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Henry Keeler's Letters from China (1915-1918) 

Henry Keeler, 1914

Henry Bowman Keeler was the only son of astronomer James Edward Keeler and his wife Cora Matthews Keeler. He was named after his father's older brother Henry and his maternal grandmother Isabelle Bowman from Oakley plantation in Louisiana. 

Henry Keeler was born in 1893 in Pittsburgh where his father was director of Allegheny Observatory. Four years later they moved to Lick Observatory, and following his father's death in 1900 to Berkeley, California where he and his sister Cora Floyd Keeler grew up.


After graduating from high school in 1910, his father's friends Lick astronomer W. W. Campbell and astronomical instrument maker John A. Brashear arranged for steel magnate Andrew Carnegie to pay for Henry's education at Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh. 

Henry graduated in 1914 with a degree in Civil Engineering. He was considered one of the most promising men in his class. The Dean of the School of Applied Science described him as "a young man in a thousand."

With the aid of his uncle David T. Day, who was a a senior geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey, Henry got a job with the Standard Oil Company of New York marketing kerosene in China. 

Snapshot of Henry Bowman Keeler taken by his sister day he left for China in 1915.

22-year old Henry Keeler leaving for China April 17, 1915

A snapshot in his sister's photo album shows Henry standing on the wharf of the steamship terminal in San Francisco before sailing for Shanghai in April 1915. His legs are slightly apart, one hand is in his pocket while the other holds his hat, and his head is slightly tilted to one side. He has the air of a young man brimming with confidence and ready to take on the world. This was the last time that his mother and sister ever saw him. 

Henry arrived in Shanghai one month later. His first letter home is filled with the excitement and superlatives that infuse all of his letters:


"Dear mamma: I have arrived in Shanghai, the greatest city of the Orient and the second greatest city I have ever been in. It is the most cosmopolitan city of the world and there is not one close second. It is very late now so I have just time to let you know I have arrived. I will write a long letter about my trip thru Japan which was intensely interesting and more about this great city I am now in. I will find out my ultimate destination tomorrow morning. With much love, Affectionately Henry."

Henry Keeler was in China during a period of great political upheaval. The Republican government that ruled after the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1910 had fallen apart and its president Yuan Shikai had made himself a dictator. Following his death in 1916 the country fell into a state of near-permanent civil war, with warlord generals and their armies controlling great swaths of the country. 

From May to October 1915 Henry was stationed in the city of Chinkiang (Zhenjiang) on the Yangtse River located about 150 miles from Shanghai. There he started learning the ropes of the oil business and learning Mandarin.


In early October he was sent to the "Interior," the term used by foreign businessmen for the region outside the treaty ports. He was located on the Grand Canal near the city of Tsingkiangpu (Qingjiang) in Jiangsu Province.

He lived on a houseboat on the canal and travelled his territory by water on the company launch or by junk, and by land in mule cart, wheelbarrow or on the back of a donkey inspecting Standard Oil installations and visiting places where few white people ventured. His travels were not without danger, for he visited places frequented by bandits and the soldiers of warlord generals.

Henry remained at Tsingkiangpu for nearly two years. In October 1917 he was transferred to Soochow (Suzhou), a much more affluent part of Jiangsu Province, south of the Yangtse River. 

Henry Keeler in China, possibly somewhere in the "Interior." The man on the left is perhaps "Old Wong", one of Standard Oil's agents. 

Over the course of his three years in China Henry Keeler wrote more than 75 letters to his family and friends back home in the U.S. His letters are infused with his keen sense of humour and quizzical observations about the people he encounters on his travels through Jiangsu Province. Taken as a whole, his letters are a vivid portrayal of China in the early years of the warlord era as seen through the eyes of an intelligent, articulate and perceptive foreigner. 

On November 7, 1918 Henry Keeler died of appendicitis at the Elizabeth Blake Hospital in Soochow. He was taken to the hospital on November 2 after having been ill for several days and died four days after being operated on. He was 25 years old.

The condolence letters his mother received from China show the high esteem in which her son was held and how he was "loved by the foreigners and Chinese alike." 

In early 1919 Cora Keeler contacted her good friend John Brashear, the astronomical instrument maker from Pittsburgh, requesting that her son's ashes be placed along side those of his father in the crypt of the Keeler Memorial Telescope at Allegheny Observatory. 

Henry's remains were interred there on May 25, 1919. Following the interment ceremony, Brashear sent her the following telegram:

"Remains of Dear Boy received Saturday laid away today in Crypt with father lovely wreath placed on tablet am writing you at once." 

Among the condolence letters from people back home was one from Andrew Carnegie who paid for Henry's education. 

Another was from Phoebe A. Hearst, the wealthy benefactor of the University of California and a friend of Cora Keeler's. Expressed in her reply to Phoebe Hearst is her deep sense of loss: 

January 6, 1919.  

Dear Mrs. Hearst: 


Christmas brought the kind remembrances from you, and as ever the gifts are very beautiful and also most useful. I have forwarded Cora’s presents to her. The dress material is exactly what she needs in that climate, and the lace collar is exquisite – something to keep always. The one for me is just as beautiful. Thank you so much and for the generous check. . . . 

The Honolulu mails are far apart, and I have not heard from Cora since Christmas, which must have been a sad season for her. She wrote of coming back here, but it seemed to me very impractical for her to sacrifice her work there. It would not be easy to get another position at present. If I can arrange it I will join her there, which would seem to be the wiser plan. 

Many letters have come to me from China and all in a simple and sincere way tell me of the affection and regard felt for my boy.


Beyond his business success he had won an honorable place in that far-off land. The letters from members and directors of the company and from the missionaries say a great deal of the love the Chinese had for Henry. It does appear that in his own way he took a message of kindness to the Orientals.


Nothing could be compensation to me, but there is comfort in knowing that the few years allowed him were full of purpose and accomplishment.

Thanking you again, dear Mrs. Hearst, and hoping you may have a healthful and happy winter, and many blessings in the coming year, I am, 

Affectionately yours,
Cora M. Keeler

Henry Keeler's letters from China were carefully preserved in this Baker's cocoa box. 

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