National Geographic

John Russell Bartlett: An Admiral Turned Oceanographer

The thirty-three founders of the National Geographic Society were an adventurous and accomplished group. They included scientists, explorers, a journalist and a superintendent of the National Zoo. In recognition of the National Geographic Society’s upcoming 125th anniversary this series takes a look at their stories.

By Mark Collins Jenkins

John Russell Bartlett, a career naval officer, was born in New York on September 26, 1843, the son of John R. and Eliza A. Bartlett. He was educated in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and at the U.S. Naval Academy. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he was ordered into service, and throughout that conflict compiled an admirable record. He was present at the passage of Forts Jackson and St. Philip, the memorable battle of Vicksburg, and at the capture of New Orleans.  Bartlett served on Admiral Dahlgren’s staff off of Charleston in 1863-64, and participated in the naval attack on Ft. Fisher.

After the war, Bartlett’s career turned toward oceanography, and his new-found scientific endeavors took him to more exotic locales as he created charts for the coast of West Africa, explored the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, and ventured into the Coatzacoalcos River to begin a survey for a possible interoceanic canal.

Between 1877 and 1882, he commanded the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey steamer Blake, carrying out investigations of the Gulf Stream. More new scientific instruments were tested and proved on the Blake than aboard any other research vessel in the first great age of oceanography.  Accurate high-density soundings taken by the Blake’s men lead to the first modern bathymetric map, and the chasm in the seafloor between Cuba and Jamaica was eventually named Bartlett Deep after the man who had sounded its deepest depths.

U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey steamer Blake.


Bartlett’s work in documenting the Gulf Stream helped him to appreciate the crucial role it played in the circulation of the ocean’s waters, and he described the powerful current in holistic language that might be appreciated by today’s environmentalists:

I would like this great equatorial current to the heart in the human body, supplying the Gulf Stream with fluid as through arteries, the water finding its way back naturally by the polar and colder currents or veins to its original source.  This action goes on in the Pacific as well as our own Atlantic . . . the life or moving power is as Hershel says, is the trade winds, and this force is derived from the sun.

Between 1882 and 1888, he was in charge of the Hydrographic Office. He retired as a rear admiral in 1897, and was awarded a Sc.D. from Brown University in 1898. That same year, the Spanish-American War broke out, and Bartlett found himself in charge of the naval intelligence office. He was also superintendent of the U.S. Coast Signal Service and chief of the U.S. Auxiliary Naval Force.

Having married Jeanie R. Jenckes on February 6, 1872, he made his home in Lonsdale, Rhode Island, before dying in 1904.