Robert Kennicott and the Western Union Telegraph Expedition

We look at Robert Kennicott's contribution to the Western Union Telegraph Expedition.

Portrait of Robert Kennicott, by Unknown, c.1860, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, SIA2010-1593.  By now you have probably heard of Robert Kennicott, either because of his involvement with the Megatherium Club, or because of the article and blog post on his death that was published last year. I, however, tend to associate him with the Western Union Telegraph Expedition, a collecting mission to Alaska that proved to be his last. Correspondence related to the expedition are now available on the Smithsonian Transcription Center!

Robert Kennicott was born on November 13, 1835 in New Orleans. As a child, he was mostly homeschooled by his father because he was often too ill to attend a traditional school on a regular basis. It was during his time at home that he developed a love for nature, with a particular fondness for herpetology. At the age of 17, Kennicott began working under a well-respected naturalist, Jared Kirtland, and through Kirtland, he met Spencer Baird, assistant secretary of the Smithsonian. Baird and Kennicott become constant correspondents, and continued exchanging copious amounts of letters about natural history specimens until Kennicott’s death in 1866.Spread of ledger with blue pages and ink writing.

In 1865, the Western Union Telegraph Company launched an expedition with the goal of finding an acceptable telegraph route over the Bering Sea from San Francisco, California to Moscow, Russia, and they selected Kennicott as the lead naturalist in charge of exploring Russian America. Lead by Colonel Charles Bulkley, members of the expedition first met in San Francisco to determine an official plan for the trip. From there, the expedition had trouble getting started with multiple plans being abandonded days before they were to be put into place. Ultimately, it was determined that Kennicott was to travel up the Yukon River with seven men of his choosing, and others supplied from the general recruits.

 Letter on cream paper with writing in pencil.

During this trip up the river in May 1866, Robert Kennicott forensic evidence suggests he suffered cardiac arrest and died. Although the telegraph was eventually abandonded, following Kennicott’s death, his friend, and fellow Megatherium Club member, William Dall vowed to complete the work that Kennicott had begun in Russian America.

Letter on white paper with writing in ink.

Read more of Robert Kennicott’s letters to Spencer Baird during the Western Union Telegraph Expedition here.

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