Robert Kennicott

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Robert Kennicott by Samuel Montague Fassett

Robert Kennicott (November 13, 1835 – May 13, 1866) was an American naturalist and herpetologist. He was a founder of the Chicago Academy of Sciences and served the Smithsonian and was an active field investigator.


Kennicott was born in New Orleans and grew up in "West Northfield" (now Glenview), Illinois, a town in the prairie north of the then nascent city of Chicago.

In 1853, Kennicott began collecting and cataloguing for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC when he began to correspond with Spencer Fullerton Baird. During 1855 he surveyed and collected on the Illinois Central Railroad Survey. In 1856, he named one of his new snake discoveries Regina kirtlandii (today Clonophis kirtlandii) after noted naturalist Jared P. Kirtland. He also helped found the Chicago Academy of Sciences in 1856 and the Northwestern University natural history museum in 1857.

Robert Kennicott

In April 1859 he set off on an expedition to collect natural history specimens in the subarctic boreal forests of northwestern Canada in what is now the Mackenzie and Yukon river valleys and in the Arctic tundra beyond. Kenicott became popular with Hudson's Bay Company fur traders in the area and encouraged them to collect and send natural history specimens and First Nations artifacts to the Smithsonian. He returned to Washington at the end of 1862.

From 1862 to 1864, Kennicott became part of the Megatherium Club a group of young naturalists guided by Spencer Fullerton Baird and William Stimpson. Robert and his younger brother lived in the Smithsonian Castle during the American Civil War along with Edward Drinker Cope and other noted naturalists.[1]

While working at the Smithsonian Institution under Assistant Secretary Spencer F. Baird, Robert Kennicott wrote the original descriptions of many new snake taxa brought back by expeditions to the American West.[2][3]

In 1864 the Western Union Telegraph Expedition was mounted to find a possible route for a telegraph line between North America and Russia by way of the Bering Sea. Kennicott was selected as the scientist for this expedition, and the party of naturalists sent to assist him included W.H. Dall.

The expedition arrived in San Francisco in April 1865, but disagreements between its leaders meant that little was achieved. The party moved north to Vancouver where Kennicott suffered a period of ill health. After his recovery they moved north again to Alaska in August 1865. Kennicott died in May 1866, likely of congestive heart failure, while traveling up the Yukon River.[4]


Kennicott's body was returned to his family's home in Illinois nearly circumnavigating the globe over the course of a year, being enclosed in a metal canister and shipped to Russia and Japan rather than sent back on undeveloped trails through Canada. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Robert Seward purchased Alaska from Russia with a treaty signed on March 30, 1867.

To commemorate his efforts on behalf of science Kennicott Glacier, Kennicott Valley, MV Kennicott, and the Kennicott River were named after him.

Some of his papers are maintained at Northwestern University, others at his family home where his grave remains in the Kennicott Family plot in Glenview, Illinois at The Grove, which is a National Historic Landmark. His papers are also available on microfilm at the Glenview Public Library in the Genealogy & Local History Room.[5]

A 3-D reconstruction of his face has been done by the Smithsonian Institution, by scanning his skull and using computers to reconstruct his facial structure.


  • Kennicott, R. (1855). "Catalogue of animals observed in Cook County, Illinois". Ill. State Ag. Soc. Trans. for 1853-1854 1: 577-595.
  • Kennicott, R. (1856). "Description of a new snake from Illinois". Acad. Nat. Sci. Phil. Proc. 8: 95-96.
  • Kennicott, R. (1859). "Notes on Coluber calligaster of Say, and a description of new species of serpents in the collection of the North Western University of Evanston, Illinois". Acad. Nat. Sci. Phila. Proc. 1859: 98-100.
  • Kennicott, R. (1861). "On three new forms of rattlesnakes". Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia 13: 206-208.
  • Audubon to Xanthus: The Lives of Those Commemorated in North American Bird Names. Mearns and Mearns ISBN 0-12-487423-1
  • Schlachtmeyer, S. S. (2010). A death decoded: Robert Kennicott and the Alaska telegraph : a forensic investigation. Alexandria, Va: Voyage Publishing.
  • Vasile, Ronald S. (1994). "The Early Career of Robert Kennicott, Illinois' Pioneering Naturalist." Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society vol. 87: 150-70.


  1. ^ "Family Affair". Smithsonian Institution. 
  2. ^ Adler, K. (1989). Contributions to the History of Herpetology. Society for the Study of Amphibians & Reptiles. pp. 41-42.
  3. ^ Kennicott, R. (1861). "On three new forms of rattlesnakes". Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia 13: 206-208.
  4. ^ Schlachtmeyer, S.S. (2010). A Death Decoded: Robert Kennicott and the Alaska Telegraph: A Forensic Investigation. Alexandria, Va: Voyage Pub.
  5. ^

External links[edit]