William Woodville Rockhill (1854-1914)

Rockhill was born outside of Philadelphia, but his family moved to Paris in 1863 to escape the Civil War. He was educated at the Ecole Spéciale Militaire in St. Cyr, and eventually became an officer in the Régiment Etranger (predecessor of the Foreign Legion). His military service was fairly unremarkable, but it was in St. Cyr that he became interested in Asia. One influence was Ernest Renan, a professor of Hebrew, who had participated in archaeological expeditions in the Middle East, which at the time fell under the heading of Asia. The other was the very popular Souvenires d'un Voyage Dans La Tartarie by Régis-Evariste Huc.

Rockhill requested and received a discharge from the Régiment Etranger in 1875. In 1876 he married Caroline Tyson, whom he had had a crush on since childhood. In 1878 he and a relative moved to the wild west to become cattle ranchers. During the slow winter months he continued the Asian studies he began at St. Cyr, taught himself Tibetan and Chinese, and began to translate Buddhist sutras and commentaries.

The ranch was not profitable, but was not a loss,either. They sold it after three years, and the Rockhills moved to Montreux, Switzerland where William's mother lived. During this time he became a full time scholar/autodidact. However, it did not take him long to exhaust the written work about Tibet that was available in Europe or the United States at the time.

In 1883, a relative died and left his family a sizable fortune, and Rockhill decided it was time to go to the places he had been studying. By the end of the next year he had secured an appointment as the Second Secretary of the American Legation in Peking--a kind of diplomatic unpaid internship. His goal was to establish a base in China from which he could travel to Lhasa.
In 1885 Rockhill was tapping everyone he could find in Peking who knew anything about Tibet. During his search, he met Chandra Das, who was one of a very few non-Tibetans with direct experience in Tibet. However, Das had opted out of a previous expedition to Lhasa with a British official on the grounds that traveling with a European would make the trip more difficult and dangerous, and he took the same position with Rockhill.

The plan Rockhill eventually formulated called for a very light expedition. He planned to disguise himself as best he could, and travel in a small group of Tibetans and Chinese, assuming he could find such people to accompany him. They would make for Lhasa from north, the way Huc did, and end their journey in India. However, he had a hard time finding guides, his small group excited a lot a suspicion and mistrust in the locals, and conflicts with the Amban authorities prevented him from reaching Lhasa. He was forced to stay close to Tibet's Eastern border.

In 1892, after some time back in the United States to write a book about his trip, Rockhill returned to Asia to make another attempt. This time he had a special diplomatic passport and an endorsement from the Smithsonian Institute. He hoped that this would clear away some of the problems he had had with both Chinese and Tibetan authorities. However, his second attempt turned out much like the first. He never reached Lhasa, let alone India, and stayed primarily in Eastern Tibet before returning to China.


Wimmel, Kenneth. William Woodville Rockhill: Scholar-diplomat of the Tibetan highlands. Bangkok, Orchid Press: 2003.