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Harriman Expedition Retraced


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Kay Sloan

The 1899 Harriman Alaska Expedition

When Edward Harriman collected the nation's top scientists, artists, and naturalists for a spectacular expedition to the Alaska territory, he could not have known the full repercussions of his enterprise. The original Harriman Expedition demonstrated that its members had eyes to see either of "two Alaskas" -- one Alaska of rich economic resources ripe for exploitation and the other of the kind of awe-inspiring, pristine wilderness that John Muir felt was akin to a mystical experience.

Events from the original expedition give glimpses of the diverse perceptions and philosophies of the people aboard the Elder, illustrating the different ways that Harriman's guests approached their Alaskan adventure. In late July, the expedition set up camps on the shore of Disenchantment Bay. There, John Muir found that if he breathed deeply, he could smell the wildflowers on the islands from half a mile across the water. His old friend, John Burroughs, though, thought the whole bay was "weird," with the birds and flowers oddly in abundance among desolate "savage" ice. He preferred a tamer wilderness.

But the scientists quickly went to work on the glaciers, with Henry Gannett and William Healey Dall mapping the "ice fields" for future researchers, and teaching Cornelia Harriman and Elizabeth Averell some of the skills of their professions. The two girls gamely balanced on the glaciers in their Victorian shoes and long dresses, intent on being useful and learning something in the process. From a distance, curious Alaskan Natives watched Gannett and Dall, their measuring rituals looking like some bizarre ceremony. Edward Curtis stayed at Malaspina Glacier to capture the surreal, icy scenes with his camera, while the geologist G. K. Gilbert and John Muir marched off to explore the most remote parts of the bay.

Rumors of bear tracks lured Edward Harriman to the forests with a crew of assistants, but he came back to the ship late at night with a hunting rifle that had not even been fired. Bagging a bear was one of his chief personal ambitions on the trip.

There was another type of hunting going on that day in late July, though -- it was the Natives' annual seal hunt, a busy event on shore as well as in the water. Before the bark houses and crude tents built for the summer months, the women and children skinned the seals. A sickened Charles Keeler called it "one of the filthiest, bloodiest places" he'd ever seen, and quickly turned his back. Edward Curtis braved the odor of rotting seals to take prints of the Indian women at work, despite their reluctance to be photographed. Curtis was beginning to learn how to befriend the Native Americans and overcome their suspicions of the camera. It was a skill that served him well on his later documentations of what he called the "Vanishing Race."

But, like Charles Keeler, John Muir could not go near the site, haunted by the sound of the hunted seals, who, he wrote, were "barking or half-howling in a strange, earnest voice." During his many travels in the wilderness, Muir had come to envision all of earth's inhabitants as one, and the voices of the hunted seals sounded to him as if they were mourning.

But he seemed to be the only one to notice. Edward Harriman was bargaining with the Natives for a sea otter pelt. The otter was nearly extinct, and the skins brought from three to five hundred dollars apiece. Harriman, with no bear trophy yet, bought the finest, thickest pelt that they displayed.

On Annette Island, at Metlakahtla, the expeditioners witnessed the religious experiment of the Scottish Reverend William Duncan to "civilize the savage" Tsimshian. With over 1,000 Natives in his charge, Duncan took pride in introducing his flock, whom he thought of as children, to capitalism as well as Christianity. Charles Keeler shuddered during Duncan's sermon, thinking how, only thirty years before, the congregation had been "wild cannibals," and now they sat together as "ladies and gentlemen." John Burroughs noted that these Alaskan Natives "took more kindly to our ways and customs and to our various manual industries" than did the Native Americans he had encountered before. Harriman observed that if the Tsimshian could be taught to speak English, "they could be largely used in the development of the territory." Duncan had put the Natives to work in a venture that represented his commitment to capitalism as well as Christianity.

Later, beyond Annette Island, the expeditioners witnessed more economic uses of the Native population, this time in the salmon cannery. While some saw it as efficient industry, George Bird Grinnell likened it to exploitation. At Orca, another cannery discarded its rotting fish into the ocean, giving the water an oily look for miles along the coastline. Muir shook his head sadly at the sight of the men brought up from San Francisco to work for low wages. "Men in this business," he wrote, "are themselves canned." The artist Frederick Dellenbaugh turned his back on the cannery, and set up his easel to sketch the distant mountain peaks, while Curtis climbed into the mountains to photograph the view below.

Finally, on Kodiak Island, Edward Harriman bagged his bear, a mother and cub --or, as John Muir wrote, "mother and child." He finally obtained his trophy, but Muir could only have been reminded of when he met his first bear in the High Sierras some decades earlier. When the bear refused to run from him, he simply stood and stared it down, hoping that the "human stare would finally overcome the beastly one." Muir walked away with his life, and with the knowledge that, as he repeatedly wrote, the inhabitants of the world are as one.

These anecdotes -- only a few of many from the original expedition -- give a portrait of the compelling, powerful personalities on the original Harriman Expedition, from Muir the naturalist and conservationist to Curtis perfecting the art of his photography, to the scientists with their measuring and hunting, and finally to Harriman, bringing in trophies like the sea otter pelt -- trophies somewhat like the expedition itself. In these brief vignettes from over a century ago, we can see the conflicting interests that drove the expeditioners -- Muir who wanted to preserve the wilderness and Curtis who sought to preserve the human faces in photography, to those who looked at the land and its resources for how white "civilization" could use them. It underscores the enduring vision of two Alaskas. Despite the disputes engendered by such various visions, the expedition had lasting impacts:

John Muir made a life-long friend of Edward Harriman, who helped him in pushing through conservation measures in Congress. In 1905, upon winning protection of the Yosemite Valley through Congressional legislation, he wrote ". . . we might have failed to get the bill through the Senate but for the help of Mr. Harriman, though, of course, his name or his company were never in sight through all the fight."

In addition to the important connection between Muir and Harriman, the expedition produced thirteen volumes of scientific reports that have been a long-standing resource for information about Alaska. It took C. Hart Merriam some twelve years of work to complete the project. Grove Karl Gilbert's volume on his studies of glacial dynamics was particularly ground-breaking. In terms of the research of the animal life, the ornithologists' artwork was extraordinary, documenting new species of birds. The expedition also helped to launch Edward Curtis's career through his deepened friendship with George Bird Grinnell, who encouraged him to photograph the Native American peoples. Curtis's volumes of photograph compiled in The North American Indian are an invaluable legacy. Another, perhaps less known, contribution is the artwork of Robert Swain Gifford, Frederick Dellenbaugh, and the young ornithologist Louis Agassiz Fuertes, who would earn the reputation of the "twentieth century Audubon." These are enduring legacies of the original Harriman Alaska Expedition.

One thing that endures, of course, is human nature -- with its dualities and contradictions. We will probably be looking at problems ensuing from our vision of the two Alaskas for a long time.


Charles Keeler Family Papers, Bancroft Library, Berkeley, California

John Muir, John of the Mountains: Unpublished Journals of John Muir, Linnie Marsh Wolfe, ed., (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1938)

William H. Goetzmann and Kay Sloan, Looking Far North: The Harriman Alaska Expedition, 1899 (Viking, 1982)

Souvenir Album, The Averell Harriman Collection, New York, New York

The John Burroughs Journal of the Expedition, The Huntington Library, Los Angeles California

The Southwest Museum, George Bird Grinnell, diary of the expedition

Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, William Brewer Pocket Field Journal and Frederick Dellenbaugh, diary of the expedition

C. Hart Merriam, ed., Harriman Alaska Expedition, 13 volumes (New York: Doubleday, Page and Company, and Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1901-1914




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

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