Harriet Chalmers Adams, Explorer

I have a soft spot for explorers. My interest dates back to childhood, when I poured over old black-and-white issues of National Geographic while visiting my grandparents in Berkeley. It wasn't hard for me to close my eyes, slip on an imaginary pith helmet, and see myself hacking my way through virgin forests to dig up lost civilizations.

It didn't register with me as a child, but at least one of those explorers was a woman. Her name was Harriet Chalmers Adams, and she was born in Stockton, California, on October 22, 1875. From her mother, Francis Wilkins, Harriet inherited a pedigree grounded in the early history of Stockton. Her father, Alexander Chalmers, was a Scottish engineer who sparked a love for travel in his daughter by taking her at the age of eight on a trip by horseback throughout California.

In 1899, Harriet married Franklin Adams, an electrical engineer. Both thrived on adventure. Shortly afterward, the newlyweds embarked on a three-year journey of South America, during which they visited every country on the Continent. Returning to the United States, Harriet set out on the lecture circuit, sharing slides, photographs, and stories from her adventures.

The next four decades saw Harriet travel widely. By the end of her life, she had visited every county with a Spanish or Portuguese connection. Other parts of the world also on her itinerary included Haiti, Siberia, North Africa, Turkey, and Sumatra. Published widely—most notably in Harper's Magazine and National Geographic—Harriet was one of the first correspondents to visit the front during World War I and the only woman at that time permitted to enter the trenches.

In Harriet's day, the National Geographic Society did not admit women as full members, although the Royal Geographic Society granted her admission in 1913. In response, she and four other women explorers founded the Society of Women Geographers in 1925. Harriet spent the next eight years organizing and developing the Society, which was based in Washington, D.C. In 1937, she died in Nice, France, where she and her husband had taken up residence. Harriet's obituary in the New York Times called her "America’s greatest woman explorer."

Harriet was one of many strong and independent women from San Joaquin County. Her memory endures, not only in her accomplishments, but also in archival material she left at the time of her death. The San Joaquin County Historical Society is pleased to announce a gift from the Stockton-San Joaquin County Public Library of six scrapbooks kept by Harriet, comprised mainly of newspaper clippings, which can be consulted by appointment. For years to come, periodic exhibits that include these items will remind Museum visitors of this remarkable Stocktonian.

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