When the United States purchased Russian America in 1867, little was known about this vast territory. The Coast and Geodetic Survey set out to remedy that with a series of expeditions.
In 1871, one such expedition was assigned to William Healey Dall, perhaps best known as an expert in mollusks.
As a child in Massachusetts, Dall (1845-1927) had learned to observe closely while wading in the marshes of Nahant and turning over wet rocks and seaweed along the seashore around Cape Ann. As a member of the Western Union Telegraph Expedition in 1865, he managed to collect 10,000 scientific specimens, comprising 800 species. Hundreds of these came from a 10-day stop at Sitka.
During the period of 1866-67, at his own expense, he traveled through the Yukon delta and collected more specimens, examined coal deposits, took meteorological observations, plotted the extent of the tree line and made notes that would take him years to write up as articles.
In the spring of 1870, Dall published "Alaska and Its Resources," bringing together in one volume all the information available about the territory, plus hundreds of observations he had jotted down at every possible moment in the field. The book, in conjunction with the new reconnaissance map of the Yukon and the new map of Alaska he provided to the U.S. Coast Survey, made the young man famous.
The prolific Dall was working high in the tower of the Smithsonian Institution on May 21, 1871, when Superintendent Pierce of the Survey asked him to drop by. By the close of the day, he was named acting assistant of the Survey and began a new phase of his career - as seaman-explorer. As one of the few Americans who knew anything first-hand about the territory, he was ordered to report to San Francisco, take command of the schooner Humboldt, and spend the next four years making a detailed survey of the convoluted 26,000-mile Alaska coast. At this time, only about 11,000 people lived in the territory, about 90 percent of them Alaska Natives. Most Caucasians lived in two towns, Wrangell and Sitka.
Only 26 years old, Dall was excited by his new command. The Humboldt was 76 feet long, with a crew of eight. Delays beset the preparation of the vessel, and it did not reach Unalaska Island until Sept. 21 of that year, with winter closing in. Dall was impatient at being stranded in the Aleutians for the winter, but was able to make some observations of dangerous rocks in the area. Finally, on March 23, 1872, the vessel set sail again. During that spring and summer, the Humboldt sailed about the Chain.
In 1873, Dall had a new schooner, the Yukon, and he began to tackle the uncounted islands of Southeast Alaska. Charts of the area were very rough, and he was anxious to set them straight. Traders were anxious to make safe voyages into these waters, but the swift-running channels of the Inland Passage were studded with hundreds of rocks lethal to shipping.
Equipped only with surveying instruments and a theodolite for establishing fixed points ashore, Dall assigned a member of the crew to stand in the bow to take soundings of depth by hand. Dall's first reconnaissance gave definite placement for large islands such as Admiralty, Prince of Wales and Baranof. He sketched in about a thousand smaller islands and rocks. (Dall Island, off the southern coast of Prince of Wales, is named for him.)
His method was to stand by the wheel of the Yukon as it threaded through twisting inlets and narrow passes, making notes. "The partial submergence of this portion of the coast range," he wrote, "accounts for the maze of islands, channels, long inlets and fiords. It is a land of breath taking beauty, a sight that cuts into a man's mind and stays with him forever."
It rained almost every day of his reconnaissance. He quickly recognized that this part of Alaska was very different from the deltas and flat tundra of the Yukon River where he had spent so many months. Detractors of the Alaska Purchase had portrayed the new territory as empty of resources, but when he saw countless numbers of humpbacked salmon spawning on Revillagigedo Island, he knew that fish would one day be the source of great wealth for this new land.