DEPARTMENT OF BOTANY
Western Union Extension Telegraph Exploring Expedition
Western Union Telegraph Exploration Expedition
When Naturalist Robert Kennicott went into the Arctic, he had no idea that “prospects for collections [would be] better than ever.” In 1865, a man named Cyrus Fields was creating the Atlantic Cable—a telegraph line running under the Atlantic Ocean to Europe. Convinced submerging a telegraph cable in water was impossible, the Western Union funded Perry McDonough Collins and his expedition to build the first overland cross continental telegraph line. In order to put up the line, land surveys were conducted in Canada, Asia, and Alaska. Kennicott and his party of highly qualified naturalists and botanists focused their efforts exploring the flora and fauna of Alaska for the first time; returning home with a total of 5,160 plant specimens including 451 new species.
The Smithsonian Institution and the Chicago Academy of Science’s Scientific Corp funded the survey work of Chief of Explorations, Robert Kennicott who, along with hundreds of men – most notably William Healey Dall and Joseph Trimble Rothrock – embarked March 21, 1865 to Alaska. Upon arrival, they were stunned to see the flora that permeated the frost-covered ground. Dall observed the landscape in his journal, noting that the soil never completely thawed, and that the roots of all plants grew out of the top soil and could not go any deeper through the frozen layers. “But surprise changed into amazement,” Dall continued, “where on tops of icebergs, herbs and shrubs [were] thriving with luxuriance only equaled in more favored climates.”
Among these herbs and shrubs were also beautiful flowers that grew in abundance at Alaskan trading posts near Sitka. Dall was amazed to see orchids among the frost bitten shrubs, and noted the white orchid Plantanthera dilata in his journal. While Dall and his team appreciated the beauty of some of these flowers, they were intrigued to discover that native tribes in Alaska found the aroma of orchids and other flowers like Rosa cinnamomea as pungent and rotten. Dall quipped that “the only odor they appreciate lies hidden in the steam arising from the soup kettle.”
Despite losing many of Rothrock’s specimens en route to the Smithsonian, Kennicott and Dall kept accurate records of the different plants that they found on the journey. In the winter, Dall, Kennicott and Rothrock separated with teams to explore different areas of Alaska, but each journal account documents the frequent occurrence of the blood root Sanguinaria canadensis growing on river banks. The blood root would freeze, get buried under snow and ice, and yet miraculously remain living.
Near Kennicott’s winter rest camp in Nulato, he and his men recorded seeing partially bloomed Calypso bulbosa. They “sought shelter under willows…and alder” next to the C. bulbosa and found themselves surrounded by “P. balsamifer and dry ground spruce (Abies Alba).” Dall spent much of his time at Fort St. Michaels, where he stumbled upon Hippuris vulgaris which with its beautiful green hues triumphantly emerging from the Yukon provided a nice contrast to the pale bark and silver hue of the leaves from its nearby neighbor Populus tremuloides.
While the team continued to study the flora of the land, tragedy struck the expedition. On May 13, 1866, Kennicott’s lifeless body was found by a river bank near Nulato. In his wake, Dall was named the new Chief of Explorations, and while he pressed forward with explorations, the expedition was ignorant to Cyrus Field successfully installing his telegraph cable on July 26, 1866. The Western Union Expedition did not relay the message for a full year so the men continued working.
The expedition cost Western Union over 3 million dollars and was hailed as a financial disaster. And even though the annual Smithsonian Report of 1867 stated that, “a complete list of Alaskan plants with a detailed account of their geographical distribution [could not] yet be expected,” the expedition was heralded for the achievements of the late Robert Kennicott and for the many botanical discoveries justifying the United States’ purchase of Alaska from Russia.
Adams, George R. Life on the Yukon: 1865-1867. The Limestone Press, 1982.
Dall, William Healey. Alaska Documents. Rothrock, J.T. M.D. “Flora of Alaska” From the Report of the Smithsonian Institution for 1867
Dall, William Healey. Alaska and It’s Resources. Lee and Shepard, 1870.
James, James Alton. The First Scientific Exploration of Russian America and the Purchase of Alaska, Northwestern University, 1942.
Larnor, John William. Editor. The Papers of Joseph Trimble Rothrock, M.D.: Guide and Index to the Scholarly Microfilm Edition. Scholarly Resources Inc, 2001.
Record Unit 7213 Western Union Telegraph Expedition 1965-1867 Smithsonian Institute Archives
Vasile, Ronald. “The Early Career of Robert Kennicot, Illinois’ Pioneering Naturalist.” Illinois Historica Journal 87 (Autumn 1994): 150-170.