puffin home

Harriman Expedition Retraced



The 1899 Expedition
The 1899


Original Participants

Brief Chronology

Science Aboard the Elder
Aboard the

History of Exploration

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

Alaska Native Communities


Exploration and Settlement on the Alaskan Coast

The Earliest Explorers

The large peninsula we now call Alaska was first visited by human explorers more than twelve thousand years ago. These ancestors of modern-day Alaska Natives traveled eastward from Siberia on the Beringian land bridge, a broad expanse of temporarily-exposed tundra that is today under three hundred feet of water. This bridge made it possible for whole communities to move onto the North American continent and establish maritime villages. Over the centuries, encampments evolved into productive hunting and fishing settlements.

These early explorers and settlers adapted well to Alaska's coast line. They designed skin boats and harpoons for hunting marine mammals, created arctic dress from skin and fur, and used whale blubber and oil to light and heat their homes. This kind of adaptation also took place on the Siberian coast, but archeological evidence tells us that the maritime peoples living along Alaska's coast 6,000 to 8,000 years ago were particularly skillful in adaptive practices. Thus, when European explorers came to Alaska in the eighteenth century, they were visiting a land that had been explored, inhabited and developed for millennia.

Early Russian Exploration

In a way, Alaska existed in the Russian imagination long before it had a place on the Russian map. Russian fur hunters and traders in Siberia had heard for centuries from the Yupik, the coastal peoples of Siberia, about a "Great Land" that lay to the east across the water. In 1728, Vitus Bering, a Danish-born officer in the Russian Navy of Tsar Peter the Great, made the first of his two voyages in the North Pacific Ocean, attempting to confirm the existence of the land to the east. He sailed through the narrow waterway that separates the Seward Peninsula of Alaska from the Chukotsk Peninsula in Siberia. He came very close to the Alaskan coast, but bad weather prevented him from making an official sighting. In 1741, on his second voyage, Bering headed up an expedition of two ships, both of which sighted land at points between 55 degrees and 59 degrees north latitude. The first sighting took place on July 15, when the St. Paul, under the command of Bering's second-in-command, Aleksei Chirikov, reached Prince of Wales Island. Bering's own ship, the St. Peter, sighted Mt. St. Elias, and Kayak Island the next day. But the ships by this time had become separated, and the St. Peter was beached near the Aleutian island now known as Bering Island. Bering died there, of scurvy, in December of 1741. But the St. Paul returned to Siberia, as did some survivors from Bering's own ship. They confirmed that the "Great Land," did indeed exist; the fox, fur seal and sea otter pelts they brought showed this land to be a fur trader's paradise.

Russian documents from the time indicate that Bering's explorations of Alaska were not made for the purely scientific purposes of survey and mapping. Russia wanted a permanent presence in North America, and hoped to exploit the fur and mineral resources there. They quickly succeeded in this goal. By 1745, hunting and trading vessels from Siberia followed Bering's lead along the Aleutian chain, obtaining fur pelts from the Aleuts. This was an important relationship, since the Russians were entirely unskilled in hunting sea mammals, particularly the elusive sea otter. The Russian traders used bribery and outright coercion with the Aleuts, oftentimes taking hostages and demanding their ransom be paid in fur. The Aleuts repeatedly resisted. In 1763 Aleuts on Unmak and Unalaska destroyed four Russian vessels, but the fur traders effectively quashed that opposition.

European Exploration of the Coast

The English, Spanish and French governments were all eager to share in the taking of this rich territory. The British dispatched Captain James Cook to Alaska in 1778, where he completed the first systematic survey of the coastline, from 58 degrees to 70 degrees north latitude. He established that there was no land connection between the Asian and North American continents, and his expedition produced maps that set the navigation standard for the next century. The Russian Empress Catherine, unnerved at this intensive British survey of territory she considered her own, ordered Cook's journal translated into Russian as soon as it was published.

