Robert Kennicott collection

Scope and Content

The collection comprises of correspondence by Kennicott to Spencer Fullerton Baird regarding the Western Union Telegraph Expedition, 1865-1867 (leader Robert Kennicott)

Administrative / Biographical History

Robert Kennicott was born in 1835 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Receiving little formal education, he trained himself in natural history under the guidance of his father, Dr John Kennicott, a renowned horticulturist and physician, and through his association with several scientists, including the naturalist, Spencer Baird. At the age of twenty, he made a comprehensive survey of southern Illinois for the Illinois Central Railroad and the following year became a co-founder of the Chicago Academy of Sciences, later establishing a natural history museum at Northwestern University in Illinois.

After joining the staff of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, Kennicott was appointed to lead the United States Zoological Expedition, 1859-1862, sent by the Smithsonian to make zoological collections from the trading posts in Mackenzie District and Yukon Territory. In addition to collecting a vast quantity of zoological specimens for the Smithsonian, Kennicott made many valuable observations of the fur trade.

In 1863, Kennicott was appointed curator of the Chicago Academy of Sciences, and two years later returned north to lead the Western Union Telegraph Expedition, 1865-1867. The expedition was instructed by Western Union Telegraph Company to survey a route for, and to construct, a telegraph line through Alaska by way of Yukon River and Seward Peninsula, in connection with plans to establish a telegraph link between America and Europe by way of Bering Strait. Kennicott was also to take charge of various scientific studies in Alaska. After arriving at Norton Sound in September 1865, Kennicott led an exploring party to the Nulato trading post on the Yukon. He died of a heart attack on 13 May 1866 at Nulato.


The correspondence with Baird is arranged chronologically

Access Information

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Anyone wishing to consult material should ensure they note the entire MS reference and the name of the originator.

The term holograph is used when the item is wholly in the handwriting of the author. The term autograph is used when the author has signed the item.

Descriptions compiled by N. Boneham, Assistant Archivist with assistance from R. Stancombe and reference to 'Kennicott in the North' by Grace Lee Nute in Beaver September 1943 number 274 p28-32 and Northwestern Library USA and Smithsonian and Illinois Natural History Society and Arctic, exploration and development c500 BC to 1915, an encyclopaedia by Clive Holland Garland Publishing, London (1994) and Exploring Polar Frontiers, a historical encyclopaedia by William Mills San Diego and Oxford, 2003

Other Finding Aids

Clive Holland Manuscripts in the Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge, England - a catalogue, Garland Publishing New York and London (1982) ISBN 0824093941.

Additional finding aids are available at the Institute.

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Further accessions possible