Since 1851, American Geographical Society (AGS) members have undertaken research and sought to discover, chart, and understand both the far corners of the Earth and our own immediate environment. AGS was founded with the specific intent to rescue long-missing Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin, believing that Franklin and his crew were still alive and lost in the Arctic Ocean. The search was unsuccessful, but AGS expanded its work to connect, serve, and learn, from exploration to surveys to scholarly publications, to contribute to our understanding of the World around us.
Even as the Franklin Expedition was underway, AGS members led research and funded survey work on possible routes for a transcontinental railway network connecting the settled eastern United States with the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, and newly annexed California, and later for a trans-Atlantic cable route. These realms of exploration, polar regions, human settlement, transportation, and communication, became major AGS themes throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century. With these successes and significant financial support from Gilded Age philanthropist Archer Huntington, AGS was able to move after the turn of the century into a magnificent headquarters building with the Hispanic Society and other research organizations and museums at 156th and Broadway in what is now the Audubon Terrace Historic District in New York City.
AGS member explorers included Robert Peary and Matthew Henson, whose Arctic expeditions AGS actively supported with training, instruments, and mapping. AGS also supported Admiral Richard Byrd’s explorations in the Arctic and Antarctic and Louise Boyd’s detailed explorations of coastal Greenland.
AGS’s contributions to geographical understanding shifted in emphasis in the 20th century as increasingly it served the needs of the United States government and leading business organizations and universities that relied on AGS for trusted geographical data. As the US entered World War I, President Woodrow Wilson commissioned AGS to support a massive information-gathering effort to prepare for the Paris Peace Conference. Initial diplomatic meetings for redrawing the global map following the war were held at AGS’s Audubon Terrace headquarters. After the Armistice in 1918, AGS Executive Director Isaiah Bowman sailed with President Wilson and the American negotiating team to provide essential geographical information for the peace talks. Wilson and Bowman opposed many of the worst outcomes of the eventual treaty, but the world’s political geography today owes some of its circumstances to decisions made in Paris.
Notable early councilors of the AGS have included John C. Fremont, George Perkins Marsh, Cyrus W. Field, Samuel F. B. Morse, and Robert E. Peary. A number of other important New York family names were represented on the Council, including Astor, Fish, Rockefeller, Roosevelt, and Tiffany.
AGS continued to serve national interests and further general geographical exploration and research following the First World War. The Millionth Map of Hispanic America, a project to study and map first Latin America and then the entire world at a scale of 1:1,000,000, was one of its most important efforts. Mapping lasted from 1920 through WWII and resulted in 107 extremely detailed maps of Latin America widely used throughout the world. AGS also served more than 40 federal agencies with its geographical expertise. A long-time AGS councilor before his election as president, Franklin Roosevelt depended on Isaiah Bowman for geopolitical advice during WWII.
Following World War II and continuing through the turn of this century, AGS continued its activities in support of geographical research and exploration. The Geography Program of the Office of Naval Research (ONR) was a major attempt to engage academic geographers in the traditional role of geographers advising decision makers. Under contract to ONR, AGS published handbooks on various countries by enlisting prominent, independent-minded geographers, providing long-term field research funding, and allowing investigators to govern themselves.
With creation of the National Science Foundation and significant growth of university research endeavors, however, AGS’s mission largely shifted from doing the research to promoting learning—collecting and disseminating research materials, fostering scholarship, publishing books and journals, supporting K-12 education in geography, and recognizing geographers and others who made significant geographical contributions through its medals program—the Nobel prizes of geography. What had started almost as a lark—signings of the Fliers and Explorers Globe—became a major acknowledgment of the wide reaches and far corners of the Earth still being discovered.
The well over 80 signatories of the AGS Fliers and Explorers Globe represent “innovative, record-setting, or daring feats of discovery or transport that transform human perception of geographical space, or someone who goes to a previously unvisited or unappreciated place and advances a discovery that contributes fundamentally to geographic science".
At the same time, it had become clear that the extensive collection of maps and geographical artifacts AGS had amassed over 120 years had become too expensive to maintain in its Audubon Terrace Headquarters. In the 1970s, AGS councilors determined to move the collection to the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee where a facility was designed to properly maintain the collection and continue to make it easily accessible to scholars and anyone else interested in learning geography. Once the collection was removed, the AGS offices, along with a core library and important historical artifacts from society history, moved to mid-town and then lower Manhattan, before settling in its present location in Brooklyn.
AGS today continues to be a learning society of professionals dedicated to the advancement of geographic thought, knowledge, and understanding. It carries out funded research projects, supports education and teacher development, funds scholarly research, promotes geography through white papers and online geographical context behind the news, and publishes outstanding geographical journals, The Geographical Review and the newly reconstituted online journal, Focus on Geography.
In recent decades, AGS has worked with the Geographic Education National Implementation Project (GENIP) to promote standards and instructional materials for K-12 education, and one of its councilors led the development of the Human Geography Advanced Placement program. From 2003 to 2008, geographers assisted the Genev International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD) to advance minefield mapping and improve the geographic and cartographic capabilities of landmine removal programs around the world. In partnership with the University of Kansas (KU), AGS assisted in promulgating a new world standard for cartographic representation of landmines, minefields, and mine actions. AGS Bowman Expeditions, named for AGS’s storied director on the early 20th century, sponsored teams of faculty and student researchers from numerous universities to work in the Americas, Europe, and Asia to employ participant mapping for comprehensive multi-scale GIS programs to compile and display local and regional level geographical information in concert with local and regional scholars and indigenous peoples. Results of this work have been presented at academic conferences and published widely in academic journals.
A nationwide survey conducted by AGS in 2011-2012 found that the American public expects far more geography to be taught in universities, colleges, high schools, and elementary schools than is currently available. Respondents overwhelmingly believe that geographic knowledge and skills are useful for a wide range of careers and government agencies and that they benefit in their own lives on a daily basis from what they learned in geography courses. The survey was administered by the AGS with funding from the National Science Foundation as part of a larger effort to provide a framework for improving geographic education. In response, AGS has expanded outreach for students of every age interested in geography through Geobadges and Junior Service Fellows programs that complement its teacher support programs and mapping competitions.
Guided by its distinguished past in connecting people interested in serving and learning geography, mindful of the ubiquitous nature of geospatial science and tools, and dedicated to promoting geographic literacy, geographic thinking, geospatial innovation, and geographically informed public policy, AGS continues to lead the cause for geography and geospatial science in the United States and around the world. Its Council is still composed of both academic geographers as well as government and business leaders in geographical applications and geospatial technologies. Today, AGS collaborates with the Earth Institute at Columbia University to sponsor an annual Geography2050 conference on global futures.
As AGS approaches its 175th anniversary of supporting geographical research and discovery, its future is as important as its past. Interested in helping the AGS build on its legacy of connecting, serving, and learning about the World around us through research and discovery? Join us as a member.