Celebrating 100 Years
Robert Kennicott (1835-1866): Early Smithsonian Scientific Explorer and Collector
Few museums count the remains of their founders among their collections, but the Smithsonian is doubly unique in this way. Not only is the tomb of founding donor James Smithson on display in the Crypt of the Smithsonian Castle, but the National Museum of Natural History holds the bones of Robert Kennicott, a nineteenth-century naturalist who died tragically young on an expedition to the Yukon. His remarkable collecting activities significantly increased the foundational collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.
Kennicott, who grew up in the prairie north of Chicago, began his association with the Smithsonian when he was still a teenager and the Smithsonian Institution itself (established in 1846) was only six years old—well before the erection of the National Museum of Natural History’s building whose centennial we celebrate this year (2010-11). From his native Illinois, Kennicott sent the fledgling institution specimens that were often unfamiliar to Eastern scientists. Within a few years, Assistant Secretary Spencer Baird had cultivated and trained him as a naturalist and collector, encouraging him to publish what turned out to be his longest and most comprehensive paper, The Quadrupeds of Illinois, Injurious and Beneficial to the Farmer.
Kennicott spent several winters in Washington cataloguing specimens. He lived with other young naturalists in the towers of the Smithsonian’s first (and, at that time, only) building, the Castle. They formed a group, calling themselves the Megatherium Club, serenading Joseph Henry’s daughters and playing games at night among the collections.
In 1859, Baird sent Kennicott on a three-year quest through central British America that culminated in a winter trek to Fort Yukon in western Russian America. Traveling by foot, canoe, and dogsled, Kennicott collected birds (282), mammals (230), fish (151 lots), as well as snakes, plants, and more—preserving them and sending them back to Washington. He also collected Native American clothing and weapons, and he compiled some of the first dictionaries of tribal languages. Kennicott kept an extensive journal of that expedition, describing the land, the animals, the natives, and his experiences. The expedition made his name within scientific circles, and his written exploits appealed to a wide general readership.
In 1865, at Baird’s suggestion, Kennicott agreed to lead an expedition to the Yukon for the Western Union Telegraph, which planned to lay a cable connecting the United States with Europe via the Bering Strait. Kennicott, the only person in the U.S. who had lived in Russian America, was tasked with finding and charting a route for the telegraph wire through unknown wilderness from inland Fort Nulato to the coast of Norton Sound. Kennicott and two fellow naturalists hoped to also collect new and rare specimens of natural history, but they arrived just below the Arctic Circle as winter began, making collecting impossible. Using dogsleds over frozen, snow-packed native trails, Kennicott and his team reached Fort Nulato on the Yukon River, about 120 miles inland—the first non-natives to achieve such a task. Bringing supplies from the coast entailed a twenty-day round trip in temperatures as low as sixty below zero. Nevertheless, from November through April, Kennicott and his native guides tramped the hills to find a path for the poles. As spring came, his guides finally showed him the correct path. With his Western Union task accomplished, Kennicott determined to reach his personal goal: Fort Yukon, by river, as soon as its six-foot thick ice broke up.
On May 13, 1866, Kennicott did not appear for breakfast. His concerned men found him, dead, on the Yukon riverbank, near Fort Nulato. No one knew how or why he died, but rumors began that he had committed suicide by swallowing strychnine.
His friends brought him back home to his family, in an extraordinary eight-month journey. Kennicott was buried first at Nulato until the ice broke and his men could make the 500-mile trip to Norton Sound. Then, he was buried at the Russian fort on the coast until a Western Union ship could take him via Kamchatka, Russia, to the U.S. In San Francisco, he was transferred from the rough wood coffin made at Nulato to a sophisticated metal coffin. Finally, in January 1867, after another trip by boat and train, he was buried at The Grove, his boyhood home.
Today, The Grove is a national historic landmark serving as both an education center and a nature center. In 2001, forensic anthropologists from the National Museum of Natural History traveled to The Grove, at the request of the museum and Kennicott’s descendants, to open his casket and determine why Kennicott died.
Dr. Douglas Owsley and his Smithsonian colleagues have been studying iron coffins and their contents because they usually offer information about people that would otherwise not be available: their dress and social customs; their diet and general health; burial practices and attitudes toward the dead. In the case of Robert Kennicott, the scientists found a relatively robust body, with no broken bones or recent trauma; Kennicott was dressed for burial in his Western Union uniform.
As a naturalist who killed and prepared animals for museum specimens, Kennicott was exposed to many toxic chemicals. Four of them, strychnine, arsenic, mercury and lead, showed up in Kennicott’s body, but at such low levels that none of them could have caused his death. Research showed that, at the time, all of them were commonly used as medicine by both traditional and homeopathic doctors in attempts to cure a wide range of diseases and conditions.
The rumor of suicide by strychnine is strongly refuted by Kennicott’s position at death: stretched out on his back with his hands on his chest. A fatal dose of strychnine produces body-wide convulsions that end with the body in an arch; only the head and feet touch the ground. But no convulsive marks scuffed the riverbank. Instead, a drawing that Kennicott had scratched next to him was still clear enough to be copied into the diary of one of his men.
A fairly strong case can be made that Kennicott died of heart failure. Kennicott fainted very publicly twice in six months, an indication of the heart failing to pump b n b blood. Such events bear a high risk of eventual sudden death. His hands on his chest at death suggest strong heart pain. Reportedly, Kennicott was a sickly child, making it possible that his heart condition was a life-long defect. The most common of these is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy or the metabolic disturbance termed long Q-T syndrome—the condition that kills athletes in the middle of a game.
Robert Kennicott achieved much in his thirty short years. The collections he made can be found today in virtually every department of the Natural History Museum and his impact as a naturalist and collector stretched well beyond his lifetime. He was a mentor to many young naturalists, and he also cultivated people out in the field—such as the Hudson’s Bay fur trappers he lived with while exploring central Canada—creating collectors who continued to send specimens to the Smithsonian long after his death. The papers he sent home from his final expedition played an integral role in the United States’ eventual purchase of the Alaskan territory.
Sensitive to the changes that settlement had wrought on his native mid-West, Kennicott recognized even in the 1850s the dangers that habitat destruction could have on the loss of resources and the potential for extinction:
Man interferes unwisely [in the vast system of nature], and the order is broken. … [B]efore waging any war on any animal, let us study its habits, and look well to the consequences which would follow its extermination.
- The Smithsonian Archives contains some letters of Robert Kennicott, as well as the papers of the Western Union Telegraph Expedition to Alaska, 1865-67.
- Northwestern University Library holds other papers of Robert Kennicott, as well as the papers of Henry Bannister, which include Bannister’s memoir of the Alaska expedition and other diaries and letters.
- Read the memoir of Kennicott’s life, published in 1869 in the Transactions of the Chicago Academy of Sciences.
- For more information on Kennicott’s scientific education and his relationship with Spencer Baird, see Ronald S. Vasile, “The Early Career of Robert Kennicott, Illinois’ Pioneering Naturalist,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, vol. 87 (1994): 150-70. See also Donald Zochert, “Notes on a Young Naturalist,” Audubon, vol. 82, no. 2 (March 1980): 34-47.
- For more information on Kennicott’s death and the recent autopsy investigation, see Sandra Spatz Schlachtmeyer’s A Death Decoded: Robert Kennicott and the Alaska Telegraph, A Forensic Investigation (Voyage Publishing, 2010).
- Read more about Robert Kennicott’s mysterious death in the Smithsonian Magazine blog.
- Read about Robert Kennicott on the Division of Fishes page about Naturalist Collectors.
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