Graphical timeline from Smithson to Smithsonian
From Smithson to Smithsonian - The Birth of an InstitutionA National Collection

Who Was James Smithson?
Sccepting Smithson's Gift
All-American Compromise
The Smithsonian Building
An Institution Emerges
A National Collection
Smithson's Legacy

Exploring New Territories

Following the United States Exploring Expedition, the U.S. government launched a series of exploring and surveying expeditions under the direction of the Army to map and collect information about the natural history of the largely unknown territories of North America. Assistant Secretary Baird provided military officers with collecting equipment and instructions on how to collect specimens of animals, plants, minerals, and fossil remains for the Smithsonian. For many expeditions, both government and private efforts, Baird secured places for collectors and naturalists and arranged for the accumulated collections from the natural world to be sent back to the Institution in Washington.

The growing collections quickly made the Smithsonian a center for information on the natural history of North America.

In 1859, Spencer Baird sent Robert Kennicott, curator of Northwestern University's Museum of Natural History, to northwestern Canada and Russian America (now Alaska). He collected 40 boxes of specimens from the Yukon Territory which he brought back to the Smithsonian in 1863. In 1865, at Baird's suggestion, the Western Union Telegraph Company appointed Kennicott leader of an expedition to map the route for an overland cable to Europe.


This specimen of obsidian came from the Western Union Telegraph Company Expedition which explored the Yukon and Alaska from 1865 to 1868.

After Kennicott's death in the field in 1866, William H. Dall took over and led the survey team to the Bering Strait, and later published the first English-language reports on the natural history of the Yukon and Alaskan territories.
The Yukon Territory
The Yukon Territory


Based on knowledge gleaned from the expedition reports, Baird's testimony to Congress helped turn the tide in favor of the 1867 purchase of Alaska. With Dall's help, Baird built a network of collectors throughout the Alaskan regions who submitted reports and collections to the Smithsonian over the next 30 years.

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