Humboldt: The Man Behind the Name

an image of redwood trees with a quote by Alexander von Humboldt as an overlay

To Californians, Humboldt is the name of a county in the far north of the state, along with many places and products of that region. There’s Humboldt Bay, Fort Humboldt, Humboldt Redwoods State Park, Humboldt State University and the foodie-favorite Humboldt Fog cheese. We associate the name Humboldt with the breathtaking scenes of the Northern California coast – towering redwood trees, rugged coves, weathered Victorian houses and road-tripping tourists.

Outside of California, and in fact all across the globe, are countless places, institutions, plant and animal species and more named for Humboldt. Here are just a few: Humboldt penguins; the Humboldt squid that swim in the Humboldt Current; universities in Berlin and South America; mountain ranges in Antarctica and New Zealand; national parks in Cuba and Peru; and not one but two asteroids.

So who was Humboldt? And how did his name end up all over the redwood coast and far, far beyond?

Who was Alexander von Humboldt?

Alexander von Humboldt – scientist, geographer, explorer and bona fide polymath – died on this day in 1859 at the age of 89. Alexander von Humboldt was born in Berlin in 1769, which was then in Prussia and part of the Holy Roman Empire. A born naturalist, as a child Humboldt collected and classified insects, plants and other natural specimens. Early in his academic life, Humboldt decided he wanted to become a scientific explorer. Steadfast in this pursuit, he studied a great range of subjects including languages, astronomy, anatomy and geology.

Among a litany of achievements during his long life, Humboldt established the foundations of physical geography and meteorology. He was the first scientist to describe human-induced climate change, a theory he wrote about in 1800 and again in 1831. Major discoveries in volcanology, cartography, climatology and geology are credited to Humboldt. He published works on botany, zoology, astronomy, political essays and personal travel narratives. Humboldt also pioneered a holistic approach to natural sciences that, combined with his quantitative methodology, became known as Humboldtian science.

An 1806 oil portrait of Alexander von Humboldt, who is holding a flower over a with a natural setting as the backdrop
Portrait of Alexander von Humboldt by Friedrich Georg Weitsch, 1806 (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Humboldt’s Expeditions

After acing his first job as a government mine inspector, and in his spare time becoming a very well respected intellectual and cultural leader in Europe, Humboldt got his chance to explore the New World. Authorized by the King of Spain and funded by a recently inherited personal fortune, Humboldt explored the Americas for five years around the turn of the 19th century.

From 1799 to 1804, Humboldt and the French bonatist/explorer Aimé Bonpland traveled to Venezuela, Cuba, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and New Spain (Mexico). He observed, collected specimens and gathered precise and valuable data about the geography, flora, fauna and people of the Americas. It amounted to the most thorough and voluminous body of such work ever compiled.

Humboldt was a prolific writer and publisher of his own discoveries and theories. This made him hugely famous – a household name in Europe long after his death. He was especially revered in Mexico, named a “hero of the nation” by President Benito Juarez in 1859. After returning to Europe, Humboldt only undertook one more expedition, to Russia and Central Asia, as an old man. He otherwise devoted his time to science and mentoring younger thinkers. Charles Darwin cited Humboldt as a major influence, and the two became mutually admiring correspondents.

Humboldt’s California Connection

The story of Humboldt’s connection to Northern California is… well, there isn’t one. Humboldt was admired in Europe and the Americas during his life and after his death. His influence was great enough to inspire the pioneers charged with renaming places they “discovered” all over the New World. Whether out of reverence or lack of imagination, Humboldt became a go-to namesake.

The first Northern California spot to be given the name was Humboldt Bay, the state’s second-largest natural bay. According to the Humboldt County Historical Society, the christening was done by crew members of the Laura Virginia, which sailed from San Francisco into the bay in 1850. The U.S. ship’s arrival was part of a larger pursuit of gold, discovered in the Trinity Mountains two years earlier. An expedition led by Josiah Gregg had recently established a route between the gold fields and the coast.

A road in the middle of the redwood forest in Humboldt County, Northern California
Humboldt County scenery (photo by Alex Wolfe on Unsplash)

The Trinity Mountains proved disappointing in terms of gold, but the region around Humboldt Bay was lavishly rich in other resources. Those old-growth redwoods (dubbed “red gold”) lured loggers, who were joined by fishermen. Later on, dairy, marijuana and tourism took off in Humboldt County. The county, fort and other local landmarks named “Humboldt” all got their names from the Bay, so indirectly from Alexander von Humboldt too.

Alexander von Humboldt did visit the United States, but never set foot in what is now California. In 1804, Humboldt was invited to the White House by President Thomas Jefferson. The President was intrigued by Humboldt’s scientific knowledge. He was also keen to learn all the explorer knew about New Spain (Mexico), the United States’ brand new (post-Louisiana Purchase) neighbor. Humboldt also spent some time in Philadelphia among the intellectual elite. California was not on his itinerary.

Want more California history? Check out “The Story of the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company.”

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