Archives Experience Newsletter - August 17, 2021

  • All Who Wander

What kind of exploration have you been doing this summer? Whether you’ve gone across the country or down your street, we can all identify with the desire to venture past our immediate surroundings. Today (August 17) marks the birth of noted outdoorsman Davy Crockett, and tomorrow (August 18) is the birthday of Meriwether Lewis, who gained his notoriety as part of the famed “Lewis and Clark” duo President Jefferson sent to explore the West. Many of us grew up knowing these stories – and myths – but our history is filled with lesser-known but equally adventurous pioneers who dared to explore uncharted territory.

This week, we’re opening up the Archives holdings to chronicle some of the iconic, harrowing, and unique explorations in our country’s history. From the North Pole to the depths of the ocean, come with us on an epic journey.


Patrick Madden
Executive Director
National Archives Foundation

P.S. Don’t forget to explore the moon with us on Sep 1 at 5:00 p.m. EST as part of our virtual program series –

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register here! Also, the Archives and Foundation have a number of programs planned for the commemoration of 9/11.

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Learn more.

Credit Frozen in Time

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On April 6, 1909, two American men and four Inuit men completed their final push
to reach the geographic North Pole. One of the Americans was Admiral Robert
Peary. The other was Matthew Henson, a Black man who had accompanied Peary on
his polar explorations for eighteen years.

Matthew Henson was born to
sharecropper parents in Maryland in 1866. In 1867, his parents moved the family
to Georgetown. Having lost his mother, his father, and the uncle who took him in
after his father passed, Matthew went to sea as a cabin boy at the age of
twelve. When he returned to the Washington, D.C. area, he went to work as a
salesman in a department store. It was there that he met Admiral Peary, who
hired him to serve as navigator on his first arctic expedition in 1891-1892.


H enson continued to accompany Peary throughout the latter’s explorations until
the successful trip to the North Pole in 1909. (Some scientists have since
disputed whether the Peary expedition actually reached the pole.) When he
returned home, he worked several different jobs and published his memoir, A
Negro Explorer at the North Pole. In 1913, he got a job as a messenger at the
U.S. Custom House in New York, a position he held until he retired in 1939.

Recognition of Henson’s contributions to the North Pole expedition was slow in
coming, but some accolades did come to him late in life. In 1954, he and his
wife were invited to the White House by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Henson
passed away in 1955, and was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in New York. In 1988,
Henson was reinterred in Arlington National Cemetery in recognition of his
Arctic work.

The National Archives is the repository of the records of Matthew
Henson’s federal employment and of the correspondence that laid out the case for
him to be moved from New York City to Arlington. You can learn more about
Henson’s life and work in NARA’s “Pieces of History” blog

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From Astro to Aqua

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Between 1964 and 1969, the U.S. Navy launched three underwater habitats, SEALAB
I, II, and III, to test the abilities of humans to live and work for long
periods of time on the ocean floor. SEALAB I was lowered to the bottom of the
sea off the coast of Bermuda on July 20, 1964, to a depth of nearly 200 feet.
The aquanauts, as they were called, were supposed to stay in

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the habitat for three
weeks, but bad weather forced the project to end after 11 days.

Scott Carpenter,
who was the second U.S. astronaut to orbit the Earth, developed an interest in
undersea exploration. He was scheduled to join the SEALAB I middion, but he got
into a motorcycle accident in Bermuda and had to recover first.

Carpenter went
on, however, to serve aboard

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SEALAB II, which was
deployed off the coast of LaJolla, California, on August 25, 1965. Unlike the
other aquanauts, who served aboard the vessel for about two weeks each,
Carpenter stayed down for a record 30 days.

SEALAB III suffered from problems
and setbacks from beginning to end. The project was eighteen months late and
nearly $3 million over budget before the habitat was lowered off San Clemente,
California, to just over 600 feet. The habitat experienced serious problems,
including a leak that four divers attempted to fix in place rather than moving
SEALAB III back onto a vessel. One of the aquanauts died during the operation.

Fun fact: during SEALAB II, divers attempted, with mixed success, to train a
bottlenose dolphin named Tuffy to aid them in supply delivery from the surface
to the underwater habitat and to help aquanauts in distress. Tuffy was from the
United States Navy Marine Mammal Program, and at the conclusion of SEALAB II,
there were plans for the dolphin to also take part in SEALAB III.

Whale Tales Inspiration

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In the eighteenth century, people all over the world depended on whale oil to
keep their lanterns lit and their machinery lubricated. Consequently, demand for
whale oil was very high. In the course of plying their trade, whalers explored
many parts of the world that Europeans had not yet seen. In Hawai’i, for
instance, the first two whaling ships arrived in 1819, and by 1822, sixty had
dropped anchor there. Two decades later, the ports of Honolulu and Lahaina
received about one hundred ships per year. (Read more about the U.S.’s deep
connection with Hawai’i and whaling, including the mysterious circumstance of a
ship gone missing,

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In December 1840, Herman
Melville, who wrote the seminal American novel
Moby-Dick, signed on as a crew member aboard the whaling ship Acushnet, which
sailed out of Fairhaven, Massachusetts, bound for the Pacific Ocean. When the
Acushnet reached the Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific in July of 1842,
Melville and another crew member deserted. His experience on the Acushnet and on
later whaling voyages provided him with the foundation for his fiction for the
next decade. Between 1846 and 1851, he wrote four novels about whaling: Typee: A
Peep at Polynesian Life, Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas,
Mardi: and a Voyage Thither, Redburn: His First Voyage, and Moby-Dick; or, The

History Snacks

Logging In

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The deck logs of ships often contain valuable information about daily activities
that occurred on and around the vessels, the names of crew members and officers,
and data about weather. This information is extremely valuable to people who are
researching their ancestry and for historians who are probing the past.

National Archives is the repository of the

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U.S. Navy and Coast Guard ships. In 2020, the National Archives embarked (no pun
intended) on a project titled “Seas of Knowledge: Digitization and Retrospective
Analysis of the Historical Logbooks of the United States Navy,” which aimed to
digitize Navy and deck logs from 1861-1879 and make them available to the

Stick to Your Route

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Can you guess how this navigational tool works? The inhabitants of the Marshall
Islands, an independent nation comprised of islands and coral atolls located
roughly halfway between Hawaii and Indonesia in the Pacific Ocean, had to
navigate the open seas to get anywhere. To help them know where they were
headed, the Marshallese invented the

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navigational stick chart,
which they used to interpret the swells in the ocean.

The LBJ Presidential
Library and Museum, an affiliate of the National Archives, has a navigational
stick chart in its artifact collection. The shells on the chart represent the
atolls that the canoers sailed between.