Presidential Presents: Harding’s Voyage of Understanding 100 Years Later
Posted May 30, 2023
Topics: Presidents & PoliticsArchives & LibraryMuseum Collections

By Eric Feingold, Curator, and David McDevitt, Harding Project Archivist

In June 1923, President Warren G. Harding embarked on what he called a “Voyage of Understanding.” It consisted of a cross-country journey through the continental United States, along with stops in Canada and the Alaska Territory—the first official visits to those areas by a sitting U.S. President. He hoped the trip, intended to last about two months, would help him connect with voters before the 1924 campaign and gain insight into how the federal government could better serve the people of Alaska. During the historic trip, President Harding, First Lady Florence Harding, and others in their party (including future president Herbert Hoover) received many warm welcomes, as well as unique objects from the communities they visited. From a papier-mâché potato to a miniature bridge, these objects illustrate the Hardings’ historic journey and the communities they encountered along the way.


[Left]: President Harding (seated) and his party admiring Child’s Glacier in Alaska

[Right]: When you're the President, they let you ride up front

The Voyage of Understanding began with visits to states in the Midwest and Mountain region, and on June 28, they stopped in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Nearly 30,000 locals enthusiastically came out to hear Harding’s speech from a railroad car, prompting one reporter to remark, “I did not know there were that many people in Idaho.” To thank the Hardings and their entourage for visiting, citizens and community groups presented them with gifts like local trout, dairy, and—in a nod to the region’s agriculture—a papier-mâché potato.

Possibly the oldest known papier-mâché potato in the universe

In early July, the group arrived in Tacoma, Washington, their last stop before sailing to Alaska. While in the city, the president received a walrus skull whose tusks were adorned with elaborate carvings of people in a canoe, a dogsled team, fish, and walrus. Harding received this unique gift from William Franklin Sheard, a local hunter/trapper who owned a sporting goods store near the Tacoma Hotel. Sheard likely hoped the gift would give Harding an idea of the majestic region he’d be touring over the next three weeks.

The ornately carved walrus skull features detailed Alaskan motifs like fur seals, fishing, and a dogsled team

Harding and his party set sail for Alaska aboard the U.S.S. Henderson on July 6 and arrived two days later. They stopped in over a dozen cities, receiving gifts at nearly every stop. Locals gave them objects like a beadwork purse and totem that reflected artistic traditions of Alaska Native cultures.

[Left]: The totem today

[Right]: President Harding inspects his gift while aboard the USS Henderson

The Hardings also received gifts highlighting the territory’s natural resources, including a letter opener made of gold panned from Alaska streams. The President received another gift on July 15, 1923, the day he helped complete construction of the interior Alaska Railroad by driving the “Golden Spike” into a railroad bridge spanning the Tanana River at Nenana. As thanks for Harding’s participation, the local government presented him a miniature model of the Tanana River Bridge (also known as the Mears Memorial Bridge).

[Top Left]: Letter opener with a handle made of Alaskan gold

[Top Right]: Model of the Tanana River Bridge

[Bottom Left]: Florence and Warren receiving the model bridge

[Bottom Right]: The presidential train crossing over the actual Tanana River Bridge

Harding left Alaska on July 26 and headed back towards the Pacific Northwest. On July 27, he made a brief stop in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he gave a speech and played some golf, one of his favorite pastimes.

Harding waves to the crowd while passing through Vancouver, Canada

A speech about the Alaska Territory at the University of Washington stadium was supposed to be the final event of Harding’s Seattle visit. But, a collision involving the Henderson and another ship the day before demanded a revised itinerary. As a result, a scheduled address by Harding at the Seattle Press Club was changed from a luncheon to evening event. At the Press Club, Harding naturally spoke about the Marion Star, the newspaper he owned, and his career as a newspaperman. To show its appreciation for his appearance, the Press Club presented Harding with a lifetime membership card made of ten-karat gold.

Little did those in attendance know, but Harding’s speech at the Press Club would be his last as president. Over the course of his two-month trip, he had become increasingly ill and noticeably weary. On the train leaving Seattle on July 27, his doctor diagnosed him with food poisoning, and all remaining engagements were cancelled. Instead of making stops in Portland and the Yosemite Valley, the train carried him to San Francisco so he could rest.

Newsreel footage of the Voyage of Understanding (starting at 8:52)

The President’s condition worsened and several days later, on August 2, 1923, he died. His body was loaded onto the Superb, the Pullman railroad car he traveled aboard during his cross-country tour, and departed for San Francisco on August 3. Four days later, it reached Washington. After a private viewing in the White House for family and close friends, Harding’s body was laid in state at the Capitol Rotunda until August 8, when he was transported from Washington to his hometown and final resting place, Marion, Ohio.

In 1924, Florence Harding died and willed many of her and Warren’s belongings to the Harding Memorial Association. The group operated a museum in the Hardings’ Marion home; eventually, in 1979, it transferred its collections to the Ohio Historical Society, now the Ohio History Connection. With the assistance of a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, we have spent the past two years rehousing the Hardings’ papers and photographs, adding them to our online catalog, and showcasing the stories they tell

You can find more stories in the online Ohio history blog, and here are some other blogs we’ve written about Warren G. Harding and his papers!


Warren G. Harding photograph collection, P 146, Ohio History Connection.

Warren G. Harding newsreel collection, V 17, Ohio History Connection.

“President’s Trip,” The Idaho Republican, July 5, 1923, p. 1-8.

“Alaska and the Voyage of Understanding,” Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum (January 20, 2016),

Erik Johnson, “Alaska’s Golden Spike,” National Park Service: Denali National Park & Preserve,

LarVern Keys, “President Harding Visits the New Alaska College in 1923,” University of Alaska (September 17, 2015),

Robert E. Ficken, “President Harding Visits Seattle,” The Pacific Northwest Quarterly Vol. 66 no. 3 (July 1975): 105-114.

Voyage of Understanding: Trip Itinerary, 1923, PA Box 291 2, Ohio History Connection.


This post was created with grant support from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.



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