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Harriman Expedition Retraced


expedition log



Robert McCracken Peck

Harriman Alaska Expedition

The following text is a rough approximation of a lecture that was presented aboard the Clipper Odyssey as part of the "Harriman Retraced" Expedition. The lecture was given on August 5 to provide context for Part II of the expedition. The original lecture was illustrated with historical slides showing the personalities and subject areas discussed.

My interest in the Harriman Expedition goes back more than 20 years when I was researching for a book about Louis Agassiz Fuertes [A Celebration of Birds: The Life and Art of Louis Agassiz Fuertes, New York: Walker & Co., 1982] and an article for Audubon magazine about the expedition as a whole ["A Cruise for Rest and Recreation," Audubon, October, 1982]. As part of my background research I was fortunate to arrange an interview with W. Averell Harriman, the only surviving member of the expedition.

harlequin duck

Harlequin duck, Histrionicus histrionicus, Glacier Bay, June 9, 1899 painted by by Louis Agassiz Fuertes.
Click image for a larger view.

Governor Harriman, who served as our ambassador to the Soviet Union and to Great Britain, was an advisor to several presidents, and served as Governor of New York, was 8 years old at the time he joined his parents on the 1899 expedition. His younger brother, Roland, was 3. Governor Harriman had wonderful memories of the trip but all, as you might imagine, were from the perspective of an eight year old.

Of all the famous scientists and other personalities who participated in the expedition, Harriman could only remember two of them: John Burroughs and John Muir. He said he remembered their white beards and Muir's heavy Scottish accent and that, although they were very nice to him, they were also a little bit scary. At the time, the two men were the best known naturalists in America, far better known than any of the other luminaries on the Elder, including Edward Harriman himself.

The author of over thirty books and countless magazine articles, John Burroughs was a much beloved writer with a reputation that extended world-wide. People tend not to remember him as much today, but at the time of the Harriman expedition he had the national following of a pop star. When Teddy Roosevelt invited Burroughs to join him on a train trip across America to bolster his reelection campaign for the presidency in 1903, Burroughs often drew more admirers than the president at their whistle-stops! Roosevelt used Burroughs's popularity for political purposes, but he also genuinely admired him and listened to his advice. In his quiet way, Burroughs had considerable influence on shaping Roosevelt's conservation agenda.

Burroughs enjoyed the attention of the president and the public at large, but he was also something of a recluse and enjoyed the privacy of his rustic writing retreat called "Slabsides" a short walk from his home on the Hudson River. When he was invited to join the Harriman expedition, he was at first reluctant to accept, not wishing to leave the intimacies of nature he knew so well in the East. Finally, Merriam and others talked him into making the trip.

As the Harriman train traveled out of New York on the way to Seattle, Burroughs confided his doubts to his diary: "Join the Harriman expedition to Alaska today in New York" he wrote. "Pass my place on the Hudson at 4 PM. Look long and fondly from car window upon the scenes I will be absent from till August. The sun is shining warmly. I see the new green of the vineyards. [My] Wife is waving her white apron from the summer house. I sit alone in my room in the pullman car and am sad. Have I made a mistake in joining this crowd for so long a trip? Can I see nature under such conditions?" It was a nostalgia for home he would maintain throughout the expedition.

John Muir, by contrast was at home in Alaska. He had made five previous trips there and was an authority on glaciers (though he is modestly listed in the official report of the expedition as an "author and student of glaciers from Martinez, California"). Burroughs chided in his narrative of the expedition that Muir was such an expert on glaciers that "he would not allow the rest of the party to have an opinion on the subject" (Harriman Report, p 18).

Muir was also a knowledgeable botanist who reveled in the wildflowers he saw during the expedition.

With his heavy Scottish accent and John the Baptist-like appearance, he had become the high priest of conservation, arguing forcefully on behalf of nature as an essential part of one's spiritual well-being. "Saving these woods from the ax and saw, from the money changers and the water changers," he wrote, " is in many ways the most notable service to God and man I have heard of since my forest wanderings began."

