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William J. Morden papers

Identifier: Mss .M671-.M674

Scope and Contents

This collection is concerned with Morden’s expeditions to Alaska, Central Asia, and Southwest Africa and contains detailed field notes written by both William and Irene. The field notes include details of their travels, supply lists, budgets, and descriptions of artifacts and specimens gathered. There are also a number of drafts of articles and books written by both Morden and Irene about their experiences abroad. The William J. Morden papers also include correspondences which are arranged alphabetically. The majority is between Morden and fellow explorers but there are also letters to and from organizations/institutions such as the Academy of Sciences in Leningrad. Much of the correspondence has to do with the organizational details of the expeditions. Box 1 contains a detailed container list. Also in this collection is an assortment of Morden’s personal maps. A portion of them were annotated with routes and dates which are related to the Morden-Clark Asiatic expedition as well as his travels to Africa and Alaska. The map collection comes with a complete inventory.


  • 1922-1957


Access Conditions and Restrictions

Requests to use the collection should be made in advance to the Special Collections Librarian, who may be contacted at 212-769-5420 or at [email protected]

Biographical Note

William James Morden was born in Chicago, Ill. on January 3, 1886 to a wealthy family with a railroad business. He graduated from the Sheffield Scientific School of Yale University in 1908 with an advanced degree in engineering, which he put to use while working for his family’s company before serving as a lieutenant in the Army Engineers Corps in France during WWI. Morden began his life as an explorer in 1921 when he took off on his first journey, an AMNH expedition, which he personally funded, to the Yukon Territory. Four major expeditions followed which were also under the auspices of the American Museum of Natural History. These included voyages to central Asia for the Morden-Clark Asiatic Expedition in 1926 and the Morden-Graves Expedition in 1929-1930, and to Africa for the Morden African Expedition in 1922-1923 and for subsequent African Expeditions conducted in 1947 and 1953. He also traveled to Alaska on a bear hunting trip in 1949. Morden’s expeditions primarily took place to gather specimens for the museum, he and his team also extensively filmed their experiences while traveling. His 1947 expedition to Africa yielded artifacts and film footage of a number of tribes. William James Morden died a very unhappy man in his home in Chappaqua, NY on January 24, 1958 at age 72 after a struggle with alcohol. Irene Hambright Morden, Morden’s second wife, was an active participant on some expeditions and the two completed a book about their experiences in Africa entitled Our African Adventure, published in 1954. She also kept detailed journals while traveling, which can be found along with Morden’s in this collection. Irene also wrote a number of articles about her time abroad and submitted them to a variety of publications.


William James Morden 1886-1958. Morden, Col. William James (1886-1958) African Explorer. Vertical Files, American Museum of Natural History Research Library.

Col. William James Morden, Explorer’s Journal 1958. Morden, Col. William James (1886-1958) African Explorer. Vertical Files, American Museum of Natural History Research Library.

Historical Note

One of Morden’s most fruitful expeditions, detailed within this collection, is the Morden-Clark Asiatic Expedition of the American Museum of Natural History. It was funded and organized by Morden and co-directed by James L. Clark, a noted scientist and explorer and the Assistant Director of the Museum. The main objective was to secure specimens of the rare Ovis poli sheep for the Museum’s Asian Hall of Mammals. The expedition left the United States in January of 1926 and journeyed to Central Asia including parts of Russia, Mongolia and China. In the mountain ranges of Pamir and Tian Shan the team collected specimens of Ovis poli, Roe deer and Ibex. The team arrived back in February of 1927. Morden would also take part in another Central Asiatic journey in 1929, the Morden-Graves Expedition, but was not present for the entire expedition due to ill health. In 1922 both William and his wife Irene went on their first AMNH expedition to Africa, the Morden African Expedition. Returning to Africa in 1947, 1953, and 1956, the Mordens took a more ethnological approach and became interested in learning about the people of Southwest Africa, most notably the Turkana tribe. They were able to bring back to the Museum a variety of artifacts for display, and (as with the expeditions to Central Asia) reels of film footage showing the landscape, animals, and people.

Source: The American Museum of Natural History Fifty-Ninth Annual Report for the Year 1927. American Museum of Natural History Research Library.


3 Linear Feet

Language of Materials



Manuscript collection is in good condition. Condition of map collection varies with some being quite delicate.

Related Material

Title: The Morden African Expedition, 1956 Call Number: Film Collection no. 224 Description: Film footage from the Yale Peabody Museum Morden African Expedition in 1956.

Title: The Morden African Expedition, 1953 Call Number: Film Collection no. 223 Description: Film footage from the AMNH Morden African Expedition in 1953.

Title: Turkana Call Number: Film Collection no. 228 Description: Film footage of the Turkana people of Africa shot by Ralph Kepler Lewis during the AMNH Morden African Expedition in 1947.

Title: The Morden African Expedition, 1947 Call Number: Film Collection no. 222 Description: Film footage from the AMNH Morden African Expedition in 1947.

Title: The Morden-Graves North Asiatic Expedition Call Number: Film Collection no. 226 Description: Film footage from the AMNH Morden-Graves North Asiatic Expedition to Soviet Central Asia and eastern Siberia in 1929.

Title: The Baltistan-Ladakh hunt Call Number: Film Collection no. 216 Description: Film footage from the Morden Expedition to Africa and Asia in 1922-1924.

Title: William Morden photographic slide collection, 1947-1969. Call Number: PSC 360-366 Description: This collection of color photographic slides is mostly comprised of images from Morden’s 1953 and 1956 expeditions to Africa, the latter for the Yale Peabody Museum. It also contains some images from Irene Morden’s travels after her husband’s death.

Title: William and Irene Morden draft of Our Northern Exposure, 1950. Call Number: Mss .674 Description: This box contains a draft of a publication the Mordens wrote together about their travels to Alaska and the Yukon Territory.

American Museum of Natural History, Special Collections Photo Prints; African Expeditions, Morden African Expedition, 1947, Turkana District between Lake Rudolph and Great Rift Valley; American Museum of Natural History Archives

Physical Description

Expedition diaries and field notes, correspondence, drafts, printed articles, and maps. Collection contains both handwritten and typed material.

William J. Morden papers, 1922-1957
Emily Pagano
Language of description
Script of description
Code for undetermined script
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The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation provided support to make this finding aid available in ArchivesSpace (2016-2017). Finding aid created with support from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) Hidden Collections grant, 2012.

Repository Details

Part of the Museum Archives at the Gottesman Research Library Repository

American Museum of Natural History
200 Central Park West
New York NY 10024 USA
(212) 769-5420