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Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Rediscovering the Harriman Alaska Expedition of 1899

Steamship S.S. George Elder, Sitka Harbor, 1899 (P11133)
In its vast photograph collection the NMAI Archive Center holds over 600 images from the Harriman Alaska Expedition of 1899. These photographic prints and lantern slides document Native villages and people, expedition members, and majestic Alaskan scenery. The scientific cruise was planned and financed by Edward H. Harriman, a wealthy New Yorker who earned his means from a railroad business at the end of the nineteenth century. What started as a doctor recommended pleasure cruise for Harriman’s health, turned into one of the most ambitious expeditions of the Alaskan coast. The ship, George W. Elder, has been referred to as a floating college. Beyond family and friends the 126 members of his crew were made up of the leading scientists, naturalists, artists, and photographers of his time.

Indian mending his canoe, Sitka, 1899 (L00763)
As an intern my first project has been to compare institutional holdings of Harriman Expedition imagery to other collections in an effort to make more complete catalog records for the NMAI Photo Archive collection. Imagery I have been cross-referencing include photographs where our database lacks detailed information. For example, this NMAI lantern slide at left was simply titled "Tlingit Houses and Canoe. Sitka, Alaska. 1899." However, by researching other institution’s collections I was able to find the following description: "Indian mending his canoe, Sitka Indian huts from photographs by E.S. Curtis, June 16, 1899." The photograph becomes more valuable to researchers with the inclusion of additional information and creates a more accurate description of the image.

Sources I have found useful include souvenir albums produced by Edward S. Curtis, the official photographer of the Harriman Expedition, who later became famous within his profession for the documentation of Native American culture in North America. For more information on the work of E.S. Curtis, visit the Northwestern University Digital Library Collection. One of these souvenir albums can be accessed at the Smithsonian Institution Archives within the Harriman Alaska Expedition Collection (Record Unit 7243), as well as the first four volumes of the Harriman Alaska Series in the Mark H. Dall Papers.

E. Roland Harriman, Son of Edward Henry Harriman, on top of the S.S. George W. Elder, 1899 (L00703)
In addition, digitized collections of imagery are available through the University of Washington’s online database.  An interesting original journal produced by crew member A.K. Fisher can also be viewed through the online holdings of the Library of Congress. By cross referencing these collections with NMAI images, a more accurate account of the collection will be provided, including more complete descriptions and titles, photographer’s name, date of image, cultures depicted, sites, and locations of comparable holdings. In its continual effort to digitize its photograph collections, the NMAI Archive Center will be making these images available through SIRIS and the NMAI Collections Search Center.

~Jami Guthrie, Photo Archive Intern, National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center,


1 comment:

  1. Sounds like you did a thorough job on making crucial connections to repositories across the nation! Good job, and I hope you enjoyed your internship :)