Accumulated fragments: William Healey Dall

An Alaska map based on the reconnaissance of William Healey Dall.

Who was William Healey Dall? A good question; few people in Alaska have heard of him. However, his name appears at least ten times on the map of Alaska. The answer to the question is, he was Alaska’s first man of Science.


He was born on Aug. 21, 1845 in Boston, Mass. Dall had a brilliant mind and at 17, during the Civil War, he was accepted to the Boston Society of Natural History. Right out of high school he became involved with Professor Louis Agassiz, head of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University (The professor was later considered one of the greatest of American naturalists). Professor Agassiz took a great liking to Dall and introduced him to the field of natural sciences. Dall’s mind was like a sponge and along with a great dedication to learn caused him to increase daily his knowledge of the little creatures that make up a world almost unnoticed by most humans.

As time passed and the Civil War became more terrible and overwhelming in its scope, even science was threatened. The funds for the research Dall was working on were cut, leaving him without a job to pay for his studies. His father was a missionary in India and his mother, a school teacher, was the bread-winner for the family. Without financial help from the University, Dall was looking at very few options. One option was to join the military.

Because he was still only 17, he could not join the military immediately. Before his 18th birthday, he was able to find a job with the Illinois Central Railroad in Chicago as a clerk. On his time off he walked the beaches of Lake Michigan studying the tiny pools that remained when the tide ebbed. One day, while on the beach, he met Bob Kennicott, a member of the Academy of Science Museum in Chicago. It turned out that Kennicott had a letter of recommendation from Professor Agassiz and had been looking for Dall. Kennicott had been selected to develop an expedition for Western Union in Russian America — Alaska — and wanted Dall to be part of the expedition.

Western Union planned to develop a telegraph line around the world. As part of it, they had already built the line across the U.S. from Washington, D.C. to Portland, Ore. Also the Russians had stretched a line 7,000 miles across Russia through Siberia. Western Union had received authorization from British Columbia to cross their country. So, the last segment was a 1,900-mile stretch through the Russian America wilderness and then a 40-mile cable under the Bering Straight to connect to the line in Siberia. Bob Kennicott explained that the expedition was to map the best possible route over the 1,900 miles through Russian America. As much as Dall wanted to go on the expedition, he believed that as an American citizen it was his duty to join the military and fight in the civil war.

To cover his disappointment, he buried himself in his work; pretending that the world of scientific knowledge he once had known no longer existed. Everywhere he looked was news concerning the war. The Government was concerned about the lack of iron ore as the war was devouring endless quantities of steel. So, because of his knowledge of geology, Dall volunteered to help search for more iron ore deposits along the shores of Lake Superior in northern Michigan during the winter of 1864.

In the spring of 1865 he traveled to Washington, D.C. to join the Army. While there, he took the opportunity to wander through the Smithsonian Institution.

Edward Herron wrote of a chance encounter Dall had at the Smithsonian, in which he expressed enthusiasm at becoming a scientist after the war, a man suggested he not wait to pursue that dream, that the war would be over soon.

That man turned out to be President Abraham Lincoln.

With an immediate change of heart, Dall wired Kennicott that he wanted to join the expedition to Alaska.

On April of 1867 the expedition, along with Dall, left San Francisco and headed north on the sailing ship Golden Gate. First stop was Sitka, capital of Russian America, where they offloaded hundreds of samples of sea invertebrate specimens that Dall had collected for the Smithsonian. Then, off to Unimak Pass in the Aleutian Islands. Put ashore at Scotch Cap he tramped the beaches of the small Aleutian Island becoming the first American Scientist ever to reach out his hand and give a name to the crustaceans, worms, mollusks and echinoderms feeding in the algae and seaweed; a new scientist in a new world, a man scarcely out of boyhood who stood on the verge of one of the greatest scientific careers of all time.

On Sept. 13, the Golden Gate dropped anchor off Saint Michael’s Island. Kennicott and a small crew were dropped off to explore the Yukon River and meet other explorers who had gone looking for the connection between the Yukon River and the Kwikhpak River. Dall, to his great disappointment, was told that he was to return to San Francisco to take charge of the scientific operations. Before the ship left, a member of the Kwikhpak party came into camp with the news that the two rivers were not two after all. In fact, it was just a part of the Yukon River.

The sailing ship Golden Gate, with Dall aboard, left port and headed for the Siberian Peninsula to bring supplies to the Western Union Telegraph expedition in Siberia.

The telegraph line was to cross between the North American and Asiatic continents by means of a short submarine cable stretched under the narrow floor of the Bering Strait. Then it was to drop overland in Siberia, cutting across the wide Gulf of Anadyr, again by submarine cable, before joining the long line of wires already rushing outward from European Russia. From St. Petersburg to the Sea Of Okhotsk stretched 6,000 miles of forest, mountain, morass and steppe, without roads and without bridges.

