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Nelson’s Missing Journals

(1855 - 1934)

Edward Nelson was a naturalist who was sent to Alaska at the suggestion of Spencer Baird. He recorded and collected the the plants, animals, birds, fish, and insect the he saw, along with customs and rituals of the native peoples.

For years curators have been searching for the ‘lost’ Alaska journals of Edward W. Nelson from 1877-1881.  Then, in 1992, the journals appeared unexpectedly among the papers of his life-long friend and colleague, naturalist Edward Goldman, when his son, Luther J. Goldman, donated his father’s papers to the Smithsonian Institution Archives.  Among the Goldman documents were a boxes labeled “Edward Nelson.” Apparently Nelson had given his Alaska journals, as well as other personal files, to Goldman for safe-keeping.

During his four year expedition funded by the Smithsonian, Nelson collected thousands of Yup'ik Eskimo artifacts, 126 glass plate negatives, word lists and tens of thousands of natural history specimens. Nelson documented his extensive travels throughout western Alaska in sixteen meticulously documented journals in addition to articles and letters. The ASC is presently preparing these journals for publication in 2011 in an on-line manuscript series maintained by the Smithsonian Institution Library.

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Did you know? Edward Nelson's interest in collecting art and everyday items caused tribes to name him "the man who collected good-for-nothing-things"

See slideshow for a few of Edward Nelson's photographs

The photographs taken by Nelson in Alaska between 1879 and 1881 are among the first obtained from Western Alaska and are the first to document the native peoples of the Bering and Chukchi Seas region.

Additional pictures can be found in The Alaska Photographs of Edward W. Nelson, 1877-1881. In: Imaging the Arctic, edited by J.C. H. King and Henrietta Lidchi. Pp. 125-142. London: British Museum Press. 1998

Edward Nelson Resources

Explore Edwards Nelson's contributions through the following:

  • Get a first hand account of the Bering Strait Eskimo by reading selected sections of Edward W. Nelson’s Alaskan Diaries, 1877 – 1881where he discusses, in his own words, notes on cranes, bear hunting, the Kashim (men’s ceremonial house), and a description of the annual ‘harvest renewal’ ceremony known as the Bladder Festival.
  • Of Kayaks and Ulus: The Bering Sea Eskimo Collection of Edward W. Nelson “The Man Who Collected Good For Nothing Things” curriculum packet: This curriculum packet contains 5 small booklets detailing the travels and discoveries of the great 19th century naturalist, Edward W. Nelson and his time with the Bering Sea Eskimos of Western Alaska (now called the Yup’ik). This packet consists of information about Yup’ik folklore and daily life as well as both primary sources from Edward W. Nelson’s letters and journals and secondary sources which put Nelson’s discoveries into a larger perspective. Throughout the packets are numerous pictures to give a visual understanding of Nelson’s discoveries as well as study questions and discussion topics to foster critical thinking and a big picture view. The packet is based on original materials in Nelson’s monographic study, the Eskimos About Bering Strait” (1899) and by the exhibition catalog, “Inua: Spirit World of the Berinjg Sea Eskimo” (1982) by William Fitzhugh and Susan Kaplan.
  • Introduction to the reprint edition of The Eskimo About Bering Strait written by Dr. Fitzhugh.

This website generously supported by the National Science Foundation's Arctic Programs.
Copyright ASC 2010

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