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George Bird Grinnell “The Noblest Roman of Them All”

By Richard E. McCabe

Although George Bird Grinnell — considered by many now and during his own era “the father of American conservation” — was not a member of OWAA, he probably should be acknowledged as it patron saint. By the time OWAA was founded in 1927, Grinnell was nearly 80 years old. He was then in poor health and essentially retired from a brilliant, diverse and celebrated career as an ornithologist, explorer, anthropologist, writer, editor, publisher and tireless advocate for natural resource conservation.

Grinnell was born September 20, 1849, in Brooklyn, NY, scion of a wealthy family. In 1857, the Grinnells moved to Audubon Park, where young George became acquainted with the widow of artist John James Audubon. Lucy Bakewell Audubon, at that time, conducted a little school for her grandchildren. It also was attended by several neighborhood children, including George, who became classmate and playmate with Victor G. and John Woodhouse Audubon. It was from Madame Audubon that George received his first conscious lessons about birds. Those lessons eventually piqued an interest that resulted in a A.B. degree in 1870 and a Ph.D in Osteology in 1880, both from Yale University.

In summer 1870, Grinnell was a member of the six-month O.C. Marsh expedition to the West (Nebraska, Wyoming, Kansas and Utah) to collect vertebrate Pliocene and Cretaceous fossils. In 1874, after becoming an assistant in osteology at the Peabody Museum in New Haven, Connecticut, Grinnell took Marsh’s place as naturalist on the Black Hills military expedition led by George Armstrong Custer. Custer became quite impressed with and attached to Grinnell. When, two years later, the general sent an urgent summons for Grinnell to accompany the 1876 expedition as its naturalist, George, then deeply committed to duties at the Peabody, declined with profound regret. Eight weeks later, nearly to the day, Custer and a large contingent of 7th U.S. Army Cavalry were annihilated along the Little Bighorn River in the Dakota Territory.

Despite the fortuitous circumstances of 1876, Grinnell unhesitatingly accompanied Colonel William Ludlow’s 1875 reconnaissance of Yellowstone Park and vicinity, again as naturalist. On that trip, he catalogued some 40 mammals and 139 bird species. His eventual report on the natural history of the region was well received by zoology scholars. But it is in a letter to Col. Ludlow that accompanied his report that one finds the germ of a perspective and crusade that Grinnell would foster for the balance of his life.

He wrote: “It may not be out of place here to call your attention to the terrible destruction of large game, for the hides alone, which is constantly going on in those portion of Montana and Wyoming through which we passed. Buffalo, elk, mule deer, and antelope are being slaughtered by thousands each year, without regard to age or sex, and at all seasons…. Females of all these species are as eagerly pursued in the spring, when just about to bring forth their young, as at any other time…. It is certain that, unless in some way the destruction of these animals can be checked, the large game still so abundant in some localities will ere long be exterminated.”

In 1899, Grinnell was a member of the Harriman Alaskan Expedition. During the various frontier missions, Grinnell became intensely interested in the life styles and welfare of Native Americans, especially Blackfoot, Cheyenne and Pawnee. Because of the proximity of hostile Indians during his 1870 expedition with Marsh, the party had an escort of Pawnee scouts, with whom Grinnell was impressed and fascinated. Two years later, he accompanied the Pawnee on a bison hunt, which fomented a growing ethnological interest in the Native people. For many years thereafter, with few exceptions, he journeyed westward during summer to hunt and explore with the Indians, and to study their vanishing culture. He fought against mismanagement and criminality in the reservation system, and used his influence with his close friend Theodore Roosevelt and other politicians to improve public awareness of the Indian condition. In 1895, President Glover Cleveland appointed Grinnell commissioner to deal with the Blackfoot and Belknap Indians. President Roosevelt called on him in 1902 to settle problems at the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. Western Americana historian Stanley Vestal wrote that Grinnell “knew more Plains Indians and more tribes intimately than [did] any other writer.”

