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Collection Overview

Princeton University. Library. Special Collections and Princeton University. Library. Department of Rare Books and Special Collections
Princeton Scientific Expeditions Collection
Princeton University Archives
Permanent URL:
1834-1995, bulk 1834/1930
26 boxes and 236 items
Storage Note:

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The Princeton Scientific Expeditions Collection brings together original materials from the university archives that document the work of various scientific expeditions conducted under the aegis of Princeton University and its corporate predecessors. The connection with the university ranges from enterprises duly authorized in the trustees' minutes to expeditionary tasks that happen to have been carried out by members of the university faculty, often with little official notice of Princeton as an institution.

Collection Description & Creator Information


The history of scientific expeditions with connections to the college and university at Princeton is fragmentary and tentative. From the information now at hand it seems possible that the earliest such enterprises were Astronomic. The College of New Jersey's Professor Stephen Alexander journeyed to Georgia in 1834 to observe an eclipse of the sun. While no notice of this has been found in the trustees' minutes of the time, at least two of three subsequent eclipse expeditions (in 1854, 1860, and 1869) were official college investigations, duly authorized and even funded by the trustees. Alexander's successor, Professor C. A. Young, led his own eclipse expeditions in 1878 to Colorado, in 1887 to Russia, and in 1900 to North Carolina. An 1882 journey to observe the transit of Venus is, so far, the only other identified astronomic expedition of the 19th century.

The Geological expeditions are more fully documented. The first, of 1877, was a student-initiated effort, nurtured by the Natural Science Association, founded by the same group of students. The expedition was conceived on military lines with specific tasks set out for members of the official party. Its conspicuous success, not only as a training ground for the student members of the expedition, but also in the professional publication of discoveries that were genuine contributions to paleontological and topographical knowledge, gave a solid foundation to subsequent expeditions. These followed in 1878, 1882, 1884, 1885, 1886, 1890, 1891, 1893, 1894 and 1895. All had the American West as their destination, most the Rocky Mountain regions, with an emphasis on paleontological collection, most frequently in the Dakotas. By the late 1890's the expeditions had assumed the routine form of annual academic summer camps for students of geology. The early expeditions generated an enthusiasm for the professional responsibilities of the scientific pursuit and were pivotal in producing such distinguished scientific careers as those of William Berryman Scott, Henry Fairfield Osborn and William Libbey. The expeditions brought to the Princeton museum of Geology and Archaeology one of the most important paleontological collections in the world. They were also an important factor in Princeton's pre-eminence for nearly a century in the field of paleontology.

William Libbey, a member of the first geological expedition, and the photographer on subsequent geological and astronomical efforts, connected the Princeton name to other scientific expeditions with more diffuse objectives. As Professor of Geography and Curator of the E. M. Museum of Geology and Archaeology, Libbey frequently called upon his Trustee father to be the monetary patron of both the museum and many of the expeditions that were tangentially connected with it. These included journeys with diverse goals which Libbey defined as geographic, ethnographic and archaeological. Many of these expeditions enjoyed sponsoring agencies other than Princeton, but his connection with the college and its museum were always conspicuous in reports of the enterprises. The 1886 Mt. St. Elias expedition to Alaska was followed by an 1888 expedition to Cuba, an 1890 exploration of the Sierra Madre in Mexico, an 1893 Hawaiian expedition and an 1897 exploration to Pueblo County in New Mexico. These journeys yielded mainly ethnographic riches. Three expeditionary summers (1889, 1890, 1891) were spent investigating the Gulf Stream and its relation to the Labrador Currents, and Libbey was second in command and geographer of the Peary Relief Parties of 1894 and 1899 in Greenland. Libbey's investigations were successful mainly in the collections that resulted, mostly ethnographic and archaeological, and enriched the Princeton museums.

Expeditions more properly categorized as archaeological (involving professional excavation) are thinly represented in this collection. The 1876 excavations at Panosoffkee Lake in Florida were surely followed by other investigations that led to the archaeological excavations of Classical sites sponsored by the Department of Art and Archaeology in the 20th century, but they are not documented here.

The manuscript, printed and photographic materials in the collection are duly noted in the folder descriptions. Folders labeled as "Archival description and notes" contain information on the expeditions randomly gathered by the compiler of this collection, with pertinent xeroxes and relevant correspondence that document each expedition. The geological expeditions are most fully represented. The journeys of other categories are noted by scant documentation.

Collection History

Processing Information:

This collection was processed by Alfred Bush in September 1992. Finding aid written by Alfred Bush in September 1992. Box 27 added by Christie Peterson in May 2012.

Boxes 21-21, and 23 do not exist.

Access & Use

Access Restrictions:

Collection is open for research use.

Conditions for Reproduction and Use:

Single photocopies may be made for research purposes. For quotations that are fair use as defined under U. S. Copyright Law, no permission to cite or publish is required. The Trustees of Princeton University hold copyright to all materials generated by Princeton University employees in the course of their work. If copyright is held by Princeton University, researchers will not need to obtain permission, complete any forms, or receive a letter to move forward with non-commercial use of materials from the Mudd Library. For materials where the copyright is not held by the University, researchers are responsible for determining who may hold the copyright and obtaining approval from them. If you have a question about who owns the copyright for an item, you may request clarification by contacting us through the Ask Us! form.

Credit this material:

Princeton Scientific Expeditions Collection; Princeton University Archives, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library

Permanent URL:
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