New book sheds light on a 19th century ‘floating university’: the Harriman Alaska Expedition

The Harriman Alaska Expedition of 1899: Scientists, Naturalists, Artists and Others 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 the railroad magnate E. H. Harriman took his family and some friends on a tour of the Alaska coast. Since there was plenty of room on the ship, and because he had the personal wealth and interest, he invited 30 of the nation’s top scientists, artists, and nature writers to join the group in what came to be called a “floating university.” The scientists set the itinerary, stopping along the way for observing, measuring, and collecting. A particularly exciting event was the ship’s passage into a previously uncharted fjord in Prince William Sound, now called Harriman Fjord.

By the end of the two-month cruise, which went from Seattle all the way through the Bering Sea to the coast of Russia, the group had gathered over 100 trunks of specimens and taken 5000 photographs. The expedition’s findings were later written up in 13 volumes that provide a biotic baseline still referenced today. Articles written by participants also played significant roles in future conservation efforts, in understanding glacial dynamics in the face of a changing climate, and in evaluating Alaska’s natural and human resources.

Many of the participants, foremost in their fields, will be unfamiliar to today’s readers, but some will stand out. William Dall (“Alaska’s first scientist”), George Bird Grinnell (early conservationist and student of Native cultures), and Grove Carl Gilbert (pioneering glaciologist) were among them. The naturalists and writers John Muir and John Burroughs, the young Edward Curtis (who went on to make a career of photographing American Indians), bird artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes (second only to Audubon in reputation) and well-known landscape artists R. Swain Gifford and Fred Dellenbaugh were also included.

The newest book to tell the expedition story is an extremely well-researched, thorough account that presents fresh detail, largely from unpublished sources including diaries kept by expedition members, and a 21st century perspective. Its author, John J. Michalik, whose previous writings centered on legal and management topics, took on the project in his retirement, he says, as a promise to a former college history professor. Previously from Seattle and now living in Arizona, he does not seem to have an Alaska connection or to have visited as part of his research.

Michalik’s book, after an introduction and a section about Harriman’s modest beginnings and rise to great wealth, is divided into five sections of several chapters each, from the first idea of the expedition to “its wake” — what it meant scientifically and culturally and how it influenced the subsequent careers of participants. The middle three sections chart the course from the coastal waters that were already well-known to travelers, to “the route less traveled” all the way north, and then the return trip.

Particularly fresh and valuable material comes in a late chapter that tells of the expedition’s stop, on its return voyage, at the Tlingit village of Cape Fox (Gaash) in Southeast Alaska. Here, the author makes clear, through his study of primary materials, that expedition members did not greedily plunder the unoccupied village, as is commonly said, but debated extensively before deciding to collect totem poles 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 picked through and trashed by other visitors. (The expedition members did not know that the villagers had resettled at Saxman, near Ketchikan. They speculated that they might have abandoned the place because of smallpox.) In any case, the group did take from the site 10 totem and house poles as well as smaller items.

Michalik is careful to put the collecting into context. Museums at the time were broadly building their collections for scientific study and education, and cultural artifacts were considered analogous to animal specimens. “In American culture of the time, this — ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ by today’s measures — was not viewed as dishonorable, nor was it uncommon.” Michalik also discusses the difference in how property ownership was viewed; to the expeditioners the property was seen as abandoned, while under Tlingit law it was temporarily uninhabited and belonged, in any case, to the clan no matter where its individual members lived.

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

The story of that retracing and repatriation is told in “The Harriman Alaska Expedition Retraced: A Century of Change, 1899-2001,” edited by Thomas S. Litwin. It includes contributions by 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 retracing team. Other popular books about 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 achievements but to understanding their consequences in American and Alaskan history and life. It’s unfortunate that its publisher has priced it to discourage many who would be drawn to it.