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He Risked Death to Explore Wild Heart of Africa

WATCH: William Stamps Cherry's grandson and biographer discuss the legacy of an early African explorer.

Before a brutal civil war plunged the Central African Republic into chaos, the country generated few headlines. Today the former French colony—one of the world’s least developed nations—holds much of the continent’s remaining wilderness. But in 1889, when William Stamps Cherry, then a 20-year-old from Missouri, arrived on African shores, almost the entire region north of the Congo was a blank spot on the map.

Cherry, inspired by the exploits of Henry Morton Stanley and other 19th-century adventurers, planned to strike out on his own as a hunter-explorer. Over two trips during the next eight years, he canoed along the Oubangi River and up several of its tributaries, exploring much of the deep jungle and broad savannah that today is the Central African Republic.

Over the course of his travels, Cherry spent long periods living with different tribes, hunting elephants, drawing maps, and documenting the animals he encountered. When he returned to the United States, he brought back a collection of artifacts, including clothing, jewelry, and weapons from the tribes he spent time with as well as one of the largest pairs of elephant tusks ever imported to the United States. Today, much of the collection is held at the Museum of Natural History in Los Angeles.

Earlier this year, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence J. Michael Fay completed a three-year project to retrace much of the territory that Cherry explored. Where Cherry recorded massive elephant herds that stretched to the horizon, Fay has found a region decimated by poachers. As Cherry’s biographer, William E. Casey, points out, “Though William Stamps Cherry has been largely forgotten by modern society, his keen observations offer a look back to what Africa was like before the white man arrived.”