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National Geographic Secret Weapon: Harriet Chalmers Adams


A forgotten female explorer. National Geographic Society considered her one of the best. An explorer who deserved better recognition.

1932 Society of Women Geographers

1932 Society of Women Geographers

Harriet Chalmers Adams

Harriet Chalmers Adams

Harriet Chalmers Adams, AKA "Mrs. Marco Polo"

Born in 1875, Stockton, California, she would have a life of endless explorations worldwide, giving lectures and writing for National Geographic Society, Harpers Magazine, and the New York Times. She gained the nickname of Mrs. Marco Polo and was considered the world's greatest female explorer. Yet she was forgotten and ignored after her death because of her lack of credentials, lack of formal training through a university, and had never written a book. Harriet was self-taught and a voracious reader and obtained her education via hands-on experience. She was unafraid to explore remote places, documenting, photographing, and writing about everything she did.

This is a story of a woman explorer who faced discrimination but never let it stop her from traveling the world and specialization in South American discoveries. She and her husband, Franklin Pierce Adams, whom she married in 1899 and considered her life-long friend embarked on her first major exploration in 1904, a three-year trip. They visited every country in South America, transverse the Andes on horseback, backpacking, visiting the indigenous people, and was the first white woman to visit over twenty tribes.

Upon their return to Washington, she went to the National Geographic Society to discuss her explorations. It was because of her bubbling personality, her humor, and her complete photographs and writings that she secured her position as a lecturer and writer for them. Her detailed descriptions and colorful slide presentations made her a much-in-demand lecturer with thousands attending her lecturers. She became known as their 'secret weapon'. She would remain with them from 1904-1935 when she retired.

Harriet remembered the words of Roy Chapman Andrews, who said: "women are not adapted to be explorers." She never forgot those words.

Roy Andrews, Explorer

Roy Andrews, Explorer

Explorations and Itinerary of Harriet Chalmers Adams.

The major explorations of Harriet Chalmers Adams:

  • 1904-06 South America
  • 1910 Haiti, Cuba, Santa Domingo
  • 1912 Trail of Christopher Columbus
  • 1913-14 Philippines, Mongolia, Central Asia
  • 1916 War Correspondent at French Front for Harper's
  • 1917-18 Lectures in the US for War Effort
  • 1918 Visited most U.S. Indian Reservations
  • 1919-20 South America
  • 1923-24 Spain, Morocco
  • 1926 Spain and Portugal
  • 1929 Spain, Near East, N. Africa, Libya
  • 1930 East Africa
  • 1931 Spain
  • 1933-37 Europe

Truly, Harriet spent years exploring which shows why she was acknowledged as the greatest female explorer of the time.

The Founding of the Society of Women Geographers (SWA)

In 1925, the women were frustrated by the exclusive clubs for men only, founded the Societ of Women's Geographers. Four of the women, Blair Niles, Marguerite Harrison, Gertrude Shelby, and Gertrude Emerson Sen, were the pioneers of the society. They wanted Harriet to become the organizer. Unfortunately, Harriet had taken a bad fall trying to rescue another climber. Told she would never walk again, after extensive therapy and bedridden for three years, she overcame the problem.

She was elected the first president and held that position until her retirement in 1933. Some of the early members included Mary Douglas Leakey, Jane Goodall, Amelia Earhart, and Margaret Mead. Today, some names include Maria Constanza Cerruti, Sylvia A. Earle, Dr. Sarah Helen Parcak, Susan Chase, and Maria Vince.

The organization has grown to over 500 members in the U.S. and 28 foreign countries. Their motto is for women who know no boundaries. The headquarters and museum are four blocks from the Capitol in Washington. 425 E. Capitol St. SE, Washington, D.C., 206-546-9228, email, headquarters@oswg.org. Open to all women journalists, archaeologists, oceanographers, diplomats, explorers, and others. Starting in 1931, the society also has a flag placed on top of Mt. Killimango, on Antarctica, the depths of the ocean, and even in outer space.

When C.B. Bryant published his 100 Years of Adventure and Diversity, he totally omitted any mention of Adams. There was no excuse for ignoring her except for the blatant discrimination of women.

The contributions made by women over the course of years is endless. They could never be considered 'inferior' in their explorations. Thankfully there are women today up to the task equal to any man.

SWG Flag, Placed Around the World, In Outer Space, and  In the  Depths of the Ocean

SWG Flag, Placed Around the World, In Outer Space, and In the Depths of the Ocean

Members of SWG 1932

Members of SWG 1932


fran rooks (author) from Toledo, Ohio on October 07, 2020:

Thank you so much for your visit and generous comments.

Rosina S Khan on October 07, 2020:

This is a wonderful account of Harriet Chalmers Adams who was not only an explorer but also a lecturer and writer for others. It's sad her contribution was forgotten. But she certainly made a difference in her lifetime and that is what counts. Thanks for sharing, Fran.

fran rooks (author) from Toledo, Ohio on October 07, 2020:

Thanks for reading. Hope you enjoyed it.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on October 06, 2020:

Thank you for introducing me to Harriet Chalmers Adams. I have never heard of her before. She sounds like a very interesting person.