Marcus Baker: National Geographic Founder and Editor

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.

By Mark Collins Jenkins

In late 1872, Dr. William H. Dall, a 27-year old naturalist in the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, was in San Francisco preparing to return to Alaska, where he had been directing a geographical reconnaissance of the Aleutian Islands. Unfortunately, his former assistant was not returning with him, and Dall despaired of finding another who would willingly undertake a difficult project that might last several years. Only someone “possessed of an adventurous spirit and a genuine interest in his work” would suffice.

Happily, Dall soon found just the man, a young graduate of the University of Michigan named Marcus Baker. Baker had never even seen the sea before. But he was of “a kindly and cheerful nature and lively enthusiasm [that] captured our affections at the start.” In the months to come, confined for nine wintry months in a small cabin, Dall would come to know his new assistant exceedingly well. The result was, as Dall would acknowledge 30 years later, “an intimacy which was only broken by death.”

In April 1873 when Dall and Baker embarked on the schooner Yukon and sailed for Alaska, still widely regarded as “a wilderness of ice and fog.” They spent a season working in the unmapped Aleutian and Otter Islands, surveying harbors, collecting topographic and hydrographic data, and making observations of latitude, longitude, and magnetic variation. The work was very different from ordinary surveying: the long summer twilights hid the stars from view; fog or mist often veiled the sun. Such conditions made astronomical observations difficult, but Baker, who was responsible for the many computations involved in the astronomical and magnetic work, in the triangulations and topographic soundings, learned how to adjust. In November they returned to San Francisco, spending the winter working up their results.

For several years they followed this pattern, collecting data from which they hoped to compile a coast pilot, a publication that would describe the Alaskan coast and provide navigational information. It was good, practical field training for a young man, and Dall found that Baker was “ever cheery, ever full of expedients to circumvent the perversities of the meteorological environment, and the fair measure of success we met with was largely due to him.”

In January 1888, at the age of 39, Baker was among those who founded the National Geographic Society. Baker was elected to the first Board of Managers and remained on it until the day he died; and over the years, he took on additional roles as well, serving at one time or another as recording secretary, vice president, and for a brief spell in 1891, as editor of the nascent National Geographic magazine. He was a frequent speaker and lecturer at Society meetings, and even when he wasn’t editing the magazine, his published articles often appeared in its pages. In sum, he was one of the strongest influences on the Society in its first 15 years.

The decades of the 1880s and 1890s were busy and productive ones for Baker. In 1889, he was elected a Director in the Equitable Cooperative Building; he was also on the board of the Washington Sanitary Improvement Company. When the U.S. Board on Geographic Names was established in 1890–largely under National Geographic Society auspices–Baker was one of its initial twelve members, and served as its secretary and occasional editor for a decade. He wrote many geographical bulletins and papers, and began compiling a major work on Alaskan place names.

As active as he was with the National Geographic Society, Baker was perhaps more active in the Washington Academy of Sciences, of which he was also a charter member. Somehow–unbelievably–he even found time to enter the Columbian University (now George Washington University) School of Law, and emerged two years later with his LL.B. Marcus Baker was clearly an organized and effective man.

But one December morning in 1903, Baker suddenly and unexpectedly died. The cause was reported as “heart failure,” but whatever it was, he was only 54 years old. Six days later he was commemorated at a meeting of the National Geographic Society. The Board on Geographic Names, which he had served so steadfastly, adopted a resolution expressing its “warm appreciation of his private character,” referring to him as “a good man, a warm friend, a wise counselor, and a public-spirited citizen,” and deploring the loss of “a brilliant mathematician, an efficient officer, a rare organizer, and a man alive with enthusiasm over efforts made to increase and diffuse knowledge.” It also honored him by bestowing his name on a 13,176-foot mountain–Mt. Marcus Baker–in the Chugach range of southern Alaska, that great northern wilderness of fog and ice he had tried so hard to unveil.

Human Journey

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