As the ship moved down the Kamchatka Peninsula in Siberia, making frequent stops, Dall was ashore adding to his scientific collections at every opportunity. At night he would take notes, make entries in his journal and detailed reports to be written to scientists who were waiting thousands of miles away for the news of the discoveries being made. In a letter dated Nov. 14, 1865 he wrote to the members of the Chicago Academy of Sciences that he had a collection of more than 800 species comprised of about 10,000 specimens that he planned to ship to the Smithsonian Institution when he returned to San Francisco.

After Dall returned to San Francisco he worked diligently to outfit and expand the expedition. Hundreds of hardy and daring men, most directly from the Civil War, were hired, organized, uniformed and disciplined in the Army manner. Some were readied for work in Canada’s wilderness, others working on a section of the line from Portland, Ore. to Westminster, BC, still others erecting lines from Fort Fraser to Fort Saint James and through the lake region to Lake Takla, joining the Skeena River for the plunge down to the Pacific Ocean. This was only on the North American Continent; there were many others sent to help in Siberia. Twenty-two ships formed the life line that served the vast expedition spread across a large section of the world.

Dall worried about the possibility of the Atlantic Cable being finished before the connection to Siberia; many believed if the Atlantic cable worked that it would end this part of the expedition.

As the months went by, nothing was heard from Kennicott. The Bering Sea was frozen solid so they couldn’t know if he and his crew of explorers were alive or dead. Early in July of 1866, Dall got word that he was to proceed north again by ship. On July 11, the Schooner, Nightingale, with Dall aboard, left San Francisco Bay and headed north and west to first supply the expedition’s ports on the Siberian Peninsula and then head for St. Michael’s Island on the shores of Russian America. On Sept. 24 they dropped anchor at the mouth of the Yukon River. Upon discussion with the people at the base it was found that Kennicott had died of a heart attack back in May. It was with a heavy heart that Dall decided to take over Kennicott’s territory, stretching from Nulato to Fort Yukon, to finish what he had started. At that time Dall was 21.

Early in October, as winter began to settle in, Dall and his crew took four sleds with dogs and headed for Unalakleet. A multitude of delays seemed to haunt the expedition but finally they arrived at Unalakleet only to be delayed again, because of weather, for three weeks before they could move on to Nulato. With time on his hands, Dall began the study of Russian and the native languages also continuing to take samples of animals and birds throughout the area. During the winter, while out exploring every waking moment, he was alert to almost unnoticeable signs of life about him. He kept scientific notes on the growth of spruce, birch and the dwarf willow lining the riverbanks along with mosses and lichens on the sheltered side of rocks and trees.

When spring came Dall and his crew moved on up the Yukon to Fort Yukon, the old Hudson’s Bay fort. A few weeks later Dall and his crew returned to Nulato only to find a stranger there with a letter from Western Union Telegraph Company. The letter was dated July 27, 1866; more than a year had gone by since it was sent. It said: “The steamship Great Eastern has laid the first permanently successful transatlantic cable. The Western Union Telegraph Company has ordered a halt to the entire work spanning British Columbia, Russian America and Siberia.” Dall believed that once gone from Russian America, there was little chance he would return. He tried to lose his depression in work, attending faithfully to the myriad details connected to the end of the great expedition. When the ship came to take the equipment and men back to San Francisco, Dall handed a letter to the Captain of the ship to be mailed when the ship returned to San Francisco and told the Captain that he was staying.

The letter was written to Professor Baird, Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. The letter said in part, “There is $200 due to me in accumulated back wages from the Smithsonian. If the institution will match the sum, I will devote the entire coming year to scientific exploration of the northland.”

By the time authorization from the Smithsonian Institution reached him, he had traveled 2,000 miles in an open canoe, fighting upwards against the wild rush of the Yukon, then riding gloriously downward on the speeding current. He traveled hundreds of miles on snowshoes in temperatures that plummeted down to forty degrees below zero. Working tirelessly in the long days of summer and through the half-gloom of winter, he collected 4,550 specimens, including a complete set of rock specimens from Fort Yukon all the length of the mighty river for 1,300 miles to the Bering Sea. He discovered deposits of coal, and studied geological formations of rock that uncovered the history of the land for untold ages.

His first love was always for mollusks, but he did not confine his explorations to that one field. In an amazing exhibition of versatility, he made himself an expert in many fields. The information he gathered was virgin knowledge for the waiting scientific world. The information he gathered on fishes of Russian America was new, as were his list of mammals, his meteorological observations, his studies on the distribution of plants and animals, and his mapping of the northern limits of tree growth.

