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Harriet Chalmers Adams, Adventurer

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San Joaquin County is known for its trailblazers, innovators, organizers and pioneers. Perhaps no local trailblazer has had as much an influence on the national stage as Harriet Chalmers Adams, renowned journalist, traveler, explorer and Stocktonian. As America’s first nationally known female travel writer, Harriet broke gender barriers and educated millions of Americans about the cultures and geographies of the world.

Harriet was born in 1875 in Stockton to Alexander Chalmers and Frances Wilkens. Her father was a well-known dry goods salesman who carried the most up-to-date travel gear in his store, and her family frequently took long trips into the Sierra Nevada on horseback. Harriet is known to have particularly remembered a year-long trip from Oregon to Mexico along the Pacific Crest that she took when she was 14.

After marrying Franklin Pierce Adams in 1899, Harriet began her career as a professional traveler and travel writer. In the days before the internet, the television and the airplane, travel journalists were the only means of learning about the rest of the world, and Harriet took the profession by storm. After her first trip through South America, which included circumnavigation of the continent and traveling on horseback along the length of the Andes, the New York Times wrote a full-length feature about her work.

For the next ten years, Harriet took many trips to places around the world, including a two-year adventure from Siberia to Sumatra along the east coast of Asia in 1913 and 1914. By WWI, she was hired as a correspondent for Harper’s Magazine. According to many sources, she was the only female journalist allowed to visit the trenches of the allies. Her work was published and reprinted by dozens, if not hundreds, of newspapers across the country. Throughout her career, she maintained a robust lecture circuit, speaking in cities such as New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Chicago and Stockton to audiences that included business elites, elected officials and a wide variety of professional associations and clubs. In Stockton, she was particularly famous for a lecture given in 1915 titled “The Fringe of Asia,” on her travels along the Asian coast. The lecture was given to the Philomathean Club and then later to at least a dozen business organizations across San Joaquin County.

Harriet’s travels and writing continued into the 1920s, where she achieved some of her most important work. In 1925, frustrated from her experience with professional discrimination, Harriet helped found the Society of Woman Geographers with Mary Hastings Bradley, Blair Niles, Gertrude Shelby, Gertrude Emerson Sen and Marguerite Harrison. Despite being a fellow of the prestigious Royal Geographic Society of Great Britain, she was forbidden from joining the well-known Explorer’s Club, which was male only and remained so until 1981. The well-known National Geographic Society didn’t hire a woman on staff until 1951.

At the time, Harriet was quoted as saying, “The men, you know, have had their hide-bound exclusive little explorers’ and adventurers’ clubs for years and years, but they have always been so afraid that some woman might penetrate their sanctums of discussion…We decided that the best thing to do would be to organize our own club.”

Harriet continued her travels until the end of her life, passing away in Nice, France, in 1937 at 61. Newspapers across the country mourned her passing. Her legacy included the opening of the American travel writing field to women, educating millions concerning the geography and cultures of much of the rest of the world, and taking thousands of photos that document the world in the early 20th century. In their tribute, the Stockton Record noted that “no daughter of Stockton enjoyed a more colorful, interesting or productive career.” One can find her archival photo collections, scrapbooks and typewriter at the San Joaquin County Historical Museum, Micke Grove Park, Lodi. To learn more about Harriet’s life, one can also purchase the book Harriet Chalmers Adams: Adventurer and Explorer by local historian Durlynn Anema.