While still with the Peabody Museum, Grinnell became natural history editor of Forest and Stream magazine in 1876. Just four years later, he returned to New York City as the “journal’s” editor-in-chief, but just as significantly, as owner and president of the Forest and Stream Publishing Company, the largest publisher and distributor of outdoor books in North America during the nineteenth century. For 31 years, he managed the businesses that came to be known collectively as the “voice of the sportsman.” In these capacities, he not only inspired a legion of outdoor writers, photographers, artists and others, but he gave them their foremost marketplace. Even more so, George Bird Grinnell became the chief catalyst, conscience and overall pulse of the nation’s fledgling conservation movement.

Upon assuming the senior editorship in 1880, he promptly launched sustained campaigns against market hunting and for realistic game laws. The movement culminated in the Lacey Act of 1900, the Migratory Bird Treaty with Great Britain in 1916, and adoption of strong regulatory control of hunting in all states. In winter 1893, Grinnell initiated investigation of game poaching in Yellowstone National Park, and the resulting exposé led directly to enactment by Congress of the Yellowstone Park Protection Act of 1894 — a keystone of national park legislation.

In summer 1885, Grinnell explored country in Montana now known as Glacier National Park, and through his subsequent writings, he was largely responsible for inclusion of the “crown of the continent” in 1910 in national park system. Honoring Grinnell at the White House 40 years after Grinnell first visited northwestern Montana, President Calvin Coolidge remarked: “Few have done so much as you, and none has done more, to preserve vast areas of picturesque wilderness for the eyes of posterity in the simple majesty in which you and your fellow pioneers first beheld them. The Glacier National Park is peculiarly your monument.”

In 1886, Grinnell founded the Audubon Society of New York, forerunner of the National Audubon Society. He served as its director for 26 years. During his youth in Audubon Park, the home of his neighbor and teacher, Madame Audubon, featured her famed husband’s painting of the eagle and the lamb. She willed it to George. He, in turn, graciously bequeathed this treasure to the National Audubon Society.

Along with then-Congressman Roosevelt and others, Grinnell was a founding member of the Boone and Crockett Club in 1887. He served as the Club’s president from 1918 to 1927. In 1927, he was named honorary president for life. Grinnell also was instrumental in founding in 1911 the American Game Protective and Propagation Association, forerunner to today’s Wildlife Management Institute. He served as a member of its board of directors for many years. And he served on the first advisory board for Federal Migratory Bird Law. He was a fellow of the American Ornithologists’ Union, president of the National Parks Association, trustee of The American Museum of Natural History in New York City and the Hispanic Society of America, and was on the advisory board of the American Game Protective Association (forerunner of the Wildlife Management Institute). He was a member of the Century, Cosmos, Rockaway, Mayflower Descendants, Authors, Union, Explorers, Narrows Island clubs, the Society of Mammalogists, Washington [D.C.] Biologists Field Club, New York Academy of Sciences and Archeological Institute of America.

Grinnell was an author or coauthor of 26 books, including a number of classic ethnographic studies, such as The Cheyenne Indians, Their History and Ways of Life, Blackfoot Lodge Tales and Pawnees Hero Stories and Folk Tales, plus seven “Jack” adventure books for boys (using the nom de plume “Yo”), such as Jack the Young Explorer, and such highly regarded sporting literature as American Duck Shooting and American Game-Bird Shooting. With Theodore Roosevelt, he co-edited American Big-Game Hunting, published in 1893.

Yale University conferred him an honorary Litt.D. degree in 1921. And in 1935, commemorating his extraordinary contributions to conservation, Grinnell was presented the Theodore Roosevelt Gold Medal by President Coolidge, who remarked: “As editor for 35 years of a journal devoted to outdoor life, you have done noteworthy service in bringing to the men and women of a hurried and harried age the relaxation and revitalization which come from contact with nature.”

George Bird Grinnell died in New York on April 11, 1938. A week later, the New York Herald-Tribune carried the following editorial: “Aside from Grinnell’s prophetic vision, his forthrightness, his scholarship in the field of zoology and Indian ethnography, and the drive that empowered him to carry so many causes to successful conclusion, his outstanding personal characteristic was that of never-failing dignity, which was doubtless parcel of all the rest. To meet his eye, feel his iron handclasp, or hear his calm and thrifty words — even when he was a man his ninth decade —was to conclude that here was the noblest Roman of them all.”

Richard E. McCabe, of Annapolis, MD, is vice president of the Wildlife Management Institute.

© Outdoor Writers Association of America