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Rock, Joseph Francis Charles, 1884-1962. Papers of Joseph Francis Charles Rock, 1922-1962. A Finding Aid.

Arnold Arboretum Archives, Jamaica Plain


Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138

© 2000 The President and Fellows of Harvard College

Last edited 2016 June 30

Descriptive Summary

Repository: Arnold Arboretum Archives of Harvard University, Jamaica Plain, MA
Call No.: Archives III JFR
Creator: Joseph Francis Charles Rock, 1884-1962.
Title: Papers of the Joseph Francis Charles Rock, 1922-1962.
Quantity: 19 boxes
Abstract: The Joseph Francis Charles Rock papers reflect Rock's scholarly career as a botanist, anthropologist, explorer, and linguist. The collection consists of materials primarily from Rock's Arboretum expedition to China and Tibet from 1924-1927, but also includes related materials from his employment with the National Geographic Society, the United States Department of Agriculture, and his studies at the Harvard-Yenching Institute. The collection consists of field notes 1921-1929, plant distribution lists, correspondence 1924-1962, published and unpublished manuscripts, Rock's hand drawn maps, diaries 1924-1936, over 600 photographs from the Arboretum Expedition to China and Tibet 1924-1927, and over 700 USDA photographs and/or negatives from Burma, Siam and China 1920-1922.


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Current version of this finding aid is available at the Archives of the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University.

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Acquisition Information:

Provenance: Over six hundred of the expedition photographs were commissioned by the Arnold Arboretum 1924-1927, the remainder were donated by other institutions.
The manuscripts and much of the personal correspondence were purchased by the Arnold Arboretum from Rock's nephew Robert Koc.
The correspondence files date from their inception as part of the Arboretum's institutional records.
Rock's field notes and maps from northwestern China and northeastern Tibet were returned from the Botany Libraries/Gray Herbarium Archives to the Arnold Arboretum Archives in February 1992. The papers were accessioned into HOLLIS #000603226 and this file name is ajp00007.

Access Restrictions:

Researchers seeking to examine archival materials are strongly encouraged to make an appointment. The Director, or an office of origin, may place restrictions on the use of some or all of its records. The extent and length of the restriction will be determined by the Director, office of origin, and the Archivist and will be enforced equally for all researchers.

Use Restrictions:

The copyright is held by The President and Fellows of Harvard College for the Arnold Arboretum Archives of Harvard University. The copyright on some materials in the collection may be held by the original author or the author's heirs or assigns. Researchers are responsible for obtaining written permission from the holder(s) of copyright and the Arnold Arboretum Archives prior to publishing any quotations or images from materials in this collection.
Photocopies may be made at the discretion of the Arnold Arboretum Archives staff. Permission to make photocopies does not constitute permission to reproduce or publish materials outside the bounds of the fair use guidelines.

Biographical Sketch

Joseph Rock, botanist, anthropologist, explorer, linguist, and author, immigrated to the United States from his native Austria in 1905. From 1907 to 1920, Rock lived in Hawaii where he became a self-taught specialist on the Hawaiian Flora. On the faculty of the College of Hawaii, Rock taught botany and published five books and numerous papers on the subject. From 1920 until 1949, he explored and collected in Asia for various United States institutions and agencies: The National Geographic Society, U. S. Dept. of Agriculture, Harvard University and others. Several of Rock's travelogues were published in the National Geographic Magazine. Today, Rock's contribution is still utilized by the scholarly community and best summarized by Tibetan and Himalayan Studies scholar Michael Aris in his book Lamas, Princes, and Brigands: Joseph Rock's Photographs of the Tibetan Borderlands of China, 1992.
"Rock's real competence lay in the identification and collection of plants, the decipherment of the Naxi pictographs, and the compilation of maps -- visual skills requiring enormous mental determination and physical stamina. His photographs, too, often taken under very difficult circumstances, provide eloquent testimony to his drive for classifiable visual evidence."
Continuing a fifty-year Arnold Arboretum tradition of sending plant explorers to Asia, it was an elderly Charles S. Sargent (1841-1927), the first director of the Arnold Arboretum, who initiated Joseph Rock's expedition to northwestern China and northeastern Tibet in 1924. Seeking bird specimens from this area, the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology cooperated in the project, which lasted from 1924-1927. Sargent's assignment to Rock was to collect plants and to photograph specimens along the Yellow River (Hwangho) and in the mountain ranges Amne Machin (Che-shih-shan) and the Richtofen (Chi-lien shan-mo). Rock also collected along theYangtze River, the Kansu-Szechuan border, in the Tebbu region in southwestern Kansu, and around the Koki Nor Lake in northeastern Tibet.
On this 1924 expedition Rock collected 20,000 herbarium specimens and many packages of propagative material. Although few new species were found, Rock lived up to Sargent's principal objective, which was to collect hardier forms of species that had already been collected by others farther south. The Arboretum distributed the seeds Rock collected to botanical and horticultural institutions in North America and in Europe. Rock also took numerous photographs and, independently, studied the cultures and languages of the local tribes. From 1927 Rock continued his work in China for various institutions. He was a research fellow at the Harvard-Yenching Institute between 1945 and 1950, where he published his linguistic research.
In 1949, the political situation forced Rock's departure from China. In 1962, while living in Hawaii, a heart attack took the life of Joseph Rock, a world-renowned personality.
Sources: "J. F. Rock, 1884-1962" by Alvin K. Chock (Honolulu) Taxon Vol. 12, No. 3 (April 1963) p.89-102; Charles Sprague and the Arnold Arboretum by S. B. Sutton, Harvard University Press 1970, p.267-275; The Turbulent Career of Joseph Rock, botanist, explorer by S. B. Sutton, New York: Hastings House, 1974; Lamas, Princes, and Brigands: Joseph Rock's Photographsof the Tibetan Borderlands of China by Michael Aris, New York: China House Gallery, China Institute in America, 1992, pp.14-15.

