Henry G. (Henry Grier) Bryant Letterbooks

Mss.Ms.Coll.38

Date: 1884-1918 | Size: 0.75 Linear feet, 4 vols.

Abstract

One of Philadelphia's most recognized geographers at the turn of the twentieth century, Henry Grier Bryant (1859-1932) was an explorer, traveler, and writer known for an avid interest in the arctic. His financial independence enabled Bryant to devote his life to expanding geographic knowledge, as an officer of the Geographic Society of Philadelphia and Alpine Club of America, and as an explorer and traveler to Labrador, Greenland, the Canadian Rockies, South America, and southern and southeast Asia.

The Bryant Letterbooks include an important slice of outgoing correspondence from the geographer and explorer, Henry G. Bryant, documenting his interest in geography and exploration. The four volumes consist of letterpress copies of outgoing correspondence (1884-1890, 1899-1902, 1902-1903, and 1913-1918) concerning personal and financial matters as well as business conducted as an officer of the Geographical Society of Philadelphia and Alpine Club of America. The collection also includes three folders of correspondence addressed to Bryant, 1886-1911, mostly pertaining to the Alpine Club.

Background note

One of Philadelphia's most recognized geographers at the turn of the twentieth century, Henry Grier Bryant was an explorer, traveler, and writer known for an avid interest in the arctic. His financial independence enabled Bryant to devote his life to expanding geographic knowledge, as an officer of the Geographic Society of Philadelphia and Alpine Club of America, and as an explorer and traveler to Labrador, Greenland, the Canadian Rockies, South America, and southern and southeast Asia.

Bryant was born in Allegheny, Pa., on November 7, 1859, the fourth child of Walter Bryant and Ellen Adams (Henderson) Bryant. A self-made man, his father had earned a fortune as a wholesale leather merchant and timber operator before selling his holdings in western Pennsylvania in 1864 and moving to Philadelphia. After prepping at Phillips Exeter Academy, Henry attended university at Princeton, receiving both his BA (1883) and MA (1886) before studying law at the University of Pennsylvania.

Although Bryant began along the standard path to a career in 1889, working as secretary of the Edison Electric Co., he was soon derailed by the prospect of big game hunting, travel, and exploration. Subsisting on a substantial bequest from his father and careful management of his investments, Bryant was inspired by a newspaper article to organize and fund an expedition to map and explore the Grand Falls of Labrador, which were known only by reports from missionaries, traders, and local Indians. Publishing his results in Century Magazine, including geographic information about the Hamilton River and an attempt at an ethnography of the coastal Inuit and interior Indians, Bryant also made an extensive collection of Indian artifacts.

Upon his return to the states in May 1891, Bryant was asked by Angelo Heilprin of the Academy of Natural Sciences to become a founding member of the Geographical Club of Philadelphia, which was renamed in 1894 as the Geographic Society of Philadelphia. Through his new connections, he began what was to become a long association with the arctic explorer Robert Peary in 1891, enlisting as second in command aboard the Kite during the Relief Expedition organized by the Geographic Society in 1892, meeting up with Peary in Greenland after his expedition to the ice cap. Two years later, he lead the Peary Auxiliary Expedition aboard the steamer Falcon, which resupplied Peary and which engaged in its own physical geographic research.

Perhaps Bryant's most arduous expedition, however, may have been his failed attempt to scale the summit of Mount St. Elias in Alaska in 1897. Although he did not succeed in reaching the peak, Bryant's floral and entomological collections were donated to the collections of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. His other major expeditions included a three month return to Labrador in 1912, several mountaineering and mapping trips to the Canadian Rockies, and some extended tours of the Canadian Rockies, South America, Java, and Indochina, usually working in mountaineering. He is credited with climbing many of the major peaks in Europe, Popocataptel in Mexico, Mauna Loa in Hawaii, Pidurutalagala in Ceylon, and Mt. Nantai in Japan.

Bryant approached most of journeys with an interest in expanding scientific and geographic knowledge. Beginning in 1899, he conducted an extensive series of experiments to test the course and speed of circum-polar currents at minimal risk to the safety of investigators, setting loose a bevy of "drift-casks" and monitoring where they drifted. Of the 35 casks released between 1899 and 1901, six were recovered, indicating a strong westward current.

