Henry Gannett: National Geographic Founder and “The Man Whose Brain Conceived It”

The thirty-three founders of the National Geographic Society were an adventurous and accomplished group. They included scientists, explorers, a journalist and a superintendent of the National Zoo. In recognition of the National Geographic Society’s upcoming 125th anniversary this series takes a look at their stories.

By Mark Collins Jenkins

Self-effacing, loath to talk about himself or his accomplishments — to this day Henry Gannett (1846–1914), remains a man of reports, statistics, and above all, maps. It’s difficult to discern anything about Gannett’s personal life or character. In his correspondence, he was factual and to the point. No flights of fancy, no asides and few revealing details. As his contemporary, S.N.D. North, phrased it, “…he was a literary trip-hammer…his writings lacked what we may call the personal flavor.” But his colleagues thought highly of him, so much so that when Gannett was elected the president of the National Geographic Society in 1910, the eminent geologist G.K. Gilbert wrote “…to congratulate the N.G.S. that it has at last put to the fore the man whose brain conceived it.” Gilbert would have known. He, too, was there on the evening of the Geographic’s founding.

Gannett came of age during one of the most tumultuous periods in the nation’s history. After the Civil War, like many other young men, he headed west, where his expertise in mapping eventually provided him with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a scientist with an adventurous nature: He was invited to join Ferdinand Hayden’s “Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories.”

He accepted and began a program of topographical mapping which he would resume each summer for the duration of that Survey’s existence. It was grueling work, and sometimes life- threatening. In 1872, he was making his way up an unnamed mountain as a storm threatened. He stopped about 50 feet short of the summit when he felt tingling sensations and his hair stood on end. Thus, “Electric Peak,” received its name.

In 1875, he had another close call near the Colorado-Utah border. He and some of his colleagues wound up fleeing from a band of armed Indians who had begun firing on them. Hot and thirsty, they were forced to keep scrambling as the Indians held the high ground. When night fell, the Indians withdrew, but Gannett’s crew realized they had better break camp before sunup. At 2:00 a.m., they mounted a hasty getaway and reached a plateau where they could not be ambushed. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but some of the mules did not fare so well.

Gannett, at right, with an unnamed member of the Hayden Survey.

Eventually Gannett went to work for the U.S. Geological Survey (run by his fellow founder-to-be John Wesley Powell), where he quickly rose, becoming Chief Geographer in 1882. For the rest of his life, his career consisted of a blur of government assignments and academic work resulting in his being heralded the “Father of American Map Making.”

Besides cartography, Gannett immersed himself in many other endeavors, particularly staying closely involved with the still-struggling National Geographic Society he had envisioned. He held a variety of posts: treasurer, chairman of the Research Committee, and finally the President of the Society from 1910 until his death in 1914. Some sources credit him with editing the first two volumes of the National Geographic magazine. He seemed to have his hand in everything the young Society was endeavoring to do, but he drew so little attention to himself that it recalls a line from Ben Jonson: “Minds that are great and free should not on fortunes pause.” What we know of him mostly came from those who remembered him as one who always diverted attention away from himself and focused it instead on the efforts of others. Apparently he did not concern himself with his legacy, preferring to go about his business.

Gannett was one of the fortunate scientists to be included in that grand expedition planned by railway magnate Edward H. Harriman to explore the Alaskan coast. C. Hart Merriam worked feverishly to put together a team comprising some of the finest minds of the era. Naturalist John Muir was aboard, as was famed photographer Edward S. Curtis and that great expert on all things Alaskan, William Healey Dall. So was the redoubtable Grove Karl Gilbert. Many others whose paths would cross the threshold of the Geographic were also on board.

Despite his lack of interest in creating a legacy for himself, there are signs here and there, dots on the map. Gannett Peak, Wyoming’s tallest at 13,804 feet, presents a challenge to dedicated mountaineers due to its remote location and difficulty of ascent (it boasts an approximately 9,000 ft. vertical climb). His name is also inscribed on the walls of Washington D.C.’s Cosmos Club, of which he was a founding member and president. At the USGS, he is “the father of government mapmaking.” And buried in the Geographic’s archives, a small handwritten tribute to his genius.

Changing Planet

, ,