Henry Elliott collection

Scope and Content

The collection comprises of correspondence by Elliott regarding the Western Union Telegraph Expedition, 1865-1867 (leaders Robert Kennicott)

Administrative / Biographical History

Henry Wood Elliott was born on 13 November 1846 in Cleveland, Ohio, USA. Interested in natural science from an early age, he went to work for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington in 1861. He made his first visit to Alaska in 1865 when he was appointed zoologist on the US Western Union Telegraph Expedition (Alaskan Division), 1865-1867 (leader Robert Kennicott), sent by the 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 the United States and Europe by way of Bering Strait.

Between 1869 and 1870, Elliott was assigned to the United States Geological Survey and served as an artist with the Hayden Survey of Wyoming Territory. In 1872, he was sent as an agent for the treasury department to the Pribilof Islands to supervise the Alaska Commercial Company's management of the fur seal herd there. He also had a verbal commission from the Smithsonian Institution to study the mammals of the islands, in particular the fur seal. Elliott remained on the Pribilof Islands during the winters of 1872 and 1873, returning in the summer of 1874 to check the seal count. He submitted a report of his findings to the Secretary of the Treasury on his return in 1874. In 1890, he was appointed by the Treasury Department to visit the Pribilof Islands again, after news came through that the seal herd was greatly depleted.

In November 1890, Elliott returned to Washington to report his findings, arguing that there should be an immediate halt to land and sea killings of the fur seal for an indefinite period to prevent further depletion. His ambition of saving the Alaskan fur seal from extinction was not realised until 1911 when the United States, Russia, Japan and Great Britain agreed to the North Pacific Sealing Convention, prohibiting all pelagic sealing in the open ocean, including Bering Sea. He continued to campaign for the conservation of the fur seal until he reached the age of eighty, when he retired to Seattle. He died on 25 May 1930.

Published work A report upon the condition of affairs in the territory of Alaska by Henry Wood Elliott, Government Printing Office Washington DC (1875) SPRI Library Shelf (49)[pub.1875] An Arctic province. Alaska and the seal islands by Henry Wood Elliott, Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington London (1886) SPRI Library Shelf (49)[pub.1886] Report on the condition of the fur-seal fisheries of the Pribilov Islands in 1890 by Henry Wood Elliott, Government Printer Washington DC (1896) SPRI Library Shelf 639.247.4:341.63


The correspondence is arranged alphabetically by recipient

Access Information

By appointment.

Some materials deposited at the Institute are NOT owned by the Institute. In such cases the archivist will advise about any requirements imposed by the owner. These may include seeking permission to read, extended closure, or other specific conditions.


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 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 'Henry Wood Elliott, fighter for fur seals' by Robert Shalkop in The Alaska Journal volume 13 number 1 p4-12 and 'Henry W Elliott' by James Thomas Gay in The Alaska Journal volume 3 number 4 p211-216

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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