Human Journey

William Dall: National Geographic Founder and Pioneer of Alaskan Exploration

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.

William Dall (1845-1927), spent much of his boyhood wading in nearby coastal waters searching for marine life, especially mollusks. His talent was recognized early on, and the esteemed Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz taught him personally. Then, in 1865, he was granted a rare opportunity: an Alaskan explorer named Robert Kennicott invited Dall, not yet 21, to join the Western Union Telegraph Expedition. This enterprise proposed to connect North America with Europe via a telegraph system running across British Columbia and Alaska (then owned by Russia), connecting to lines in Siberia, and then stretching across Asia to Europe. Kennicott was in charge of surveying the Russian American portion of the line, but also had backing from the Smithsonian Institution and the Chicago Academy of Science to create a Scientific Corps to collect natural history specimens along the way.

Map of Alaska created by William H. Dall in 1875.

Dall sailed for Alaska, reaching Norton Sound in November 1866–only to learn that his friend and mentor, but 30 years old, had died. Very little emotion comes through in Dall’s writings but the subject of Kennicott’s death is different. Dall believed the strain of responsibility had been too much for Kennicott, who fretted ceaselessly over the lives of his men in a hardship post too far away and with too few resources. The even-younger Dall was promoted to replace him. In 1867 he became the first American to explore his way by boat from St. Michael’s to Fort Yukon, demonstrating, as he reported, “the practicality of the route selected” for the telegraph, but also collecting as many natural history specimens as he could transport.

By the next year, the expedition’s raison d’être suddenly vanished with the success of the newly laid trans-Atlantic cable, which connected Europe with America by a much shorter route. All hands prepared to return to San Francisco. However, negotiations were already underway to transfer Alaska from Russian to U.S. possession, so Dall decided to remain and continue on his own, exploring along the lower Yukon River and its delta. Despite his fortitude, he did acknowledge some misgivings as the ship sailed away, leaving him behind in a land where no one else spoke English.

In 1871, Dall began working for the U.S. Coast & Geodetic Survey, charting the Alaskan coastline. This work eventually culminated in The Pacific Coast Pilot of Alaska. Dall spent four years in this rugged wilderness with few respites from the rough conditions and more than a few close calls. On his initial journey to Ft. Yukon, constant vigilance was required to navigate the melting glacial ice that could easily tear into his Indian skin boat that Russian traders referred to as bidarras.

By 1884 Dall had transferred to the U.S. Geological Survey, then under the direction of John Wesley Powell. A few years later, he was among those who met in the Cosmos Club, in Washington D.C., to establish the National Geographic Society. Dall served on the Society’s Board of Managers for three years, and he contributed a total of nine articles to National Geographic. His last piece came in 1904, a memorial tribute to his late friend and colleague, Marcus Baker.

In 1915 the Cosmos Club feted Dall, honoring his fifty years’ service to science in a ceremony presided over by Secretary of the Smithsonian Charles Walcott. Various colleagues toasted “Dall the Alaska Pioneer,” “Dall the Zoologist,” and “Dall the Man.” The evening’s printed program contained many quotes from Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, reflecting Dall’s love of poetry, but the menu was a sly poke at his obsession for malacology. One of the appetizers was Pacific Little Neck Clams, of which Dall had probably gathered more than a few, an entrée of boiled king salmon (at one time he complained about eating so much he’d become sick of it), and dessert of Molluscan Mousse.

Even after 50 years, Dall’s work ethic did not flag; he continued going to his office at the Smithsonian until his death on March 27, 1927.  Despite his reputation in scientific circles of the day, his memory is now largely forgotten, but his legacy lives on in the wealth of plants, animals, and places bearing his name: Ovis dalli, the majestic Dall sheep, as well as the Dall River, a tributary of the Yukon, and of course, hundreds upon hundreds of mollusks.

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