On the Feb. 3, 1868, a newspaper was brought to Nulato that was dated June 20, 1867. It read:

“His majesty, the Emperor of all the Russias, agrees to cede to the United States ... all the territory and dominion now possessed on the continent of America….. In Witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed. Done at the city of Washington, this twentieth day of June, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-seven, and of the independence of the United States, the ninety-first”.

Dall stayed in Nulato until spring came and released the river ice. On the June 25, 1868, Dall reached the coast and became the first white man to descend from the Upper Yukon to the sea.

In a later report of his journey he said, “We may safely estimate the total length of the Yukon with all its windings at about 2,000 miles, of which three-fourths are navigable for river steamers. In some places on the lower Yukon one bank is invisible from the other. Above the ramparts, the river is sometimes twenty miles wide. By its size and the important changes which it is always bringing about in the Bering Sea, it is entitled to rank as one of the largest rivers in the world”.

On Aug. 8, 1868, almost two years since he had leaped ashore at Saint Michael’s, Dall sailed south to California on the Schooner Francis L. Steele. Upon arriving in San Francisco, he shipped his specimens and himself to Washington, D.C. When he finally arrived at the Smithsonian, he was dismayed at the immense store of boxes, crates and barrels, most of the specimens he had shipped during the last three years, all stacked and gathering dust, waiting for his return.

He had hoped that someone would have started the difficult task of preparing the contents for display. For months he worked long into the night, sorting, classifying and labeling. At about the same time he managed to begin the writing of the first of the 1,600 short scientific articles he would publish over his lifetime. He also published a book entitled “Alaska and Its Resources” in 1870. This book brought together in one volume all the information available about the northern territory, in addition to hundreds of observations Dall had written down at every possible moment, while journeying along the Yukon. It is still a major authoritative source on all things Alaskan.

In the same year as his book was published, articles that he wrote appeared in the “Procedures of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Congressional Record, the Old and New Magazine, the Washington Morning News, the Procedures of the Boston Natural History Society, and the American Naturalist.” He also provided a new map of Alaska which was published by the U.S. Coast Survey.

“The field is now open to Americans in Alaska for exploration and discovery,” he wrote. “The Interior everywhere needs exploration, particularly the great plateau north of the Yukon, the valley of the Kuskokwim, and that of the Copper River. The Arctic Ocean, north of Bering Strait, has so far been unduly neglected”.

“North to Alaska, he cried. “Open up the land!”

In May of 1871, Dall accepted a position with the Coast Survey in which he took command of the Schooner, Humboldt, to take a detailed survey of the Alaska coastline. Later he would exchange the Humboldt for the Coast Survey ship Yukon.

Over the next few years, Dall charted Alaskan waters from the end of the Aleutians back to and including the panhandle. A new map of Alaska was issued over his signature. Every year Dall carried out some major project in the interest of Alaska. His greatest achievement over the four years he spent on reconnaissance surveys of Alaska was the compilation of the statistics which comprised the book, “The Pacific Coast Pilot of Alaska,” a monumental effort upon which all subsequent studies by the Coast Survey in Alaska area were based. Shortly before his fourth trip for the Coast Survey in 1880, Dall married Annette Whitney; he was 35.

In 1884, Dall left the Coast Survey and joined the newly formed United States Geological Survey as a paleontologist. The new position, Curator of the Division of Mollusks and Tertiary Fossils, allowed him to go back to the study of mollusks which had always been dearest to his heart. He made his final trip to Alaska in 1899, as a member of the distinguished Harriman Alaska Expedition. Out of this leisurely, deluxe tour came Dall’s volume on Mollusks.

In 1915, in Washington, D.C., a banquet of unprecedented proportions honored Dall for his 50 years in Science. In 1924, when he was nearly 80, Dall retired from government service. He died in 1927.

The leapfrogging porpoise that escorts ships through Alaska’s waters is Dall’s porpoise, and the beautiful, white-furred mountain sheep that dares the blizzards of the Talkeetna Mountains in the interior bears the name of Dall.

The name of William Healey Dall is dotted liberally on the maps of Alaska. Mt. Dall in the northland; Dall island in southeastern Alaska; Point Dall, which juts into restless waters of the Bering sea; Dall Lake between the Kuskokwim and the Yukon; Dall River high up in the Arctic; and a tiny fishing village named Dall Village to name just a few. So, when you hear or see the name Dall, remember the man who ignored the chase for gold and fortune to pursue a love of nature and to stamp his name for all time upon the fabulous land of Alaska.


1. First Scientist of Alaska by Edward A. Herron

2. The Heritage of Alaska by Herb Hilscher

3. The Yukon Territory by W. H. Dall, George M. Dawson, Wm. Ogil


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