Scope and Content

The primary content of Joseph Rock's Papers at the Arnold Arboretum consists of material created during Rock's Arboretum expeditions to China and Tibet during the years 1924-27. The archive consists of handwritten field notes, over 250 letters and telegrams written from the field to Charles Sargent and others at the Arnold Arboretum, an extensive photographic collection, Rock's hand drawn maps, and other documents related to the 1924-27 expedition.
The following description of Rock's Arboretum expedition is described by Alfred Rehder and Ernest H. Wilson and excerpted from the Journal of the Arnold Arboretum.
In charge of the Arnold Arboretum expedition to northwestern China and northeastern Tibet Mr.J. F. Rock sailed from San Francisco on September 30, 1924. Originally planned to occupy two years, the expedition, owing to the disturbed political condition in China, occupied until September 1927. Traveling by the usual route across the Pacific Ocean Mr. Rock disembarked at Shanghai. Later he proceeded to Hongkong and to Haiphong in Tonkin, where he arrived on November 5th. From Haiphong he went by railway to Yunnan-fu, where his caravan was collected and by arrangement the collectors he had employed on a former expedition met him. From there the expedition proceeded overland to Suifu on the Yangtsze River arriving on January 27th after a dangerous and arduous trip. From Suifu Mr. Rock went on to Chentu-fu, the provincial capital of the Szechuan province, and later proceeded northward by the main highway to the Kansu border, reaching the town of Choni early in May 1925. After the necessary arrangements were completed the exploration of the almost unknown Tebbu country to the south—southwest of Choni—was commenced and continued until late August.
In October Mr. Rock explored the Kokonor region in northeastern Tibet and from there journeying in an easterly direction spent some time examining the Richthofen chain, which was found very bare of vegetation. Mr. Rock wintered in Choni and in the spring of 1926 set out for the unknown region of Amnyi Machen toward the headwaters of the Yellow River, a journey fraught with grave dangers and hardships. He found the Amnyi Machen range high and barren, but in the valley of the Yellow River heavily wooded ravines. The autumn of 1926 was spent in the further investigation of the Tebbu country, the flora of which proved to be very rich.
Owing to the continued disturbed state of the country it was necessary for Mr. Rock to again winter in Choni. On March 10, 1927 he left that town traveling in a southwesterly direction to Sungpang-ting. From there he descended the Min River to Kuan hsien, crossed the plain to Chentu, then by the overland route to Chungking, hence by steamer down the Yangtsze River to Shanghai, where he arrived on May 7th.
On this expedition Mr. Rock collected 2,939 numbers of herbarium specimens estimated in all at about 20,000 sheets. Of these approximately 1,606 numbers are ligneous plants and these will be enumerated in this Journal. References to species collected by Rock elsewhere than in Kansu and Tibet will appear in smaller type. The herbaceous plants will be named by specialists and it is hoped to publish a numerical list of them at the end of this enumeration.
Rehder, Alfred and Ernest H. Wilson. 1928. Enumeration of the Ligneous Plants Collected by J. F. Rock on the Arnold Arboretum Expedition to Northwestern China and northeastern Tibet. Journal of the Arnold Arboretum 9:4-27.
A second important group of papers is the collection of Rock's unpublished manuscripts on political events during his time in China and his observations of Chinese tribes and customs.
A third section consists of personal correspondence with a nephew in Austria, Robert Koc, and letters to various contacts in America.
A selection of the materials described in this finding aid were funded for digitization in the year 2000. In April 1999, the Arnold Arboretum Library submitted a grant to theHarvard University Library Digital Initiative challenge to fund a project entitledWestern China and Tibet: Hotspot of Diversity, Plants, People and the Landscape. Beginning in 1924 with the Arnold Arboretum's Expedition to Northwestern China and Northeastern Tibet led by Joseph F. Rock, the historic collections include plant and bird specimens, as well as photographs of the region's landscape, architecture and people. In 1997, the National Science Foundation awarded a grant to the Harvard University Herbaria to fund biological collections from the same floristic regions explored by Rock. This project, entitled "Plant and fungal diversity of western Sichuan and eastern Xizang, China," not only complements the historic collections through the addition of contemporary images, but also furthers our understanding of an area of high floristic diversity and endemism.
Funding was awarded that October, and the project has begun to integrate selected material from the collections of the Arnold Arboretum, the Botany Libraries, the Harvard Map Collection, theHarvard-Yenching Institute, the Harvard University Herbaria, and the Museum of Comparative Zoology. The goal is to establish online access to a selection of Harvard's historic and contemporary ethnographic and natural collections related to Western China and Tibet.
The collection is organized into the following series:
I. Unpublished Writings
II. Expedition Records and Distributions
III. Correspondence
IV. Publications
V. Images
VI. Maps.

Container List


The following are common variations on Joseph Rock's name: