Featured Collection: Robert Kennicott-Henry M. Bannister Papers

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The Archives holds fascinating print and artifact materials from these two intrepid explorers and naturalists. The bulk of the collection consists of diaries, journals, and correspondence documenting the geography, flora, and fauna of several trips to the then-wild lands of British North America (Canada) and Russian America (Alaska). A report of one expedition, presented to Congress by Bannister, was central to the United States' decision to purchase Alaska from Russia in 1867. For a full biography and guide to our holdings, please consult the finding aid.

The journals are rich in descriptive detail about the landscape, people, and wildlife of these northern latitudes in the mid-19th century. In addition to the journals, we have several artifacts relating to these gentlemen, including a spyglass and a hand-blown glass paperweight.

Sandra Schlachtmeyer, an alumna of Medill, has a new book on Kennicott coming out in June, entitled A Death Decoded: Robert Kennicott and the Alaska Telegraph. The book focuses on the last two years of Kennicott's life, and especially his final journey collecting natural history samples while connected to an expedition researching the potential of running a telegraph line across Alaska to Siberia.

Schlachtmeyer used our manuscript material in researching the work and learned some fascinating things by focusing on some small details. For example, she was able to decipher the coded passages in Bannister's diary, the most important of which was written on the day Bannister learned of Kennicott's death. The diaries had been previously published, but with no mention of these passages that shed new light on the mysterious circumstances of this death and helped give a clearer picture of the overall expedition.

Another revelation came from a virtually illegible post card found in Bannister's materials. The souvenir card showed the name of a steamship with latitude and longitude information. Even without being able to read the severely slanted handwriting, this card placed the team in Costa Rica as they returned from Alaska to the east coast via Panama. This cleared up the date of the expedition's departure from San Francisco and also explained how Kennicott's casket made its way back to Illinois.This is a perfect demonstration of how saving manuscripts and ephemera can sometimes reveal valuable and unforeseen answers down the road.

The author will give a reading and presentation at The Grove National Historic Landmark on June 3. The Grove is the Kennicott family estate, located in Glenview, Illinois. For more information, please visit the Glenview Park District website.