The Spanish, anxious to protect their interests in the New World, sent several expeditions up the coast during this period, including the 1779 voyage of the Princesa and Favorita, under the command of Ignacio Arteaga. At Nuchek Bay, they claimed possession of the territory in the name of the King of Spain, then sailed back to California. The French, unwilling to be left out, sent the explorer Comte de La Perouse north to Lituya Bay. Perouse claimed possession of the land for France, but politics and geography distracted Russia's rivals from fully engaging in Alaska exploration and settlement. The British lost the American colonies during this time, the French faced a revolution at home, and the Spanish found themselves unable to hold onto their New World holdings in South America. The Russians, who'd been there first, essentially won the race to claim Alaska.

The Russian Era in Alaska

The connection between Russian exploration and Alaska Native exploitation that began in 1745 continued as Russia took firm hold of the coast. In 1783, the Russian merchant Grigorii Shelikhov equipped three vessels for a voyage to the Aleutian Islands, hoping to gain a monopoly on the fur trade of the region. In 1784, when the ships arrived at Kodiak Island, they were met by a force of 4,000 Koniag Natives who demanded that the Russians leave immediately. After negotiations failed, the Russians fired cannons on Koniag homes, destroying them. By subduing the Alaska Natives with fire power, Russian control grew stronger. Shelikhov extended his authority by setting up political districts in the Kodiak region, and by a building a fur-harvesting labor force of Alaska Natives. His methods were sometimes so brutal that the Russian government actually conducted an inquiry, although Shelikhov was never charged with any crime.


russian settlement

A 1794 drawing of the Russian fur trading settlement on Kodiak.
Click image for a larger view

In 1799, the Russian American Company was granted an imperial charter that gave the company sole economic and governmental powers in the Russian's Alaskan territories. Conditions for Alaska Natives improved, but they were still seen as workers without rights. In 1810, 200 Aleuts from Unalaska were sent to the Pribilofs Islands in the Bering Sea for to establish a permanent seal harvesting community there. Soon after, sea otter and seal populations dropped precipitously, and by 1828, the Russian American Company was compelled to put limits on the number of otter pelts that could be purchased in each district.

Although resource exploitation was their top priority, the Russians did not entirely abandon exploration for its own sake. Russian Navy ships surveyed Alaska's Bering and Pacific coasts, reporting on Native communities, resources and natural features. Between 1800 and 1860, parties were sent along the coast and into the interior by the Russian American Company. In 1818, one party charted the coast between the Kuskokwim and Nushagak Rivers, and, in 1819, Andrei Ustiugov, an Aleut from Unalaska, charted Bristol Bay. In the 1830s, explorers traveled through the Yukon and explored Alaska's polar coast as far as Point Barrow.

U.S. Exploration in Alaska

By the mid-eighteenth century, several factors converged to set the stage for a new age in Alaskan exploration. Expeditions focused on geographical exploration and ethnographic inquiry, as well as resource exploitation. One significant factor contributing to this trend was the declining Asian fur market, and the near-extinction of the sea otter. As the Russian American Company found profits from fur sales dropping, the Russian government, embroiled in a number of conflicts in Europe, lost interest in Alaska. In 1859, the government authorized Edoard de Stoeckl, a Russian diplomat in the U.S. delegation, to broach the subject of selling Alaska to the United States.

To Spencer F. Baird, assistant secretary of the recently-founded Smithsonian Institution, the prospect of an impending Alaska sale was good news indeed. Baird was building the Smithsonian's natural history collection, and hoped to include all parts of the North American continent. Now, with an expanding American interest in the territory, he recruited collectors from the commercial and government survey teams that were headed to document Alaska's resources.

George Kennicott, a seasoned naturalist and explorer, led the Smithsonian's first Arctic expedition. Kennicott spent the years 1859 to 1863 in the Yukon, and eventually sent forty boxes, loaded with natural and ethnographic materials, to Washington, D.C. Kennicott's second expedition, in 1865, was financed by the Western Union Telegraph Company. Kennicott and his team were charged with surveying a route for a trans-Alaskan, trans-Siberian cable route, and with collecting ethnographic and natural history specimens along the way. When Kennicott died unexpectedly on this trip, his assistant, the young William Healey Dall, took over as leader. But a rival company laid the Atlantic telegraph cable first, and Western Union canceled the expedition in July 27, 1866. Dall stayed on,and over the next decades he made more than a dozen trips to Alaska. He worked for the Smithsonian, collecting and organizing specimens. He worked for the U.S. Coast Survey, charting the coastal features along the Aleutian chain, and, in 1880, the Bering Strait and the Arctic Ocean. He worked for the U.S. Geological Survey as a paleontologist, and during his stays in Washington wrote books and reports, and organized the collections from the field. When C. Hart Merriam set out to assemble a team for the 1899 Harriman Alaska Expedition, William Healey Dall was one of the first men he contacted.


