Edward W. Nelson
(1855 - 1934)

Edward W. Nelson could be more easily compared to todays astronauts than to our scientists. He explored and recorded the world of the Arctic often as the first outsider to observe and mingle with native Arctic peoples. Shortly after his visits other explorers and prospectors in the Gold Rush would change life in the far north forever.

Nelson was a naturalist who was sent to Alaska at the suggestion of Spencer Baird, then Director of the U.S. National Museum. He was appointed by the Army Signal Corps to study the weather and collect specimens of natural history. Nelson's four year stay (from 1877 to 1881) and daring expeditions were documented in his meticulously detailed journals, articles and letters. He recorded and collected the plants, animals, birds, fish and insects that he saw, along with the customs and rituals of the native peoples. His interest in collecting art and everyday items used by the various tribes caused them to name him "the man who collected good-for-nothing things."



Edward W. Nelson

Edward W. Nelson Photo © Smithsonian

Edward Nelson was the first to identify many Arctic bird species and some were given his name. This Sand Piper was hand colored from nature by Edward Nelson himself.

The illustrations and journal entries which appear in the Arctic Wildlife Portfolio are from Nelson's Report on Natural History Collections Made in Alaska Between the Years 1877-1881.

Watch Arctic Studies Center Director, William Fitzhugh discuss the Nelson collection, by visiting: https://anthropology.si.edu/founding_collections.html

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