New Book Shines Light on 19th Century ‘Floating University’: Harriman Expedition to Alaska

The Harriman Alaska Expedition of 1899: Scientists, Naturalists, Artists, and More Document America’s Last Frontier

By John J. Michalik. McFarland & Company, Inc., 2021. 270 pages. $ 49.95 paper or $ 22.49 Kindle.

In the summer of 1899, railroad magnate EH Harriman took his family and a few friends on a tour of the Alaskan coast. Since there was plenty of room on the ship, and because he had personal wealth and interest, he invited 30 of the country’s top scientists, artists and nature writers to join the group in what we called a “floating university”. Scientists mapped out the route, stopping along the way to observe, measure and collect. One particularly exciting event was the ship’s passage through a previously unexplored fjord in Prince William Sound, now called Harriman Fjord.

By the end of the two-month cruise, which went from Seattle across the Bering Sea to the Russian coast, the group had gathered more than 100 specimen trunks and taken 5,000 photographs. The findings of the expedition were then written up in 13 volumes which provide a biotic basis still referenced today. Papers written by participants have also played an important role in future conservation efforts, in understanding glacial dynamics in the face of climate change, and in valuing Alaska’s natural and human resources.

Many of the participants, primarily in their field, will not be familiar to today’s readers, but some will stand out. William Dall (“Alaska’s first scientist”), George Bird Grinnell (first ecologist and student of Native cultures) and Grove Carl Gilbert (pioneer glaciologist) were among them. The naturalists and writers John Muir and John Burroughs, the young Edward Curtis (who went on to pursue a career in American Indian photography), the ornithological artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes (behind renowned Audubon) and the well-known landscapers R Swain Gifford and Fred Dellenbaugh were also included.

The most recent book to tell the story of the expedition is an extremely well-researched and in-depth account that presents new details, largely from unpublished sources, including diaries kept by members of the expedition, and a 21st century perspective. Its author, John J. Michalik, whose previous writings dealt with legal and managerial topics, retired the project, he says, as a pledge to a former college history professor. Previously originally from Seattle and now living in Arizona, he does not appear to have any connection to Alaska or have visited it as part of his research.

Michalik’s book, after an introduction and a section on Harriman’s humble beginnings and his rise to great wealth, is divided into five sections of several chapters each, from the first idea of ​​the expedition to “its wake” – this what it meant scientifically and culturally and how it influenced the subsequent careers of the participants. The three middle sections trace the route from coastal waters already familiar to travelers, to “the road less traveled” to the north, then the return trip.

Particularly fresh and valuable information appears in a final chapter which recounts the stopover of the expedition, on its return trip, to the Tlingit village of Cape Fox (Gaash) in southeast Alaska. Here, the author specifies, through his study of primary materials, that the members of the expedition did not avidly plunder the unoccupied village, as it is commonly said, but debated at length before deciding to collect totems and other cultural materials for the institutions they represented. It was obvious to them that the village, disappearing behind a wall of alders and thick brush, had not been occupied for several years and had already been searched and ransacked by other visitors. (Members of the expedition were unaware that the villagers had relocated to Saxman, near Ketchikan. They speculated that they might have abandoned the place because of smallpox.) The group also took 10 totems and house poles from the site. like smaller objects.

Michalik takes care to put the fundraising in context. At the time, museums largely built their collections for scientific study and education, and cultural artifacts were considered analogous to animal specimens. “In American culture at the time, this – ‘good’ or ‘bad’ by today’s measures – was not seen as dishonorable, and it was not uncommon either. Michalik also discusses the difference in how property was viewed; for the expeditionaries, the property was considered abandoned, whereas under Tlingit law it was temporarily uninhabited and belonged, in any case, to the clan, regardless of where its individual members lived.

In the last part of this chapter, Michalik recounts the repatriation in 2001 of some poles and other objects by members of the Harriman Retraced team. A reconciliation and friendship ceremony was held on the beach in front of the old village site, involving descendants of the Harriman family and villagers from Gaash, and the repatriated items were then delivered to Saxman.

The story of this retrace and repatriation is told in “The Harriman Alaska Expedition Retraced: A Century of Change, 1899-2001”, edited by Thomas S. Litwin. It includes contributions from Sheila Nickerson, Rosita Worl, Kim Heacox, Brenda Norcross, Aron Crowell, William Cronen, Kathy Frost, Vivian Mendenhall, Richard Nelson and others who were part of the trace team. Other popular books on the expedition include “Looking Far North: The Harriman Expedition to Alaska, 1899,” by Texas historians William H. Goetzmann and Kay Sloan (1982), “The Tip of the Iceberg: My 3,000 -Mile Journey Around Wild Alaska, The Last Great American Frontier “by Mark Adams (2018), and this reviewer’s own” Green Alaska: Dreams from the Far Coast “(1999.)

“The Harriman Alaska Expedition of 1899 ″ is a welcome addition not only to the record of the expedition’s accomplishments, but also to an understanding of their implications for the history and life of the United States and Alaska. It is unfortunate that his editor evaluated him to discourage many who would be drawn to him.

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