He was the Dean of Alaskan explorers. But his extraordinary life was - to him - ordinary. William Dall was born in 1845 and began his scientific career as a member of the Scientific Corps of the Alaskan Western Union Telegraph Expedition in 1865.
Beginning in 1871 he worked with the United States Coastal Survey. He left the Survey unit in 1884 to become a Paleontologist with the United States Geological Survey, a position he held for almost fifty years.
Basically, that is William Dall’s professional life story. But there is much more.
The Western Union Telegraph Expedition, was an amazing event. It began in 1865 to study the possibility of setting up a communications system with Europe by way of the Yukon, Alaska, under the Bering Strait, and across Asia.
The expedition was organized in three divisions, one working in Canada, another in Russian-America that is now Alaska, and a third in Asia.
Sponsored by the Smithsonian Institute and the Chicago Academy of Sciences, a Scientific Corps was established to accompany the trail blazers and observe the natural history of this largely unknown region. William Dall was one of the scientists.
In May 1866, Dall became chief of the Scientific Corps and led the survey team to the Bering Strait. But the plan to build a telegraph line from the southern US to Europe ended with the successful laying of the Atlantic Cable in 1867.
As luck would have it, in 1867, the U.S. bought Alaska from Russia for 7.2 million dollars.
Alaska was an unchartered country with unique plants and animals still waiting to be described. Dall was ready.
He started cataloguing the thousands of specimens he had collected during this expedition. In 1870 he published an account of his pioneering travels in a book called "Alaska and Its Resources". In it, he also described what he knew of the Yukon Territory. He also wrote: "The Yukon Territory: The Narrative of W.H. Dall, Leader of the Expedition to Alaska in 1866-1868".
Over the next thirty years, Dall would become the eminent authority on the flora and fauna of the Yukon and Alaska. He was the undisputed expert on the Northwest. So in love with the north was Dall that in 1880, he and his bride honeymooned in Alaska though he was by now a senior biologist at the US Geological survey in Washington.
It is possible you have not heard of William Dall, the scientist who died in 1927. But you do recognize his last name. For the Kluane and other ranges of the Yukon and Alaska are filled with Dall sheep, named for this renowned American biologist.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin