At a Glance
Ornithologist, US army major
Bird names: 1
Western North America
Bendire’s Thrasher (Toxostoma bendirei)
Charles Bendire (1836-1897) was born in Germany, but he spent the bulk of his life in the US. He enlisted in the Army soon after arriving and spent the greater part of the rest of his life in it, retiring in 1886. He traveled widely in this time, collecting skins and eggs from across the expanding country. He fought for the Union in the Civil War, but it is the other periods of his military service that are more troubling.
The 19th century was the era in which Manifest Destiny was the phrase of the day– the belief that the US had the right to vast portions of the continent, regardless of what anyone who actually lived there thought of the idea. It was seen as a grand enterprise of “taming” the continent, replacing bison with cattle, prairie with amber waves of grain– and Indigenous people with white settlers. This was supposedly going to be accomplished by Indigenous people “fading away”, moving away or disappearing somehow of their own volition or somehow giving up their lands in a way that the settlers didn’t have to feel guilty about. But the nations whose lands the US had fixed its eyes on– the Apache and Ute and Niitsitapi and Tohono O’odham and Niimíipuu and Lakota and dozens more– had no intention of leaving. These lands are their homes, and understandably, they resisted the invaders.
The US Army and Cavalry were the main instrument of the seizure of Native land. Bendire was very clearly a part of this endeavor– while he left behind little writing on his own, soldiers under his command variously report fighting with Shoshone-Bannock, Apache, and Modoc. Given the length of his career and the number of places he was stationed– Oregon, Idaho, Arizona, Washington, California– he was surely involved in fighting with far more.
Bendire spent his career keenly observing the natural world wherever he went, writing beautiful depictions of bird behavior, on one hand; and with the other violently dispossessing Indigenous people of their lands. His ability to travel and observe was a direct result of his career ushering in colonial expansion in the western US, a side project of Manifest Destiny. We hear little from him of what he thought of the people whose land he was helping steal. Did he think that the Indigenous people were subhuman, like many of his day? Did he think he was part of some effort to “better” them, like others? We don’t really know. But in the end, it is by actions that we have to evaluate a person. Bendire fought to take land from Indigenous people, whatever his motivation for doing so. That he also contributed a great deal to our knowledge of the birds of those lands doesn’t erase that.
Bendire, Charles. 1889. Notes on the Lost River sucker. Forest and Stream. [link]
Brimlow, George F. 1967. Two cavalrymen’s diaries of the Bannock Wars, 1878. Oregon Historical Quarterly 68(3). pp. 221-258. [link]
Fischer, Dan Lewis. 2001. Early southwest ornithologists, 1528-1900. University of Arizona Press. pp. 126-130. [link]
Hume, Edgar E. 1940. Ornithologists of the US Army Medical Corps, Part I. Bulletin of the History of Medicine 8(9). pp 1321-1336. [link]
Lange, Erwin F. 1965. Major Charles E. Bendire and the birds of Oregon. Oregon Historical Quarterly 66(3). pp. 133-139. [link]
Merrill, J.C. 1898. In memoriam: Charles Emil Bendire. The Auk 15(1). pp 1-7. [link]