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From the Heart of Africa: An Introduction to William Stamps Cherry

Africa explorer J. Michael Fay is in the Central African Republic, on the last leg of an expedition he started on Christmas Day, 2014. A former National Geographic Explorer in Residence with lifelong experience exploring Africa, Fay’s latest mission is through vast tracts of undeveloped territory in the “Heart of Africa”.  His inspiration is William Stamps Cherry, a 20-year-old American big game hunter who trekked many thousands of miles through much of the same landscape around 120 years ago. Cherry recorded in his journal a land teeming with countless wild animals; and he described encounters with local people with a way of life he could not have imagined. Who was William Stamps Cherry, where did his explorations take him, and what did he record in his journal that inspired Mike Fay to want to follow in his footsteps? Cherry’s biographer, William Casey, provides an introduction to the enigmatic American explorer.

By William Casey

The National Geographic Society was founded by Gardiner Greene Hubbard on January 27, 1888, in Washington, D.C. About a year later, on February 22, 1889, United States President Grover Cleveland signed a bill admitting North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and Washington as U.S. states. Cleveland, the 24th President of the United States, was succeeded by Benjamin Harrison on March 4. The new president opened Oklahoma to white settlement less than three weeks after assuming the Presidency with the announcement that settlement would begin on April 22. The Great Land Rush into Oklahoma began as announced, and while hopeful Americans traveled great distances in pursuit of the new American dream then unfolding, the French were inaugurating and preparing to open the Eiffel Tower, scheduled for May 6.

The first issue of the Wall Street Journal was published on July 8, 1889. Also in 1889, at about the same time Henry Morton Stanley was leaving the Congo for the last time, a young American named William Stamps Cherry landed on Africa’s western coast at the mouth of the Congo River. He had not yet turned 21, and he was entirely alone on his quest for adventure. This would be the first of two trips made to Africa by Will Cherry who had grown up hearing and reading about the adventures of the great African explorers who had preceded him.

William Stamps Cherry portrait photo
William Stamps Cherry.  The above images came from the Museum Graphic dated May-June 1927, William Stamps Cherry – An Appreciation, by Rev. E. Lee Howard, D.D.

William Stamps Cherry was the first American to set foot in deepest Africa, and the first American, if not the first hunter-explorer, to return alive from his journeys there. He had gained a name and a reputation for himself as a successful big game hunter and collector, and also as an explorer. He covered more than 30,000 miles of navigable Congo and Mobangi River tributaries (10,000 miles during his first trip working for a Dutch trading company, and 20,000 miles during his second as Chief Engineer of the entire French Marine fleet in French West Africa under Major Marchand), and was the first explorer to go deeper into the heart of deepest Africa, into the Central African Republic to the Congo’s largest tributary to the north, the Mobangi River, and then further still to the north and up the Kotto River to the headwaters and the Bahr el Ghazal.

Like those before him, he set his feet upon ground never before seen by any white man, and where no native tribesmen had ever seen (nor even heard of) a white man. He made important geographical and anthropological discoveries, having added to the map of Africa a territory as large as the state of Illinois and discovering three tribes “hitherto unknown.”  His eight years spent in Africa between 1889 and 1900 resulted in outstanding collections of Central African and Arab artifacts, earning him the respect of his peers in the United States and in Europe by the age of 32.

William Stamps Cherry’s collections are held in trust at the Museum of Natural History in Los Angeles. They are considered to be the largest collections of their kind in the United States. It is the largest archived collection currently at the L.A. Museum and has not been exhibited in more than 50 years. Cherry had been acknowledged by many people during his time as having established himself worthy among the ranks of the greats before him: Barth, Burton, Speke and Stanley; and among his fellow Scots: Park, Bruce, Clapperton, Grant, Livingstone and Cameron – Will Cherry carried his Irish and Scottish heritage in him as well as his American roots.

Although many newspaper articles had been published about Cherry in 1895, as well as numerous newspaper and magazine articles appearing in America and in Europe about his adventures in 1900 and 1901 (some of them full-page newspaper cover stories), along with more than a dozen published newspaper articles penned by him in 1903 and 1904, the book he had been preparing for publication was never completed. He died at sea in 1927, according to the reports, and his additions to historical exploration in Africa had not made their way into our world history books. Until very recently, he had been forgotten entirely.

In the Words of William Stamps Cherry

This excerpt is from a letter written to the explorer’s family in 1889, after he arrived in Africa at age 20. A larger excerpt of the letter was published in the September 1, 1895 issue of the Chicago Tribune in a story about William Stamps Cherry; subhead About Africa.

It is strange how many deranged persons one finds out here. Something in the climate, or in the nervous strain to which they are subjected breaks men down. Cases of complete demoralization like those of Bartlett, recorded by Stanley, are by no means rare. The moral nature seems to collapse along with the physical nature. The worst passions are excited and men become irritable, selfish, and inhuman. These abnormal cases have not been understood by the unsophisticated natives and they have had the injurious effect of lowering the general estimate in which white men are held.

Things are by no means as I expected to find them, but I will endeavor to make the best of them. Society is in a state of chaos, and one might as well try to imagine how he would act if caught in a cyclone as to attempt to calculate how he would act in the midst of this jumbled up condition of things. Life here is like a game of chess which has to be played against skillful, unscrupulous antagonists; if one can only move so as not to get checkmated he is all right. I will try to play a cautious hand. I have one advantage to begin with – the heat which is so oppressive and debilitating to the rest of the ship’s company I hardly notice at all. Many are already prostrated with the malarial diseases incident to a sojourn on the coast. My health is superb. I am beginning to think that I must have been built to order for African travel; but the severest tests are to come. Many have laid down their lives in a poorer cause than that which has brought me here. If my bones are left to bleach ‘where Africa’s sunny fountains roll down their golden sands,’ so be it. I am happy as a lark, so come what will, I mean to go on undismayed.

Copy of William E. Casey 1William E. Casey earned his BS degree in environmental science at Sierra Nevada College, Lake Tahoe in 1988 and his MA degree in journalism at University of Nevada, Reno in 1998. He was commissioned by Dr. William Cherry in 2003 to create a “tribute” to Dr. Cherry’s grandfather, William Stamps Cherry, the first American hunter-explorer in Africa. This resulted in two books about Cherry, a biography and an edited posthumous autobiography completed in 2005, From the Heart of Africa and My Life in Africa by William Stamps Cherry, respectively. A third book of Cherry’s writings was compiled and edited by Mr. Casey in 2008, The Essential William Stamps Cherry.

Other works by Mr. Casey include a three-volume history of Sierra Nevada College, The Architects of SNC, 1969-2009, commissioned by the college’s founding president, Dr. Benjamin Solomon, and an inventory of the late Lorne Green’s documents and memorabilia for the Green Family Trust, commissioned by Mr. Charles Green, the Bonanza television star’s son. Mr. Casey was one of the founding members of the Incline Village and Crystal Bay Historical Society at Lake Tahoe. He now lives in Sequim, Washington.

Follow Mike Fay as he retraces William Cherry’s footsteps, sharing the experience in words, photos, video, maps, and social media: Expedition Through the Heart of Africa.