John James Audubon, Grave Robber

The noble naturalist.

We owe it all to dead things. Natural history hobbies today would not exist if long generations of our forebears hadn’t taken to the field with guns and nets and traps, stuffing and pickling everything unlucky enough to come across their path.

Wholesale collecting of birds was relatively easy, at least once the recipe for arsenical soap had been leaked: a huge number of skins could fit into a barrel or a box. Mammals have always been more challenging. Not only do the commonest and most frequently encountered species take up a lot of room even as skins, but for many species, skeletal material  is indispensable.

Shrews? No problem. Bats? Easy. Bison and mule deer and elk? A different matter entirely.

I’ve been rereading Audubon’s Missouri River journals lately, and I quickly lost count of how many big, bulky skulls he and his colleagues — among them, famously, Sprague, Bell, and Harris — collected on their up and down the big river.

Unfortunately, the naturalizing team did not restrict its efforts to wild animals.

Until shockingly recently, the human inhabitants of the Great Plains were considered (yes, I nearly wrote “fair game,” far too close to the truth) appropriate subjects for natural history collecting. George Catlin’s fondness for human skulls pales next to the systematic thefts committed by Robert Shufeldt. In spite of repatriation efforts, some museums still harbor great troves of such things.

On June 18, 1843, “a beautiful, as well as a prosperous” day, Audubon

took a walk with Mr. Culbertson and Mr. Chardon, to look at some old, decaying, and simply constructed coffins, placed on trees about ten feet above ground, for the purpose of finding out in what manner, and when it would be best for us to take away the skulls, some six or seven in number, all Assiniboin Indians. It was decided that we would do so at dusk, or nearly at dark.

Four days later, during an evening “tramp” across the prairie, Audubon “found an Indian’s skull (an Assiniboin) and put it in my game pouch.” On July 2, Audubon and Mr. Denig celebrated the “cool and pleasant” Sunday by taking a walk

with a bag and instruments, to take off the head of a three-years-dead Indian chief, called the White Cow. Mr. Denig got upon my shoulders and into the branches near the coffin, which stood about ten feet above ground. The coffin was lowered, or rather tumbled, down, and the cover was soon hammered off…. The head still the hair on, but was twisted off in a moment, under jaw and all….

A mutual acquaintance filled Audubon in on the life of his specimen:

He was a good friend to the whites, and knew how to procure many Buffalo robes for them; he was also a famous orator, and never failed to harangue his people on all occasions.

Once the industrious and talented man’s skull was safely in their bag, Audubon and Denig

left all on the ground but the head. Squires, Mr. Denig and young Owen McKenzie went afterwards to try to replace the coffin and contents [minus the head, of course] in the tree, but in vain; the whole affair fell to the ground, and there it lies; but I intend tomorrow to have it covered with earth.

That was a nice gesture. Yeah. Thanks, JJ.

By temperament and training, I’m always willing to step back to consider facts and deeds in the context of their times. Not things like this, though.