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George Kennan: Investigative Reporter Who Helped Found National Geographic Society

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. Asked once where he was educated, George Kennan supposedly replied,...

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.

Asked once where he was educated, George Kennan supposedly replied, “Russia.” That one word sufficed, for he was not quite 20 years old when he decided to make his first journey there, a journey that resulted in his first book, in a series of difficult assignments in dangerous places, and in his being a founder of the National Geographic Society. From the horrors of the Russian prison system to the volcanic destruction of Martinique, Kennan was one of the pre-eminent globetrotting journalists of his day–one who wrote with such authority that his words have had far-reaching impact.

George Kennan was born in Norwalk, Ohio on February 16, 1845 to John and Mary Ann (Morse) Kennan. His father was greatly interested in the new telegraph machine invented by one of his wife’s relations, Samuel F.B. Morse and young George quickly picked up the new technology and eventually served during the Civil War as a telegrapher. Even while the war was raging, plans were being made to connect the U.S. to Europe via telegraph. The Western Union Telegraph Expedition proposed to run a telegraph system thousands of miles across British Columbia, Alaska, and Siberia

and eventually connect it to existing networks in Europe. Kennan joined the project in late 1864, and early the following year set sail from San Francisco for Siberia. Among those assembled on the pier to wish the Olga bon voyage, Kennan noticed an avid naturalist named William Healey Dall, who was also waiting to ship out for the Yukon side of the same project and whose fondness for mollusks was sometimes a source of amusement to colleagues. Kennan later recorded that “Dall, ever alive to the interest of his beloved science, grasped me cordially by the hand, saying, ‘Good-bye, George. God bless you! Keep your eye out for land snails and skulls of the wild animals!’”

Seven cold and stormy weeks later the Olga arrived at Kamchatka. Kennan, expecting a barren wasteland, was pleasantly surprised to see beautiful green trees and clover covering the land. Over the next two and a half years, however, he experienced Arctic gales, snowstorms, and other rigors of their dangerous job as the crew began surveying the 1,600 miles of terrain the telegraph would cross. Then word arrived that a rival company had finally laid a working trans-Atlantic submarine cable that connected Europe with America by a much shorter route. This put the Siberian crew out of business. Kennan, however, turned the situation to advantage and wrote a book, Tent Life in Siberia, published in 1870 when he was 25 years old.

That same year, he set sail for Russia once again, this time to explore the Caucasus. The only article he would ever publish in National Geographic did not appear until October 1913, but was based on this journey. Since he titled it “An Island in the Sea of History,” he made plain that change proceeded at a glacial pace in that remote part of the world.

In 1877 he combined his knowledge of telegraphy with his writing by joining the Associated Press in Washington, D.C., and proved quite a successful wire service journalist. One contemporary biography recorded that in 1881, after President Garfield was shot and seriously wounded, “Kennan was called to the White House where he remained night and day in charge of all the telegraphic reports of the President’s condition.” At least two other men who would play a role in the future National Geographic Society were trying to save the President: Dr. Frank Baker, a prominent local physician, made a drawing of the bullet’s suspected path, and Alexander Graham Bell, upon learning doctors could not locate it in Garfield’s body, tried using a magnet, with no luck. The President’s condition worsened and he died on September 19, 1881.

George Kennan wearing Georgian cossak uniform.
Photograph courtesy Library of Congress.

A few years later, Kennan began freelancing, initially for The Century Magazine. His assignment in 1885 was to return to Russia for an investigative report on the Russian prison system. Since he had previously written favorable things about the country, the Tsarist government was quite accommodating. But the serialized account of his findings that appeared in the Century starting in 1888, followed by a two-volume book, Siberia and the Exile System, published in 1891, exposed the cruelties of the regime and changed the course of American thinking toward Russia.
Americans, Kennan among them, had been largely unaware of the oppressive nature of the Tsar’s rule. But through his forceful writings and dramatic lectures–he once turned up at the podium dressed like a Siberian exile, complete with chains– he captivated American audiences and drove home the point. Not surprisingly, he was no longer welcome in Russia and was expelled when he returned there in 1903. “Kennan the Elder,” as he is sometimes called, also influenced his great-nephew, “Kennan the Younger,” or George Frost Kennan , the U.S. diplomat, historian, and Russian expert who later became the architect of the “containment” of Communism doctrine.

In between his Russian adventures, Kennan the Elder was present in Washington on that foggy Victorian night when 33 gentlemen gathered at the Cosmos Club to found the National Geographic Society. Dr. Frank Baker was there, as was his old naturalist friend, William Dall, but interestingly enough, Kennan was the only journalist present. He was also one of the 15 Incorporators, or those who signed the Society’s Certificate of Incorporation. He then served two years as the corresponding secretary of the new organization. For many years, he and his wife, Emeline Rathbone Weld, enjoyed a close friendship with Alexander Graham Bell, the Society’s second president, and his wife, being summertime neighbors in Baddeck, Nova Scotia.

Just after the turn of the century, as he entered his late 50s, Kennan broadened his expertise to other geographical areas. In 1902, the Outlook sent him to Martinique to report on the devastation caused by Mt. Pelée’s eruption. The scope of the tragedy was immense, but the journey aboard the U.S.S. Dixie, traveling with other journalists and scientists, including the Geographic’s expedition team, was not without its lighter moments. Some of those on board regularly gave lectures and Kennan wrote that, “[t]he journalists, not to be outdone, organized themselves into a society to be known as ‘The Volcano Volunteers,’ and began the publication of a semi-occasional newspaper entitled ‘The Dixie.'” If they could have increased circulation to more than three copies, he speculated, it would have been the most popular paper in all the Sargasso Sea. Two years later he was in the Far East, reporting on the Russo-Japanese War at the behest of the Japanese government.

After becoming acquainted with railroad magnate, Edward H. Harriman, Kennan was stimulated to write about his many accomplishments. In The Salton Sea: An Account of Harriman’s Fight with the Colorado River, he credits Harriman with saving the newly-created Imperial Valley in California from being destroyed by uncontrollable flooding. In 1922, he published a two-volume biography of the great man. By then Kennan was living in Medina, New York, a small town south of Lake Ontario where his wife was from. There he died of a stroke on May 10, 1924, at the age of 79.

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