By Lesley Parilla, Field Book Project
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ve probably noticed one of the ongoing themes is how unique the content of an individual field book can be. Field books within a discipline tend to include similar information, but just when we think we’ve figured out what to expect, without fail, we find content that doesn’t fit the pattern.
This was definitely the case with the diaries of William Healey Dall from the Western Telegraph Expedition. These volumes are some of my favorite early field books that we’ve cataloged. This is for two reasons. First, Dall recorded an amazing range of content in these little books. Details included natural history observations, descriptions of local inhabitants, and interactions with the expedition participants (including several who seemed to continually try his patience during their wintering over in Alaska). These are listed alongside sketches of implements, structures, and terrain. Secondly, he was only just out of his teens when he joined the expedition. A year later (when he was not yet 22 years old) Robert Kennicott, the leader of the expedition unexpectedly passed away and Dall was chosen to lead in his place.
As you might suspect, with such a beginning, Dall went on to do impressive work. He continued to study the Arctic, first with the United States Coast Survey, later joining the U.S. Geological Survey as a Paleontologist. He published more than five hundred scientific papers and became a recognized authority on the Alaskan Arctic environment. He was even Honorary Curator of the Museum's Division of Mollusks from 1880 until his death.
But back to the field books…
His early field books include a wonderful mix of natural history and anthropological documentation. But these include something else as well—poetry.
There are at least two poems written by Dall. To my great regret I did not write these down when I originally found them, so it was not until our conservators were working on the journals that I was able to obtain a copy of each.
I was thrilled to finally have a chance to study their content—which managed to inspire more questions and led me to learn more about this fascinating character from the history of the Smithsonian. The poem below what first caught my attention.
Swiftly down the rolling river
Glides our rude canoe.
Lea and lake and mountain sever
Me, my sister, far from you.
Many a forest lies between us
Deep and trackless wild.
Many a day, since one has seems
Clasped in fond embrace, dear child.
Here the sky is dark and cloudy
Rough the rivers tide.
Sharp the wind which whistles loudly
Down the mountain side.
Gentle be the breezes blowing,
By your summer home.
Bright you tender flowers growing
Where songbirds come.
(?) and paddle, sled and snowshoe,
Have my playmates been.
Mouse and rabbit, fish and venison
Has my slender larder been.
Acid berries from the marshes
Greatest luxuries were.
Gathered where the reindeer passes
And close lurks the grizzly bear.
Soon from scenes of desolation
Homeward I may turn
Then with hope and expectation
Of our meeting I shall turn.
We have come across poems before, written by other authors and then copied in to the field books by scientists; I had wanted to verify that these were original compositions, when something caught my eye. The poem above appears to be written to his sister. I found this surprising, so after a little digging through family archive papers at Massachusetts Historical Society and University of Michigan, I was able to determine that he had a sister named Sarah Dall Munro.
I imagined being a young person in the Arctic for the first time, writing poetry to a loved one, but I couldn’t imagine choosing a sibling, so I looked further into his family background.
Dall came from a very interesting family, though his parents’ relationship was fractious at best. According to the finding aid for the Massachusetts Historical Society collection, Dall’s father, due to a turbulent marriage and limited success as a minister, become a Unitarian Missionary and moved to India in 1855-1886. He left his family behind in Boston, and returned only five times to see them in subsequent years.
His mother was a unique individual and strong personality. A woman of strong political and religious views, she became a women's rights activist, an abolitionist, and a prolific writer. After her husband’s departure for India, she supported her family through writing, teaching, and lectures. Her difficult financial position during these years was sometimes eased with support from her father, but even this came at a price. According to an article in the Massachusetts Historical Review, his financial assistance was frequently tied to conditions that would call for her to cease her abolitionist activities. One can only imagine the close relationship between siblings given the strain of homelife.
Dall is just one of the remarkable figures whose field work we’ve have the privilege and catalog, enabling researchers to more easily search its contents. William Healey Dall developed an interest in the natural sciences in his teens, learning through men like physician and naturalist Augustus A. Gould and Harvard zoologist Louis Agassiz who became mentors. Dall never attended college instead learning on his own and developing his skills in the field, to eventually become an authority in paleontology and malacology. We encourage you to take a look at the remarkable material to be found in these resources.
To learn more about the contents of his field books and about his life:
Dall’s artwork at Smithsonian Institution: http://siarchives.si.edu/blog/william-h-dall-he-had-malacology-down-art
Dall’s field books at Smithsonian Institution: http://collections.si.edu/search/direct/L3NlYXJjaC9yZXN1bHRzLmh0bT9xPSZmcT1kYXRhX3NvdXJjZToiRmllbGQgQm9vayBSZWdpc3RyeSImZnE9bmFtZToiRGFsbCwgV2lsbGlhbSBIZWFsZXksIDE4NDUtMTkyNyI=
Some of Dall’s publications, available through Biodiversity Heritage Library: http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/creator/3399#/titles
Biography of Dall’s mother: Helen R. Deese. (2001)."My Life... Reads to Me like a Romance": The Journals of Caroline Healey Dall.”Massachusetts Historical Review. Vol. 3, pp. 116-137. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/25081163