Bryant's enthusiasm and impressive organizational skills were critical to the success of number of organizations. In addition to being elected president of the Geographical Society of Philadelphia 14 times, he was a founded of the Alpine Club of America in 1902, serving as its treasurer, president, and member of the board at various points, was a founding member and president of the American Association of Geographers, and was a delegate to the International Geographical Congresses of 1895, 1899, 1904, 1908, and 1928. In recognition of his accomplishments, he was elected a member of the Royal Geographical Society, the Geographical and Anthropological Society of Stockholm, and the American Philosophical Society (1898). The Geographical Society of Philadelphia established a medal in honor of the "munificent benefactor" in 1935 for distinguished service in geography, and a chair in geography was named for him at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton.

Described by his friends as modest and retiring, Bryant maintained an active life in a number of social and civic clubs, including the Contemporary Club, the Art Club of Philadelphia, the University Club, and the Corinthian Yacht Club. He died of a "general breakdown" at his apartment at 1830 S. Rittenhouse Square. He never married.

Scope and content

The Bryant Letterbooks include an important slice of outgoing correspondence from the geographer and explorer, Henry G. Bryant, documenting his interest in geography and exploration. The four volumes consist of letterpress copies of outgoing correspondence (1884-1890, 1899-1902, 1902-1903, and 1913-1918) concerning personal and financial matters as well as business conducted as an officer of the Geographical Society of Philadelphia and Alpine Club of America. The collection also includes three folders of correspondence addressed to Bryant, 1886-1911, mostly pertaining to the Alpine Club.

Although the bulk of the correspondence consists of fairly routine correspondence relating to the activities of the Geographical Society of Philadelphia and Alpine Club, including discussions of arrangements for meetings, speakers, and guests, a number of important letters are mixed in. These include an interesting series of letters describing and making diplomatic arrangements for assistance with the drift cask experiments, correspondence with explorers and geographers seeking financial support (including I. C. Russell, Frederick Cook, and Robert Peary), and some correspondence relating to exploration, per se. Among the more important letters in the collection is one written to his old friend, Robert Peary, on January 15, 1903, offering advice (and possibly financial support) on the best route to the pole:

To come to the point, let me say: I consider the chances for reaching the pole by the Smith Sound route to be less promising than by any other route. I am brought to this belief by a study of the long record of failure by successive government and private expeditions extending over a hundred years. This opinion was arrived at, as a definite conclusion only after learning the result of your own unexampled campaigns in this region and when in spite of experience, courage and enthusiasm your well laid plans were repeatedly thwarted by those physical conditions which baffle the bravest efforts of man. This is not the place to enumerate those difficulties and the delineation of the Ellesmere Land and North Greenland coast lines by your own expeditions leave no geographical work of primary importance to be done in this region and make success depend solely on the happy outcome of a dash to the Pole. As I am unable to convince myself that there is a fair and reasonable chance of success in the proposed plan, I do not feel justified in contributing in the manner suggested. I do not wish to go on record as saying the Pole is an impossibility by the Smith Sound route; but it seems to me the chances of failure are too great to warrant further endeavor on the old lines. My humble opinion is, that the great prize will more likely be won (1) by the man who is willing to repeat the drift of the Fram -- starting from a more westerly point of entrance into the ice or (2) by forcing a strong ship into the ice, in a f[av]orable season, north of Spitzbergen where Parry made such a record in 1827, and where Swerdrup found open water to 85 in the Fram in 1896.

If you, or your friends of the Peary Arctic Club ever desire pecuniary aid to carry out an attack on these lines I will pledge myself to pay $2000 in annual instalments of $1000. You may rest assured also of my sympathetic interest in your plans, as at present outlined and at present I propose to keep my convictions to myself in regard to the Smith Sound route.

Bryant's personal correspondence is somewhat scattered and provides only occasional insights. A few letters give glimpses into his devotion to Princeton, his interest in temperance, his desire to perform active service during the First World War, his finances, and his attitudes toward a manly life.

Collection Information

Provenance

Acquired from Carmen Valentino, December 1984 (accn. no. 1984-898ms).

Preferred citation

Cite as: Henry G. (Henry Grier) Bryant Letterbooks, American Philosophical Society.

Processing information

Recatalogued by rsc, 2003.

Related material

The APS also houses the records of the Geographical Society of Philadelphia (Ms. Coll. 93), of which Bryant served as president, and which contains several works by and about him. Other material pertaining to arctic exploration in the 19th century is located in the papers of Elisha Kent Kane, Isaac Hayes, and William Parker Foulke.

