A privately funded society for the geographical and archaeological exploration of the Holy Land, the American Palestine Exploration Society (APES) was founded in New York city In 1870. The society's leaders, including Roswell Hitchcock of Union Theological Seminary and J. Henry Thayer of Harvard University, highlighted the conservative theological orientation of the APES in their hope that archaeology would help verify the historical authenticity of the Bible. With that goal in mind, funds were solicited from American universities and church groups and an expedition was recruited to undertake a survey of Transjordan. The work was coordinated with the survey work of the British-sponsored Palestine Exploration Fund in western Palestine.

From the start, the American expedition was plagued by a lack of funds and poor communication with society head-quarters in New York. Led by U.S. Cavalry Lieutenant Edgar Z. Steever and naturalist John A. Paine of New York, the American team proceeded to Moab from Beirut in spring 1873. The result was a preliminary (and only roughly triangulated) field map of approximately 500 square miles extending southward from Ḥesban (Heshbon). Following Steever's resignation In 1874, the APES turned to James C. Lane, a former railroad planner and Civil War hero, to command its subsequent exploration parties. Also appointed at this time was the Reverend Selah Merrill of Andover, Massachusetts as expedition archaeologist.

The second APES expedition departed from Beirut In September 1875 and was considerably more successful than the first. The goal of detailed mapping was abandoned; instead, the team took hundreds of photographs and collected thousands of artifacts and natural specimens. After Lane's resignation in a disagreement over funding, Merrill was placed in charge of APES explorations and led three more expeditions. These were the APES's final expeditions; the organization was never able to muster the resources or trained personnel of its British counterpart. The American Palestine Exploration Society published its last Statement In 1877.

[See also the biographies of Merrill and Thayer.]


  • King, Philip J. American Archaeology in the Mideast: A History of the American Schools of Oriental Research. Philadelphia, 1983.
  • Moulton, Warren J. “The American Palestine Exploration Society.” Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research 8 (1928): 55–69.
  • Silberman, Neil Asher. Digging for God and Country: Exploration, Archaeology, and the Secret Struggle for the Holy Land, 1799–1917. New York, 1982.

Neil Asher Silberman