Muir too was a friend of Teddy Roosevelt, a friendship that worked to the advantage of both men. During a three day camping trip to Yosemite in 1903 (a continuation of the same trip on which Roosevelt had camped with Burroughs in Yellowstone), Muir helped lay the groundwork for many of T.R.'s later conservation policies.

For all of their differences (one an Easterner, one a Westerner, one shy and introverted, the other loquacious and extroverted), "the two Johnnies," as they were known, had much in common. Both loved nature with a passion, and both had a popular national following that would make their participation in the Harriman expedition extremely important in raising the public profile of the trip.

2 johnnies

The Two Johnnies," Burroughs on the right, Muir to the left, 1899.
Click image for a larger view.

They also shared a certain distance from the heavily academic group that had been gathered by C. Hart Merriam through his contacts at the Smithsonian and elsewhere. Burroughs described the others on the Harriman expedition as "fearfully and wonderfully learned - all specialists" who spoke Latin most of the time. He felt "the most ignorant and the most untraveled man among them - and the most silent." [Burroughs Diary]

Although, on the surface, this was charmingly self-effacing, it was also Burroughs short-hand for criticism. In an earlier diary entry he had noted his view that nature would only reveal herself to the lover of nature and not the professional naturalist. botanists, entomologists, and geologists were "partialists" wrote Burroughs, "so intent on the body that [they miss] the soul."

Muir too was uneasy with so many scientists. He was also uncomfortable with the luxuries of the G.W. Elder and preferred camping and traveling alone. It is telling that the only two people absent from the famous Cape Fox group photograph are Edward Curtis (who was behind the camera) and John Muir.

Group  photo  at capefox

A group photograph of the Harriman Alaska Expedition taken on the beach at Cape Fox, July 26, 1899 by Edward Curtis.
Click image for a larger view.

If Burroughs and Muir were the visionaries, invited from outside of academia, C. Hart Merriam was the consummate insider who had tapped his enormous network of friends and colleagues within the Smithsonian and throughout institutional Washington. If you look down the roster of expedition members, you will see a who's who of the scientific establishment, many of the veterans of government-sponsored surveys that dated to the period of optimistic nationalism that followed the Civil War. Like his fellow Harriman expedition member Henry Gannett, Merriam himself had participated in the famous 1871 Harden Survey of the area that was to become Yellowstone National Park. Through this and subsequent experiences, Merriam understood, perhaps better than anyone, the importance of good science - and good communication - in giving research expeditions the leverage needed to affect policy in Washington. He had seen how William Henry Jackson's photographs had influenced Congress' decision to set aside Yellowstone as our first National Park. With this in mind, he was very conscious in recommending to Harriman that he include several artists and a first-rate photographer on the trip to Alaska.

In 1899, Edward Curtis was not the household name he is today. A society photographer from Seattle who had met Merriam by accident just a year before, Curtis had not yet begun his massive visual documentation of the American Indian. That would be one of the important legacies of the Harriman expedition. But the thousands of photographs he took during the 1899 trip were critically important in helping to publicize the expedition and illustrate its official reports.

Another person who played a key role in advancing Merriam's goal of publicizing the trip, and who would be instrumental in encouraging Curtis's subsequent devotion to Indian topics, was George Bird Grinnell. Grinnell had a rare combination of credentials. A product of the East Coast financial, social, and academic establishment, he was an experienced field man with a life-long commitment to conservation. Like John Burroughs and Louis Agassiz Fuertes, he had imprinted on the life and legacy of John James Audubon. Grinnell actually grew up on the Audubon estate in New York and took lessons from the artist's widow, Lucy. As a young man on a paleontological expedition from Yale, he had met the legendary Buffalo Bill Cody. In 1875, at the age of 26, he joined one of the military surveys of Yellowstone National Park where he had his first exposure to the effects of poaching and developed a life-long passion for the protection of public land.

