistent with Merriam's other letters, this note is considered authentic.

Another research task is to carefully transcribe the hand-written note, creating an accurate typescript copy that can be more easily read. A transcript of the first paragraph reads: "Mr. E. H. Harriman, a wealthy New Yorker, is going to Alaska about the end of May, to be gone about 60 days from Seattle. He has engaged one of the best steamers on the Pacific coast and expects to go as far as Kadiak Id., going by the inside passage, Yakutat and Cook's Inlet & returning direct."

Researchers must also analyze the document. What does it tell us about the expedition and the people involved? The second illustration shows what has been judged to be Emerson's writing, jotted on the back of Merriam's note. A partial transcription "very difficult to leave Amherst before June 1/await Harriman summons/assume expenses covered from New York" tells us that Emerson wanted to go but was concerned about the schedule and about money. Hardly earth-shaking revelations, but rather one small set of clues that 21st century researchers can use in studying the methods and motives behind a 19th century expedition to Alaska.

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

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