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The National Geographic’s Society’s First Expedition Leader

The 33 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 130th anniversary this series takes a look at their stories. He wrote engagingly of his many expeditions to the American...

The 33 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 130th anniversary this series takes a look at their stories.

He wrote engagingly of his many expeditions to the American West–from the otherworldly realm of California’s Mono Lake with its strange tufa formations to the majesty of Alaska’s Mt. St. Elias. But apart from the scientific writings he left behind, the rest of his life remains a partially closed book. His personality remains elusive. Although he was a National Geographic Society founder, he was not prominent in its early institutional activities–with one very important exception. Israel Russell led the first scientific field expedition in National Geographic history.

Israel Cook Russell was born on December 10, 1852 near Garrettsville, New York. He studied civil engineering at the University of the City of New York and also studied at the Columbia School of Mines. After this, he traveled to Queenstown, New Zealand as photographer for the 1874 U.S. Government Transit of Venus Expedition. Venus passes between the Earth and Sun very rarely, but when it does observations of the deflected light helped determine the distance of the Earth from the Sun, a knotty problem still unresolved at this time. The last transit had occurred in 1769 and Captain James Cook had taken an astronomer on his voyage to Tahiti precisely to observe it. In 1874, many countries fielded expeditions for this astronomical event, and Russell was a member on but one of several the United States dispatched across the globe. When it was over, Russell traveled around the world.

When he finally returned, he went back to the academic world, teaching geology for a couple of years back at the Columbia School of Mines. This alternation between field and classroom would characterize his entire professional career.

Israel C. Russell. Photograph courtesy Geological Society of America

West of the 100th Meridian

Russell returned to the field upon being appointed a geologist on the Geological and Geographic Survey West of the 100th Meridian–the Wheeler Survey, for short, one of the four great Western surveys of the post-Civil War period. The dry, upthrust, eroded topography of the West was a geologist’s paradise, and over his career Russell would make many trips to study and map its formations. Competition among the various surveys, however, hampered their scope, and Russell, who never seemed to get enough of traveling, went on a European tour once his assignment was ended.

Upon his return he resumed survey work. In 1879, the four competing surveys were consolidated into the United States Geological Survey, and Russell took up a position as a full-fledged geologist with the new organization. He was assigned to the Great Basin division, led by Grove Karl Gilbert.

The Great Basin is that vast area of semi-desert between the Sierra Nevada on the west and the Wasatch range on the east, the heart of which is Nevada and western Utah. Among the many intriguing geological puzzles were the remnants of ancient shorelines indicating that immense lakes were once widespread in Pleistocene times. In 1881, Russell was the first to map Mono Lake in the California Sierras; he also took photographs and wrote of its “desolate grandeur” in his 1889 publication, Quaternary History of Mono Valley. The Pleistocene portion of Mono Lake was soon named Lake Russell in his honor.

While Gilbert traced out the lines of prehistoric Lake Bonneville, the remains of which are the Great Salt Lake, he dispatched Russell to do the same with Lake Lahontan, the “Pleistocene cousin,” the remains of which are scattered lakes in western Nevada. Russell’s work, published in 1885 as Lake Lahontan, prefigured Gilbert’s own masterpiece, Lake Bonneville, published in 1890.

The geologists spent the winter months working at Geological Survey headquarters in Washington. There, together with his colleagues, Russell was a founder of the “Great Basin Mess,” a get-together that would become part of the institutional culture of the Survey. Originally an informal lunch in imitation of camp life in the Basin, including sitting on crates, the “Mess” grew and evolved into an unofficial clique presided over by the Survey’s director, Major John Wesley Powell.

These were great days not only for the Survey but also for science. Washington was where the nation’s scientific institutions were based, and it was there, in January 1888, together with most of his colleagues, that Russell helped found the National Geographic Society.

North to Alaska

Barely two years later the new Society, seeking to increase as well as diffuse geographic knowledge, decided to send its first expedition into the field. With the assistance of the U.S. Geological Survey, it proposed to survey the Mt. St. Elias region in southeast Alaska. Israel Russell, then 37 years old, was selected as its leader.

Russell had got his first taste of Alaskan adventure in 1879 when he accompanied a U.S. Coast & Geodetic Survey expedition up the Yukon River. On June 24, 1890, he returned, arriving in Sitka with a team of ten men and two dogs, Bud and Tweed. After enduring a stormy crossing of the Prince Edward Straits that left almost all of them seasick, they finally made their first camp. By August 6, they caught the first glimpse of their goal. Camp hand William Lindsley wrote, “The sun was shining clear and warm and as we rounded the point we beheld one of the finest scenes that man ever looked upon. There stood in front of us Old Eli in all his grandeur.”

