Bell, John Graham

At a Glance:

Taxidermist, collector

Nationality:

American

Bird names: 2

Region studied:

Western North America

Content note: this profile contains discussion of theft of human remains and of genocide.

The Birds:

Bell’s Sparrow (Artemisiospiza belli)

Bell’s Vireo (Vireo belli)

Bell’s Vireo [link]
Bell’s Sparrow [link]

The Name:

Many Americans are likely aware of the fact that President Theodore Roosevelt was an avid outdoorsman and conservationist. One of his passions that grew from his love of the outdoors was, likely oddly to our modern sensibilities, collecting and taxidermy. Birds he collected while we was young are still held in museum collections, providing us with a snapshot into the late 19th century. But even a man whose reputation is firmly anchored in independence and taking charge had to have a teacher, and Roosevelt’s taxidermy teacher was a man named John Graham Bell.

Bell’s taxidermy kit. [link]

Bell (1812-1899) wasn’t an ornithologist or naturalist per se. Roosevelt remembered him as having “no scientific knowledge of birds or mammals; his interest lay merely in collecting and preparing them”. But a skilled preparator was and is in demand for expeditions, and despite Bell’s lack of particular interest in the birds themselves, his abilities in preserving collected specimens landed him in the confidence of one of the giants of early 19th century ornithology: John James Audubon.

These two more famous associates of Bell illustrate how vastly and quickly American expansion– so-called Manifest Destiny– had reshaped the continent. When Bell set off in 1843 up the Missouri River with Audubon, his journals detail a world that only existed in memory by the time the 14 year-old future president started his taxidermy lesson. Bell is not a verbose writer: his typical daily entry on the expedition lists the weather, how many animals were shot, and how many skins were prepared. But even in that we get a striking picture of abundance: untold numbers of Passenger Pigeons, frequent references to “cerlews”– which certainly includes the now probably extinct Numenius borealis (the official common name of which includes what many Inuit consider a slur, so will not be used here), dozens of bison hunts, and, in the eastern portions, Carolina Parakeet sightings. The pigeon would have its last recorded mass roosts within a couple of years of Roosevelt’s taxidermy lessons, and be entirely gone when he wrote his remembrances of Bell. The parakeet was on the same timeline of extinction, and the curlew would follow in subsequent decades. The bison had crashed from untold millions to mere hundreds.

This collapse of abundance and the conservation movement that was inspired by it, personified by Roosevelt and other early 20th century conservationists, is often framed in environmental terms. Yes, commercial hunting (and in the case of the parakeet, so-called pest control) was what did the damage; yes, there was an unconscionably squandering of natural resources. But to divorce this story from its context as part of the project of Manifest Destiny is to miss important aspects, and erases what is an even more troubling story: environmental collapse as a tool of genocide.

This was already in progress when Bell and the rest of the expedition set out. Their journey was not into land uncharted by settlers; their route was punctuated by stay at multiple forts established by the US Army to claim and “civilize” the plains. They passed Mandan villages abandoned when epidemics devastated the populations; Bell recounted in his journal hearing about a funeral of an Assiniboine (Nakoda) man from disease.

The expedition considered all aspects of life on the plains within their mandate, and took specimens of everything they could– including the human residents. Bell’s journal entries don’t capture everything the expedition did. Audubon had a lifelong friend by the name of Samuel George Morton, who was the preeminent phrenologist in the US. Surely inspired by this friendship, the expedition collected at least two skulls from Indigenous graves. While these were apparently not included in Morton’s magnum opus Crania Americana (unlike those stolen by fellow ornithologist John Kirk Townsend), they would have been of huge interest to Morton and others as they sought specimens to “prove” their theories of white superiority. A part of the myth they constructed was that Indigenous people were less capable than white settlers, and destined to die out as a result.

But it wasn’t some twisted destiny that was killing the Indigenous peoples of the Americas– it was a genocide wrought by multiple means. One of these was via ecological collapse. The multitude of nations of the Great Plains relied on the bison for sustenance both physical and spiritual; thus, it was government policy to kill bison, not to merely feed growing Eastern cities, but to deprive the Indigenous people of them. This, along with widespread commercial hunting of all manner of wildlife, collapsed the populations of multiple species and permanently altered the landscape of North America. Through the eyes of Indigenous people, this wasn’t merely a tragedy of conservation: it was the apocalypse, the destruction of culture, environment, and human life on unimaginable scales.

We are not taught to see this side of the story. We are likely taught a version more similar to the one that Bell may have told the young Teddy Roosevelt as they sat in the taxidermist’s shop, sewing skins while Bell told of his youthful adventures: once there was wildness there, but we squandered it. We hear the vision of untouched wilderness that humans ruined, while ignoring that there had been humans that lived there for thousands of years.

Bison skulls, 1892. [link]

The school of conservation that Roosevelt would later champion, which is the roots to many of today’s environmental movements, is of a landscape without figures. The narratives built up around the idea of “wilderness”– untouched, untamed, unpeopled– inherently erase the Indigenous presence on the landscape. In a way, Bell’s diary reflects this view, as he more or less ignores the Indigenous peoples they encountered unless they somehow interfered with his work (he got very upset about a group visiting the fort who danced all night). His travels through the prairies focused only on what he wanted to see, and reshaped them in his passage.

J.F. McLaughlin

Sources:

Belknap, John B. 1963. John Graham Bell. The Kingbird 13(4), p. 191 [link]

Fischer, Dan Lewis. 2001. Early southwest ornithologists, 1528-1900. University of Arizona Press. [link]

Patterson, Daniel (editor). 2016. The Missouri River journals of John James Audubon. University of Nebraska Press. [link]

Roosevelt, Theoodore. 1918. “My life as a naturalist.” Natural History 89. pp 84-88 [link]