Instructions Issued for Polaris Expedition




Date: June 9, 1871


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Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry, acting in his role as the President of the National Academy of Sciences, and George M. Robeson, Secretary of the Navy, transmit instructions to Captain Charles F. Hall for the scientific operations of the Polaris Expedition (1871-1873) toward the North Pole, which is authorized by Congress and carried out under the direction of the U.S. Navy. The Smithsonian is especially involved in meteorological observations. Henry provides twenty-one pages of instructions contributed by specialists in astronomy, magnetism, geology, and other subjects to Hall and his director of scientific operations, Emil Bessels. Although they succeed in reaching "the most northerly point ever attained by civilized man," Henry later writes, relatively few specimens are brought back to Washington, D.C., because the crew ultimately has to abandon its ship, which is damaged by ice. After his return from the Arctic, Emil Bessels is given space in the Smithsonian Building for compiling the Polaris Expedition's scientific results.


  • Hall, Charles Francis 1821-1871
  • Henry, Joseph 1797-1878
  • Bessels, Emil 1847-1888
  • Robeson, George M (George Maxwell) 1829-1897
  • National Academy of Sciences (U.S.)
  • Polaris Expedition
  • United States Dept. of the Navy
  • United States Congress


Chronology of Smithsonian History


  • Image of Dr. Emil Bessels, 1871. Smithsonian Institution Archives, negative number SIA2008-6153.
  • The natural history collections and scientific records from the Polaris Expedition were deposited in the United States National Museum at the Smithsonian. The expedition was hampered by the death of Captain Charles F. Hall and damage to the vessel by ice, and only a small number of the specimens collected were brought back by Dr. Emil Bessels, chief of the scientific corps. In 1874, Dr. Bessels prepared publications based on this material, in Scientific Results of the United States Arctic Expedition.
  • For Henry's scientific instructions, see
  • Guide to Smithsonian Archives. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983. Archives and Special Collections of the Smithsonian Institution Number 4, p. 176.
  • Joseph Henry Letter to George Maxwell Robeson, June 9, 1871, document 165 in The Papers of Joseph Henry, Volume 11, The Smithsonian Years: January 1866-May 1878, Marc Rothenberg , et al, eds., (Smithsonian Institution in association with Science History Publications/USA, 2007), pp. 351-356.
  • Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution for the year 1871, p. 35, 361-387.
  • Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution for the year 1873, p. 37-38.
  • Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution for the year 1874, p. 46-47.

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20024-2520,


June 9, 1871


  • Scientific expeditions
  • Geology
  • Shipwrecks
  • Natural History
  • Secretaries
  • Museums
  • Arctic regions
  • Collectors and collecting
  • Interagency Relations
  • National Collections
  • Astronomy
  • Accidents
  • Meteorology
  • Natural history
  • Museum publications
  • Arctic regions--Research


  • North Pole
  • Polar regions

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