Grinnell was invited to join George Armstrong Custar's ill-fated Black Hills expedition which ended at the Little Big Horn, but fortunately he declined because of commitments at Yale's Peabody Museum.

For almost 40 years Grinnell made annual trips to the West, but his greatest contribution to the conservation movement was as editor of Forest & stream magazine (beginning in 1880) and as one of the founders of the National Audubon Society whose magazine he also edited.

Just as Grinnell could bridge the gap between East Coast and West, he could speak with equal ease to naturalists and businessmen, to sportsmen and conservationists. He wrote a series of articles about the Harriman Alaska Expedition for Forest & Stream the year after he returned from the trip. In one he argued for better conservation of Alaska's fishery resources. Comparing the salmon to the Passenger Pigeon and the Buffalo, Grinnell pointed out that the seemingly "inexhaustible" number of fish, were, in fact, finite and diminishing every year through excessive commercial harvest.

"The whole question of the protection of these fisheries is not one of sentiment in any degree," he wrote. "It is a question as to whether the material resources of Alaska are worth protection."

Prior to Harriman's expedition, all of Alaska was thought about in terms of resources to be harvested either for personal gain and for the good of the nation. William Dall, one of the most experienced Alaska hands aboard the Elder, had written a book entitled Alaska and its Resources in 1869. It was based on his pioneering travel and biological research in Alaska, and published just two years after the Territory's acquisition by the United States.

By the time he was invited by Merriam to join the Harriman expedition, Dall was 53, and had made 14 previous trips to Alaska. He had begun his Alaskan expeditions at the age of 19 as an assistant to the famous Robert Kennicott on the Western Union Telegraph Expedition of 1865, 66 and 67. The expedition was intended to find a possible route for a telegraph line between North America and Russia by way of the Bering Sea, but Kennicott, Dall and others were added to make scientific investigations on behalf of the Smithsonian Institution. When Kennicott died tragically and unexpectedly in 1868, Dall stayed on, continuing the research at his own expense.

Dall was not a conservationist by nature. He was a pure taxonomist committed to science for science's sake. But the dispassionate way in which he and the other scientists on the Harriman expedition gathered information was essential in helping the conservationists aboard (like Grinnell) build their case for land and wildlife protection. The most tangible example of this - and perhaps the greatest conservation legacy of the Harriman expedition - involved the fur seals of the Pribilof Islands. These creatures, which now breed by the millions on the Pribilofs, came perilously close to following the Steller's Sea Cow and the Great Auk to extinction. One could make the case that had the Harriman party not stopped at the Pribilofs in 1899, the species might no longer exist today

C. Hart Merriam had visited the Pribilofs in 1891 to learn first-hand about the fur seals and their harvest. At that time he had just been appointed by President Benjamin Harrison to be one of the American representatives to an international commission on pelagic sealing in the Bering Sea. And so, when the George W. Elder arrived in the Pribilofs in July, 1899, Merriam and others familiar with the subject were horrified to see that the population of fur seals was less than a quarter of what it had been just two years before.

George Bird Grinnell went to work immediately after his return to New York, publishing a long expose on the matter in Forest and Stream. Again, eschewing sentiment, or moral persuasion, Grinnell used hard economics as the thrust of his argument:

"When Alaska first came into the possession of the United States, the only thing of value that it was supposed to possess was its fur," he wrote. "... The yield of the seal islands [i.e. the Pribiloffs] in value far exceeded anything else in the [Alaska] Territory....Today [i.e. 1900] the fur trade of Alaska is hardly worth considering. The fur seals have traveled a long way on the road to extermination; the sea otter is practically wiped out. ..."

Grinnell gave the history of the decline and the statistics to back up his claim and predicted the species' extermination within four years unless immediate action was taken. "It would seem a wise policy to protect these animals," he concluded, "that they may thrive and increase, and in due time yield their valuable furs [again]."