notebook entry about eskimos

A sample page from one of Dall's field notebooks showing Eskimo clothing details.
Click image for a larger view

During the last decades of the 19th century, a growing interest in Native cultures led to a number of field studies among the Alaska Natives. One such venture the Jessup Expedition, begun in 1897, was sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History. The project involved six years of fieldwork among Native communities in northeastern Asia and northwestern North America, and resulted in extensive reports on Native life, language, and culture, and contributed almost 17,000 artifacts to the Smithsonian's collections.

The Harriman Expedition

E. H. Harriman was not an ethnographer or a map-maker. He was a business man, a stock broker turned railroad owner, but he did not come to Alaska on a business trip. He knew, of course, that there was money to be made in Alaska, and he, along with any number of entrepreneurs were eager to use the developing technologies of rail and cable to capitalize on the business opportunities that might arise. But Harriman's motive for coming to Alaska stemmed from his well-documented love of the outdoors. His decision to turn a wilderness trip into a serious exploration of the coast speaks to his undeniable ability to do things on a grand scale, and the results reflect this as well. The expedition returned with more than one hundred trunks of specimens and more than five thousand photographs and colored illustrations. The scientists produced thirteen volumes of data that took twelve years to compile. There were two major discoveries, a new fjord and glacier, and a sweeping survey of an environment in flux. The expedition arrived when Alaska's patina of pure wilderness was beginning to show wear and tear from resource exploitation. The Gold Rush was in full swing, salmon canneries were working round the clock, and fur seal rookeries exported thousands of skins every year. The Native cultures were contending with a growing tourist community, and subsistence practices were giving way to a new economy of gold, fish and fur. The Harriman scholars of 1899 observed and catalogued what they saw: a gloriously beautiful land on the cusp of inevitable and sometime devastating change.


Camping at Point Gustavus

Members of the Harriman Expedition camping at Point Gustavus
Click image for a larger view



Tlingit Canoe

Tlingit Canoe

Tlingit canoe designed for seal hunting
Click image for a larger view

"St. Petersburg. 16 March, 1730. On February 28 past Fleet Captain Bering arrived back here from Kamchatka. He was sent there on the personal order of Emperor Peter the Great... to explore the northeastern limits of this land and to ascertain whether this land, as several think, is jointed to the northern part of America."

From the first public notice of Bering's 1828 voyage, published in the Sanktpeterburgskiia Vedomosti.

"Of all hunts, the sea otter hunt requires the most experience, skill, and patience. Fur seals, sea lions, and walruses, despite their strength and size, are caught more easily and more quickly."

Ferdinand Von Wrangell, 1835

"The Russian-American colonies, seeing the opportunity for marketing in various places furs, fats, fish, and other natural products, would attract people of all kinds, tries in the sciences and arts, and would set about establishing mills and factories ... Cities would finally arise out of villages."

N. P. Rumyantsev, Russian Minister of Commerce, reporting in 1803 on the prospects for Russian growth in Alaska.

"I have traveled on snow shoes, with the thermometer from 8 to 40 below zero. I have paddled in open canoes up stream six hundred and fifty miles, and down, 1,300 miles. I have obtained 4,450 specimens, including a set of the rocks from Fort Yukon to the sea."

William Healey Dall, reporting on his explorations in Alaska, 1867

"I soon saw that he was uncommon. He was taking a trip for rest, and at the same time managing his exploring guests as if we were a grateful, soothing, essential part of his rest cure, though scientific explorers are not easily managed, and in large mixed lots are rather inflammable and explosive, especially when compressed on a ship."

John Muir, writing about E. H. Harriman in Harriman the Man, 1911.


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

Home | 2001 Expedition | 1899 Expedition | Maps | Log | Educators and Students | Film | Century of Change | After Expedition | About This Site