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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 562

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This is the grave of Gilbert Grosvenor.

Grosvenor was born in 1875 in Constantinople to teacher parents. His father Edwin was a fairly well-known historian who worked at Robert College there, which still exists today in modern Istanbul, for about twenty years. Gilbert was sent back to the U.S. for his education. He went to Amherst College, where his father would end up teaching, and graduated in 1897. His very well-connected family gave him interesting opportunities. In 1899, Alexander Graham Bell hired him to be the first employee of the National Geographic Society. Bell was the president. That wasn’t Grosvenor only connection to the Bell family. He married Bell’s daughter Elsie, also buried here.

Many claim that Grosvenor invented photojournalism during his time with the National Geographic Society, with of course National Geographic magazine, which played an outsized role in my own childhood interest of the world and which probably did for many of you as well. For a kid who did not have the chance to travel, that magazine was critical in building my curiosity about nearly everything and which still drives me today when I do have the resources for some traveling. I don’t doubt that the photojournalism claim is somewhat overstated and that there were more figures involved in this, but National Geographic was a critically important magazine in American life. He also is what made it a useful magazine. In 1903, when he became editor of it, it had all of 900 subscribers and was a scholarly journal. At its peak, it grew to an astounding 2 million subscribers.

Grosvenor worked for the NGS for the rest of his working life, all the way until 1954. He became president of it in 1920. All the money raised through expanding circulation meant that the NGS was a big funder of polar expeditions and other expensive journeys to the last little-known corners of the world, of course all reported on with beautiful pictures in National Geographic that made it a must-read, even for your average middlebrow American who cared little about the rest of the world. He was a big believer in positive journalism and that’s how he covered the world in the interwar years and through World War II, which was not a great time in global life. There’s no question as well that National Geographic did more than its share in promoting a American form of cultural imperialism, combining the curiosity about other cultures with a sense of American superiority to these strange peoples. But then that was a pretty overwhelming part of American life all the way through the twentieth century.

Grosvenor also played a key role in the creation of the National Park Service. His magazine served a role in creating ideas of American splendor in the minds of the American public. He first visited the West in 1915, going with Stephen Mather to hike in the Sierra Nevada, in what would later become Sequoia National Park. He helped purchase key groves of Sequoia to save them before they were cut, which later were included in the park. He and Mather were among the key players in the bill to create the NPS in 1916. Mather would become first superintendent of the Park Service and Grosvenor continued promoting the concept in National Geographic. He was particularly instrumental in the creation of Katmai National Monument in Alaska in 1918, which is today a national park as well.

By the 1950s, the National Geographic Staff were all ancient men and the journalism reflected that. He was forced out in 1954, but as a family enterprise, his son took over the magazine in 1957 and helmed it for the next ten years.

In some ways, Grosvenor’s whole life was one of the rich guy at ease, but also someone trying to do some good. He bought a big estate in Florida in 1931 and served on the board of trustees for the University of Miami between 1944 and 1960. He died in 1966 on the family estate in Cape Breton Island, Canada. Incidentally, one of his grandsons is Walter Myers, convicted of spying for Cuba in 2009.

Gilbert Grosvenor is buried in Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

If you would like this series to visit other people involved in the American exploration of the world, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Robert Peary is in Arlington, as is John Wesley Powell. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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