While Grinnell's article did much to draw public awareness to the issue, it would take others (most notably Henry Wood Elliott, a treasury official stationed in the Pribiloffs from 1872 to 1874 and William Hornaday of the Bronx Zoo, to expose the corruption that was allowing the decimation of the seal population. Their combined efforts ultimately led to the first international treaty to protect wildlife which was enacted in 1911.

In a part of the world which seemed to celebrate the cult of the individual, conservationists were able to demonstrate that only by cooperating and working toward a common good could environmental - and economic - disaster be averted and the future of both man and wildlife be assured.

While the Harriman expedition can not be credited with having fundamentally changed the direction of the conservation movement in America, it did have a very important impact on all of the people who participated. For men like Muir and Burroughs who preferred to work alone, the trip showed the importance of interdisciplinary research. Both men were openly skeptical of the value of the scientific research being carried out from the George W. Elder. Muir called it "twaddle" and "much ado about little." Burroughs, poking fun at how much the scientists were making of their very brief exposure to the areas visited, wrote that after two days in Siberia, he was ready to write a book about Asia (Harriman report p.102). But in the end they came to see that there was value in what had been achieved. The scientists, in turn, were greatly enriched by the opportunity to break out of the ivory towered atmosphere of academia. For some it was a pleasant return to the kind of fieldwork with which they had launched their careers; For others, it was a first exposure to Alaska. Their eyes were opened by the squalor of the gold miners and the life and death risks some people were willing to take in hope of striking it rich in the Yukon. They learned that to most of the world, wildlife was not something to be observed and scientifically classified, but a raw material to be harvested for commercial profit.

For some participants in the trip, the Harriman Expedition gave a tremendous boost. Among them was Louis Agassiz Fuertes. His illustrations of birds, sixteen of which were published in color in the expedition report, helped to secure his position as a rising star in the field of wildlife illustration, while his genial personality, and the friends he made on the expedition, thrust him into the center of the scientific world.

Edward C. Curtis' life took a new direction as a result of his participation in the Harriman trip. With George Bird Grinnell's encouragement, he went on to make a photographic record of American Indian life that today stands as one of the great photographic and publishing achievements of the early 20th century.

For his part, Harriman returned to New York invigorated by his vacation and holding a new and healthy respect for the work of his scientific guests. Although their views on many topics differed, Harriman became a great supporter and patron of John Muir's. Having heard him tell so many fascinating stories about his earlier trips to Alaska and about the rest of his life, Harriman urged Muir to write an autobiography and even arranged for a secretary to follow him around and transcribe his thoughts as Muir talked. Harriman also left money in his will to help underwrite C. Hart Merriam's scientific work which he had come to appreciate during the Alaska expedition and the subsequent publication of the expedition report.

Although Harriman began the expedition with hunting in mind and prided himself on bagging a Brown Bear on Kodiak Island, he soon learned that Alaska was much more than a scenic hunting preserve. Like all of us traveling on this [Harriman Retraced] expedition, Harriman came to appreciate an Alaska of many layered dimensions defying the caricatures and stereotypes of the territory popularized by the Eastern press.

The immediate and most tangible result of the expedition were the multi-volume reports that were edited by C. Hart Merriam and published under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution (with the financial backing of Edward Harriman). These included a very readable narrative by John Burroughs (which has been reprinted by Dover) and essays by George Bird Grinnell (which have been reprinted by the University of Washington Press). There were also many technical reports written by the dozens of scientific experts who participated in the expedition. These first still serve as invaluable references for contemporary investigations of the complex flora and fauna of coastal Alaska

There were, of course, many other more subtle impacts of the 1899 expedition which we have been exploring first-hand on this "Harriman Retraced" expedition. Like the participants of Harriman's expedition of 1899, we are all on a voyage of discovery. I feel fortunate to be a part of it.




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

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