At a Glance:
Bird names: 1
Central and South America
Cherrie’s Antwren (Myrmotherula cherriei)
Cherrie’s Tanager (Ramphocelus (passerini) costaricensis)- sometimes considered subspecies
Life in Iowa was never going to be a good fit for George Kruck Cherrie (1865-1948). After working in saw-mills and factories and a brief stint in studying engineering, he found his fit in natural history. After collecting for a variety of museums, he finally rose to become Assistant Curator at the Field Museum; but this still didn’t seem to satisfy his apparent need for adventure. He made his real mark as a field collector, eventually taking part in some forty expeditions.
There’s an enduring mythos of What It Takes To Be A Field Biologist: the rough-and-tumble, man of action, who’s quick with a gun and can fight off anything the jungles of the unknown can throw at him. In reality this has image has far more in common with pulp novels of the early twentieth century and Indiana Jones movies than with a day in the life of your average ornithologist in the field, but there were men (because of course despite several badass women of the era, it’s the men we remember) whose lives fit this persistent narrative. Cherrie, who Teddy Roosevelt, himself a model of this archetype, called an “efficient and fearless man”, was one of these. However, his life also exemplifies the far more unsavory truths embedded in that narrative.
Cherrie’s passion for ornithology was his calling in life, but it didn’t always pay the bills. Most of the time he made his living as a farmer in Vermont, but that wasn’t his only source of income. As Roosevelt describes:
“…willy-nilly he had been forced to vary his career by taking part in insurrections. Twice he had been behind bars as a consequence, on one occasion spending three months in a prison in a certain South American state, expecting each day to be taken out and shot. In another state he had, as an interlude to his ornithological pursuits, followed the career of a gun-runner, acting as such off and on for two and a half years. The particular revolutionary chief whose fortunes he was following finally came into power, and Cherrie immortalized his name by naming a new species of ant-thrush after him– a delightful touch, in its practical combination of those not normally kindred pursuits, ornithology and gun-running.”Roosevelt, 1914, Through the Brazilian Wilderness. [link]
The late nineteenth and early twentieth century were the first heyday of the US messing around in Latin American politics (the second being the Cold War era obsession with “fighting communism” in the region), so naturally, the question arises of which coups Cherrie was arming. One of these incidents seems to be in a 1908 coup in Venezuela. In his memoirs, Cherrie describes the harsh punishments of federal troops towards captured revolutionaries, mentioning offhand that he knows this from “personal experience”. He doesn’t provide much in the way of detail of these exploits, though, and it’s therefore hard to pin down his involvement in them.
Cherrie is more forthcoming in his involvement in other matters, though. He describes in great detail several encounters in which he fought with local residents and former field assistants. One fight, involving a friend who had an interest in a local woman, resulted in a stint in jail. The woman, whose interest in the friend we never learn, was supposed to meet with the pair of Americans on the town square, but either out of patriarchal interference or legitimate concern for her safety, the woman’s brother showed up instead. His friend shot him in the leg, and then the pair were arrested. After a few days, they were realized, under the condition that the friend leave and not come back.
Cherrie was indisputably tough, as the circumstances around his near-arrest for murder in Peru illustrate. He was in the field collecting alone when he encountered a disgruntled former assistant, who shot him in the arm with a shotgun. Cherrie managed to return fire, killing the man. Despite a tourniquet, the bleeding wouldn’t stop, and the risk of infection in the jungle was a constant. He and his group decided on a ninety-mile trek overland to a nearby town, in a desperate attempt to get Cherrie on a steamboat before it left town. The journey took days, with Cherrie gradually becoming more and more delirious. When they reached the town, the boat had already left– but a group of local men, knowing that the boat would be at its next stop for several hours, loaded Cherrie into a canoe and paddled for hours, barely catching the boat. He eventually arrived in the town, where the authorities immediately tried to arrest him. However, given his condition, they allowed him to go to the hospital. Shockingly, he didn’t lose the arm; but his five and a half month stay eventually got the better of the police’s patience, and they eventually dropped the issue.
Stories like this, as well as Cherrie’s role in Roosevelt famous 1913-1914 River of Doubt expedition, go a long way to building up the myth of the rugged explorer. But looking behind the dramatic life-and-limb peril illuminates just how much of this image is so often built on violence and colonial interference in other countries. The specifics of Cherrie’s career may seem far from the African explorers or colonial administrators that many of these profiles detail; but the same structures still lie behind it. The image of the tough, swashbuckling field naturalists that persists in disciplines to this day is ultimately a branch that springs from the same root of many a colonial enterprise.
Cherrie, George. 1914. George’s Cherrie’s diary of the Theodore Roosevelt expedition to explore the River of Doubt in Brazil, October 1913 to May 1914. Transcribed by Joseph Ornig, 1975. American Museum of Natural History Research Library, Digital Repository. [link]
Cherrie, George. 1930. Dark trails: adventures of a naturalist. Putnam. [link]
“George Kruck Cherrie (1865-1948)”. 1948. Chicago Natural History Museum Bulletin. p 6. [link]
Roosevelt, Theodore. 1914. Through the Brazilian wilderness. Scribner. [link]