At a Glace:
Soldier, businessman, naturalist
Bird names: 1
Western North America
Content note: this profile contains discussion of the genocide of Indigenous people and desecration of graves and human remains.
Couch’s Kingbird (Tyrannus couchii)
Darius Nash Couch (1822-1897) is best known among Civil War enthusiasts, but when the skinny, often sickly colonel assumed his command in the Union army in 1861, he was hardly new to the military. He had graduated from West Point in 1846 as part of a class that included his future opponent Stonewall Jackson, and had served for almost a decade in the Mexican-American War– which had included an unspecified severe illness that resulted in his frequently mentioned frail health– and Seminole Wars. His only break from military life in that period was a 1853-54 journey to Mexico, where he retraced his wartime steps as not a soldier but a naturalist. He resigned to resume civilian life in 1855, but was drawn back in as the inevitable war over slavery finally exploded.
His Civil War career is a list of battles that for most people ring a bell– Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg– but the majority of his army career was spent in less familiar battles. The Mexican-American War is usually only vaguely remembered as somehow being connected to Texas and territorial expansion, while the Seminole Wars are often completely absent from textbooks. But these are the wars that shaped Couch’s career and views, and are often left out of history books for their violent colonial motivations.
The Seminole Wars were only one flare-up in the long running conflict between the Indigenous people of Florida and colonial forces. By the time Couch arrived in Florida, the US’s aims were explicit and brutal: to enforce the racist Indian Removal Act of 1830 and remove all Indigenous people from Florida by either violent dispossession or outright murder. This was a war with the sole aim of genocide and colonial expansion.
The Seminoles are the descendants of refugees of multiple Indigenous nations who fled to lightly inhabited lands in Florida in the 18th century, seeking safety from the growing encroachment and conflicts with white settlers ever hungry to steal more land. These new arrivals– Mvskoke, Tsoyaha, and others– mixed with the survivors of Indigenous groups from Florida who had been decimated by Spanish conquest and disease, resulting in the depopulation of much of the area to begin with. The resulting multi-ethnic culture also included formerly enslaved Black people who had escaped to freedom and their descendants, and a key facet of both groups identities was that they had taken their freedom for themselves. By the time the US assumed control of the area in 1821, they had developed a unique, rich culture.
Of course, a fiercely independent nation of free Indigenous and Black people was antithetical to the US, and even before the US had officially acquired Florida they were waging war in an attempt to control them. First they tried to contain the Seminole to a reservation; then they decided to remove them entirely. Officially the policy was one of relocation to modern Oklahoma, but on the ground, where particularly racist military leaders regarded by many as “3,000 good for nothing drunken scapegoats…[and] Brandy-drinking sons-of-guns” reviled by both the Seminole and the white settlers alike were in charge, extermination was an acceptable alternative.
Couch’s service was technically during a period of truce between the Second and Third Seminole Wars, in 1849-1850, but the war never truly paused in this period. Violence against the Seminoles continued throughout the period, including a flourishing trade in skulls and scalps. The latter were usually taken as grisly trophies, but the former were often sent north to phrenologists ever eager for specimens to back up their assertions on the inferiority of Indigenous and Black populations.
Between his involvement in the Seminole Wars, with their casual and frequent use of extreme violence, and the explicitly imperialist war of Manifest Destiny that was the Mexican-American War, it is hardly surprising that Couch voiced extremely racist views throughout his life, particularly toward Indigenous peoples. He called the Indigenous groups of northern Mexico “wandering hordes” and “devils”, and openly wished that the US had seized the area during the Mexican-American War so they could “civilize” the area. This also extended to the racially-mixed Mexican population, and he purchased collections made by other naturalists for export back to the US out of a belief that the Mexicans could not properly take care of them. Couch was a man molded by his service in a military with a clear mandate of “removing” Indigenous people so their lands could be settled by whites, by whatever means necessary. Just because his participation in these campaigns of terror is overlooked in favor of his Civil War service doesn’t erase the impact on the people he worked to dispossess and destroy.
Conant, Roger. 1968. Zoological exploration in Mexico– the route of Lieut. D. N. Couch in 1853. American Museum Novitates 2350 [link]
Denham, James M. 1991. “Some prefer the Seminoles”: violence and disorder among soldiers and settlers in the Second Seminole War, 1835-1842. The Florida Historical Quarterly 70(1). pp. 38-54. [link]
Fischer, Dan Lewis. 2001. Early southwest ornithologists, 1528-1900. University of Arizona Press.pp 78-80. [link]
Lawson, Russell M. 2012. Frontier naturalist: Jean Louis Berlandier and the exploration of northern Mexico and Texas. University of New Mexico Press. [link]
Pierpoli, Paul G. 2012. “Couch, Darius Nash.” In: The encyclopedia of the Mexican-American War: a political, social, and military history, ed. Spencer C. Tucker. Vol 1, p 178. [link]
Strang, Cameron. 2014. Violence, ethnicity, and human remains in the Second Seminole War. The Journal of American History 100(4). pp. 973-994. [link]