Who was Henry Gannett?
Henry Gannett was an American geographer often called "the Father of American map-making." One of the founding members of the National Geographic Society, he served as its first secretary, and later as its president. Credited to have systematized the science of geography in its practical application, he was also the chief geographer for the United States Census, 1890 and United States Census, 1900. Born in Maine, he was of Anglo-Saxon ancestry with an inherent love for adventure and exploration. As a young man, he earned his degree as a mining engineer at the Hooper Mining School. Soon after, he began his career as a geographer with the Ferdinand V. Hayden expedition to the Yellowstone region in 1871. This marked his entry into topographic mapping and he mapped the western portion of the Hayden's division until 1879. The expedition was full of exciting and hazardous experiences which the adventurous young man enjoyed thoroughly. His accurately drawn maps and impeccable reports brought him considerable attention. He eventually lobbied for centralizing the mapping functions of the entire nation into one government agency, and after the United States Geological Survey was officially formed, he was named geographer of the United States Census, 1880. One of his most significant contributions is the publication ‘Manual of Topographic Methods’, which guided the mapping of the United States for decades.
Childhood & Early Life
Henry Gannett was born in Maine on August 24, 1846. His parents, Michael Farley and Hannah Church Gannett, were of rugged Anglo-Saxon stock.
He studied at the Lawrence Scientific School of Harvard and graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree (equivalent to the present degree of civil engineer) in 1869. He proceeded to the Hooper Mining School and earned his degree as a mining engineer in 1870.
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After spending a brief period as an assistant in the Harvard Observatory, Henry Gannett accompanied Professor Pickering to Spain in 1871 to observe the total eclipse of the sun in that year.
He was appointed as an astronomer in Captain C. F. Hall's North Polar Expedition of 1871. Simultaneously, he was invited to join the United States Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories under Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden. He chose to go with Hayden.
Appointed topographer for the western division of the Hayden Survey, he occupied himself in mapping the division until 1879. His job was a hazardous one and he faced several difficult situations over the years.
In 1872, while climbing the unnamed highest mountain in the Gallatin Mountains, he and his party experienced electric shocks following a lightning event near the summit. The mountain was thus named Electric Peak.
In 1879, Gannett, along with several others lobbied for centralizing the mapping functions of the nation into one government agency. At that time, individual mapmakers and agencies had to compete for money from Congress for funds for projects. Following this, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) came into existence and the Hayden Survey was merged with the newly created agency.
He was appointed as geographer of the United States Census, 1880, in the new organization under its first director Clarence King. He possessed impeccable skills as a geographer and laid out 2,000 enumeration districts with great precision. This work was completed in 1882, marking the beginning of true topographical work in the United States.
He was adept at compiling facts and figures into an organized format, a skill that earned him considerable admiration from his superiors. He was promoted to Chief Geographer for the Geological Society by John Wesley Powell, a position he held till 1896.
A prolific writer, he had over 50 publications to his credit, many of them in the form of Bulletins for the Geological Survey. Some of his initial publications were ‘A Dictionary of Altitudes in the United States’ (1884) which included all of the known elevations of summits in the United States and ‘Boundaries of the United States and of the Several States and Territories, with a Historical Sketch of the Territorial Changes’ (1885).
In 1888, he became one the founding members of the National Geographic Society, also serving as its secretary. He remained deeply involved with the organization for the rest of his life.
Over the years, he served as National Geographic Society’s treasurer, vice-president, and finally president from 1910 till his death in 1914. He was also a member of the Washington Academy of Sciences until his death.
In 1893, he published the ‘Manual of Topographic Methods’, which guided the mapping of the United States for decades. Gannet is credited to have established the tradition of cartographic excellence that still embodies the USGS.
In the early 20th century he served as assistant director of the census of the Philippines (1902) and of Cuba (1907–08). He was also among the founders of the American Association of Geographers in 1904.
Henry Gannet is often referred to as the “Father of American map-making" in recognition of his invaluable contribution to the science and art of map-drawing. He was one of the founders of the National Geographic Society, the Geological Society of America, and the Association of American Geographers.
Personal Life & Legacy
He married Mary E. Chase on November 24, 1874.
He died on November 5, 1914, at the age of 68.