A scientists view of Alaska, 150 years ago

One year before Alaska became part of America, 21-year-old William Dall ascended the Yukon River on a sled, pulled by dogs. The man who left his name all over the state was in 1866 one of the first scientists to document the mysterious peninsula jutting toward Russia. He is probably the most thorough researcher to ever ponder this place.

William Dall at the beginning of his first Alaska exploration in 1885. (National Geographic archives)

On his first, three-year trip, Dall gathered more than 4,000 specimens from the hills and valleys of Alaska, from seashells to great gray owls to a human skull. He sent them back by steamship to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., where he later processed them all.

Dall wrote his own summaries of Native people and their dialects, made weather and climate observations, and cataloged all the fish, birds, mammals and plants he saw. His "Alaska and its Resources" was published in 1870.

Dall came to Alaska as part of a megaproject that did not go as planned. The Western Union Co. president wanted to stretch a telegraph line around the world. An unknown part of that span was through Alaska, then known as Russian America.

The telegraph line already existed from Washington, D.C., to Portland, and across 7,000 miles of Siberia. A man named Robert Kennicott's job was to find the best terrain through Alaska to link with a 40-mile cable that would be laid on the ocean floor across the Bering Strait.

Kennicott had heard of William Dall from a....

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