The Department of Special Collections at Bryn Mawr College Library houses the Josephine Bull Collection on Polar Exploration, which includes important correspondence of Bryant's that complements the correspondence in the APS letterbooks.

Bibliography

Bryant, Henry G. (Henry Grier), A journey to the Grand Falls of Labrador (Philadelphia, n.a.). Call no.: 917 Pam. No. 4.

Bryant, Henry G. (Henry Grier), Notes on an early American arctic expedition (London: Royal Geographic Society, 1909). Call no.: 917 Pam. No. 5.

Bryant, Henry G. (Henry Grier), "Notes on the most northern Eskimos" 1895. Call no.: 572 Pam., vol. 5, no. 7.

Bryant, Henry G. (Henry Grier), The land of the golden dragon (Philadelphia: Geographic Society of Philadelphia, 1919). Call no.: 915.9 B84.

Bryant, Henry G. (Henry Grier), The Peary Auxiliary Expedition of 1894 (Philadelphia: Geographic Society of Philadelphia, 1895). Call no.: 919.8 B84.

Bryant, Henry G. (Henry Grier), The record of the United States in geography 1889-1913 (Rome, 1914). Call no.: 910.9 B84.

Williams, Frankn E., "Henry Grier Bryant, "Annals of the American Association of Geographers 23 (1933): 247.

Indexing Terms


Corporate Name(s)

  • American Alpine Club
  • Geographical Society of Philadelphia
  • Princeton University

Genre(s)

  • Letterbooks

Geographic Name(s)

  • Alaska -- Description and travel
  • Arctic regions -- Discovery and exploration

Personal Name(s)

  • Bryant, Henry G. (Henry Grier), 1859-1932
  • Chamberlin, Thomas C. (Thomas
  • Cook, Frederick Albert, 1865-1
  • Fay, Charles Ernest, 1846-1931
  • Heilprin, Angelo, 1853-1907
  • Melville, George W. (George Wa
  • Ohlin, Axel
  • Peary, Robert E. (Robert Edwar
  • Russell, Israel C. (Israel Coo
  • Vaux, William S.
  • Wilson, Woodrow, 1856-1924

Subject(s)

  • Exploration
  • Geography
  • Hunting
  • Ocean currents -- Arctic Ocean


Detailed Inventory

Henry G. (Henry Grier) Bryant Letterbooks
1884-19184 vols., 0.75 linear feet
Bryant, Henry G. (Henry Grier), 1859-1932.
Letterbook 1
1884-18901 vol., 489p.

Correspondence relating primarily to personal business, some family correspondence, and references to Colorado.

Bryant, Henry G. (Henry Grier), 1859-1932.
Letterbook 2
1899-19021 vol., 705p.

Primarily personal correspondence regarding finances and family, but including important letters to O. T. Mason )Oct. 4, 1900) regarding Eskimo exhibits at the International Exposition in Buffalo; Frank W. Stokes (April 14, 1902) regarding the Swedish Antarctic expedition; comments of F. A. Cook's lecture to the GSP 1899; Alaskan investments and exploration; and yachting and hunting.

Bryant, Henry G. (Henry Grier), 1859-1932.
Letterbook 3
1902-19031 vol., 500p.

Letters regarding the drift-cask experiment; Swedish Antarctic expedition; "Drift cask experiment, memoranda of suggested instructions" (ca.Jan. 9, 1903); arctic exploration; notes on travel in the Elk River, Canada, 1901; notice on founding of American Alpine Club (ca.Jan. 22, 1903); correspondence with explorers seeking funds (I.C. Russell, Frederick Cook, Peary); Princeton reunion and temperance. Fine letters to Robert Peary, January 15, 1903, regarding the best route to the pole and potential financial support for an attempt, and February 4, 1903.  Also includes routine correspondence regarding meetings and other events of the Geographical Society of Philadelphia and Alpine Club.

Bryant, Henry G. (Henry Grier), 1859-1932.
Letterbook 4
1913-19181 vol., ca.490 pp.

Primarily business correspondence with minor mention of exploration and travel.

Bryant, Henry G. (Henry Grier), 1859-1932.
Letters sent (loose)
1887-1888ca.20 items
Bryant, Henry G. (Henry Grier), 1859-1932.
Letters received
1903-1910ca.50 itemsfolder 1

Routine Alpine Club business.

Bryant, Henry G. (Henry Grier), 1859-1932.
Letters received
1911-1917ca.50 itemsfolder 2

Routine Alpine Club business.