Page from William Healey Dall’s 1872 Diary, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7073, Image No. SIA2017-035951.

Spotlight: George Tsaroff

We’re taking a closer look at George Tsaroff, who met naturalist William Healey Dall following an 1871-1872 survey of the Aleutian Islands and later began working with the Smithsonian's ethnological collections in Washington, D.C.

This blog post was edited in October 2021 for clarification.  

While surveying and collecting specimens in the Aleutian Islands in 1871-1872 for the United States Coast Survey, later renamed the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey, naturalist William Healey Dall befriended George Tsaroff (1858-1880), an Unangan (Aleut) teen from Unalaska Island who had been hired as local help to aid in the expedition's mission. The fifteen-year-old Tsaroff demonstrated a natural affinity for the work and Dall took notice of his intelligence. Upon the end of the expedition, they hatched a plan to send George to University.

Portrait of George Tsaroff at age 15

Little is known about the exact circumstances surrounding Tsaroff's departure from his community, except that his parents were deceased at the time. In a memorial tribute by Dall's mother, Caroline Healey Dall, she described Tsaroff as orphaned.

Dall's 1872 diary reveals that Tsaroff accompanied the expedition's return trip from Alaska and details several activities in preparation for sending George to school. While in port in San Francisco, Dall bought him a suit of clothes and hat, talked to him about moving East, and arranged to have a formal portrait taken at a photographic studio. Dall made travel arrangements for transportation to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he had enrolled Tsaroff at the University of Michigan under the tutelage of his friend and scientific colleague, Mark Walrod Harrington, who had also been on the expedition and was returning to the University as an instructor. At this time, adoption papers were also submitted, naming twenty-seven-year-old Dall as Tsaroff's legal guardian, possibly as a requirement for admission.

Page from William Healey Dall's 1872 Diary

Upon completion of his education, Tsaroff was eager to move to Washington, D.C., so that he could be nearer to his benefactor and adoptive family. In 1878 he was hired by the Smithsonian Institution as an assistant in charge of the ethnological collections in the upper hall of the Castle, where he also boarded in one of the Castle towers. In addition to keeping the ethnological collections in order, he also served as a guide for visitors, describing objects and their applications.

Portraits of George Tsaroff and William Healey Dall

Tsaroff's life was cut tragically short when he contracted consumption in 1880, passing away soon after at the age of twenty-two. His short life was impactful and he was beloved by those who knew him. In a letter from chief clerk William Jones Rhees to Caroline Healey Dall, Rhees wrote, "George has left the best of all legacies - a good name. He was beloved and respected by all who knew him. He made the world better and brighter by his sunny smile, cheerful, wise and pure character. He has not lived in vain." 

We do have a bit of Tsaroff's legacy in our collections, including correspondence with Dall, the adoption papers, and some original drawings. We look forward to having these digitized in the future so that more of his story can be shared.

The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 established standards for the placement of Indian children in adoptive homes and prioritizes community involvement in child welfare cases.

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