Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

John Burroughs' Album

March 4, 2015 Archive Insight


Artifact: John Burroughs' Album of Pressed Wildflowers, gathered during the Harriman Alaska Expedition, 1899

To tell the story of this artifact, we have to take a journey. A journey back in time and then a journey into nature. We have to visit a time in U.S. history when western land expansion had reached its near completion and U.S. citizens had only just begun to realize the natural wonders that these lands encompassed. To begin this journey, let’s explore what it means to innovate with a question:

When you think of historical innovators, who do you think of?

Henry Ford? Thomas Edison? These two historical titans of industry shaped the 20th century with technology that they endlessly, feverishly, worked on to improve. How about John Burroughs?

You might be asking yourself, “Who is John Burroughs and what does he have to do with innovation?”. Well, John Burroughs is what I like to call a social innovator. (Rosa Parks is an example of a very important social innovator). Social innovators challenge the way we think and how we view the world.  In this sense, Burroughs’ influence on the beginning of the American conservation movement is often overlooked.

As a writer and naturalist, John Burroughs’ innovation was bringing America’s attention to the wonder of the natural world around them, shifting the way people thought about the environment. His fame was not made in writing scientific analyses of nature, but rather his own personal interpretation of it. By 1899, his fame as a writer and naturalist had landed him on a scientific expedition to Alaska.


After being purchased in 1867, the Alaskan territory saw an influx of people in the late nineteenth century with the discovery of gold. People flooded into the relatively unknown frontier. At this same time, Edward Harriman, a railroad executive, was amassing an unprecedented amount of wealth. By 1899, he had run himself ragged running railroads. (Say that five times fast). His doctor suggested that he take a vacation, but Harriman didn’t want it to be just any kind of vacation. He wanted to contribute to the exploration of the Alaskan coast.

So he bought a steamship and refitted it into the best luxury scientific vessel money could buy. He then gathered over 20 of the most important environmental scientists of the day, including John Burroughs, and they set sail for a summer scientific expedition along the Alaskan coast. This Wildflower Album was created by John Burroughs during his time with the expedition.


How is the Benson Ford Research Center connected to this album?

John Burroughs was as equally passionate about sharing his views on nature with friends, as he was writing about them. In old age, he would go on camping trips with John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt, two other key figures in American conservation history. But it was his unique friendship with some of America’s core industrialists that brought him his greatest fame.

Although he clearly was the senior by many years, he would join Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Harvey Firestone (tire and rubber magnate) on many camping trips. The group went on so many camping trips together that they even had a name for themselves, The Vagabonds. These camping trips were hardly camping though, they were well-fitted with all the luxuries of early 20th century life. Nonetheless, it was time in nature and the industrialists always appreciated what their friend, the naturalist, had to say. As a friend of Henry Ford, some artifacts from John Burroughs’ life have found their way into the collections of the Benson Ford Research Center.

Harvey Firestone would later write, “John Burroughs, by his own life, as well as by his pen, led mankind into the open and to an appreciation of the beauty of the natural.”

Ryan Jelso is Research Support Specialist at The Henry Ford.

1890s, 19th century, travel, nature, John Burroughs, by Ryan Jelso

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