Lindsley regularly recorded observations of the three-month expedition, and Russell’s own in-depth narrative of the journey comprised an entire volume of the magazine. Bad weather proved the bane of this expedition. And it was not only snow and ice. On August 11, they were high enough to set up their first camp at the “lower limit of perpetual snow.” Russell wrote:

Darkness settled down over the mountains, and the storm increased as the night came on…the rain fell in torrents as in the tropics. Our little tent of light cotton cloth afforded great protection, but the raindrops beat on it with such force that the spray was driven through and made a fine rain within. Weary with many hours of hard traveling…we rolled ourselves in our blankets, determined to rest in spite of the storm that raged about…

A crash like thunder, followed by the clatter of falling stones, told that many tons of ice and rocks on the mountains to the westward had slid down…another roar near at hand caused by an avalanche on our own side of the glacier, was followed by another, another, and still another out in the darkness, no one could tell where. The wilder the storm, the louder and more frequent became the thunder of the avalanches. It seemed as if pandemonium reigned on the mountains.

A week later, they were at the base of Mt. St. Elias. Reading Lindsley’s journal, one can almost hear his exasperation as he recorded the events of the 19th. After they broke camp at 4:00 a.m. in the rain, they “ran into the worst glacier falls on record, filled and backed, baffled and balked and finally made camp within half a mile of last camp.” In between the rain, snow, and avalanches, Russell and topographer Mark Kerr did manage to make comprehensive observations of local geography and geology, especially the glaciers, a topic specifically requested by Gilbert. From these observations they compiled the “Sketch Map of Mount St. Elias Region, Alaska,” which subsequently appeared in the National Geographic magazine.

The weather, however, ultimately thwarted their attempts to reach the summit, almost with disastrous results. On August 25, Lindsley wrote that Russell and Kerr would try again while he and the others went back for more supplies. None of them, he continued, were happy about leaving the two leaders with only four days of scant rations. Depending on supplies cached at another camp, he and Thomas Stamy got there only to discover that the coal oil had overturned and was almost all gone. Furthermore, they had to spend the night without a tent, rolled up in their slickers with one blanket apiece. They were awakened by the sound of shouting: Kerr was down below a cliff yelling that “…he was going to return and travel all night would explain when he came to us.” Lindsley continued, “We were thoroughly frightened, saw Mr. Russell mangled on cliff & all sorts of bad things.”

Oddly enough, he made no further mention of Russell’s injuries, but since the summit bid did not stop at this point, things must not have been as bad as they had looked at first.

However, the bid for the summit did end about a week later, because of another harrowing incident recorded by Lindsley:

“Mr. R.’ was storm bound at Camp 9. When his tent became snowed under, he burrowed into a snow tunnel with his meager provisions. Kerr, who was descending to a lower camp, presumably to get more supplies, fell 50 feet and …would have been killed had he not fallen into a snow slide that night. Arrived at [Camp] 8 at 10 PM only a sheet to sleep under. froze both feet. had to lay there three days till boys arrived…Whale of a time altogether…R., Stamy, & White are going up Lucia. no more Eli.

Russell returned to Elias in 1891 for more scientific work, but still did not reach the summit. It remained for the Duke of Abruzzi to do so in 1897. Nevertheless, important results had been achieved. Professors Ralph Tarr and Lawrence Martin, who subsequently led a series of Geographic expeditions to study glaciers, credited Russell with being the first to document that the Malaspina Glacier was different from all others discovered heretofore. He had named it a “piedmont” glacier as it occurs at the mountain’s base where the valley glaciers coalesce. It remains the largest such example of a piedmont glacier in the world.


In 1892, Russell left the Geological Survey and moved to the University of Michigan to teach geology. While there, he continued to write and lecture for the National Geographic Society, producing a scientific monograph in 1895 on “Present and Extinct Lakes of Nevada.” In 1902, he was a member of the expedition to Martinique the Society dispatched to study the catastrophic effects of the Mt. Pelee eruption.

Although he kept up a relationship with the Society after his departure from Washington, he may have grown disenchanted with its increasing emphasis on popularizing geography. When the International Geographical Congress accepted the Society’s invitation to hold its meeting in D.C.; Russell, along with other academics, worried that “NGS was not up to the standards of its European counterparts.”

Russell died on May 1, 1906, after a bout with pneumonia. He was only 53 years old. He was survived by his wife, Julia Augusta Olmsted, three daughters, and one son. But he lives on in National Geographic legend as one of our great scientific trailblazers, and the one who received the first research grant of thousands more to come.

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